I n the minds of most renters, interior design is the Eden-like province of homeowners, one of those nice little perks that lessen the responsibilities of mortgage payments, property taxes and homeowners' insurance. Remodeling or changing anything to a rental unit, in contrast, is carte blanche for evil, reaming landlords and rental agencies on the predatory walk-through to make off with your cash. Time and again, the looming threat of losing one's security deposit keeps tenants in the live-in equivalent of a hospital room—white walls, sterile décor, little or no design elements whatsoever and a TV in the corner. All because they can't afford to own.
It doesn't have to be this way. True, going over an itemized list of cracks, holes and carpet stains at move-out can be like pulling teeth with a landlord who wields power over the poor and pitiful poster-and-beer-sign-loving tenant who must patter pathetic pleas of "normal wear and tear." But luckily there are some simple methods of basic design that circumvent the strict stranglehold landlords so eagerly apply on their renters. The surprise is that they're cheap and easy.
Starting with the basics, there's the important issue of wall color. The majority of renters are terrified of painting their walls, not only because it can turn into an expensive item on a security-deposit refund tally, but because it's also the most obvious change. There is no possible way to hide the fact that once-sterile white walls have become indigo blue, unless your landlord is blind, in which case you are the luckiest person alive.
But if walls can become indigo blue, or banana yellow or striped green with purple polka-dots, then they can easily become white again. Depending on the size of the unit, a basic painting job usually only takes about a day, and there's no reason not to set aside another day at move-out to paint the walls primer gray and then back to their original color. You'll thank yourself, especially if you're planning on living there for a while, and it can also take care of wall scuffs or holes that might end up being deducted from your deposit.
Another basic problem is wires, those pesky exposed power cords lumpily shoved under throw rugs, poorly hidden by houseplants or saddle-stapled along the perimeter of doorway trim. In an increasingly wireless age, the sight of jumbled wires everywhere comes off as gauche and claustrophobic. How about getting them out of sight completely?
Speaker wire, firewire cables and phone lines can be easily run underneath the floor, and all it takes is a drill and a willingness to brave the unit's tight, dank crawlspace. Pry the baseboard and/or carpet off with a crowbar where the wires will both disappear and reappear, drill a hole large enough to accommodate the wires directly where wall meets floor (angling the drill downward, naturally), and place a flashlight shining down the holes for easy visibility. Underneath the house, inching along the dirty ground, pull the wires from one hole to the other, and wriggle back to the land of the living to reattach the carpet or baseboard back inside. Follow these steps backwards upon move out, and you'll live pleasantly without wires hanging off every wall and bordering every room; plus, the concealed holes will be invisible during the walk-through.
Sometimes a space requires wall shelving, but the resulting holes in the wall would be a dead giveaway. You could put the shelves in anyway and patch the walls later with spackle or drywall compound, but if the job isn't done smoothly, the landlord's eagle eye will suss it out, and deposit deductions can ensue. Amazingly, landlords rarely inspect ceilings for damage, which is important to know when modifying a unit. Shelves that are hung from the ceiling by a chain, for example, are much less of a liability than wall shelves, and they look unique.
What about that treacherously ugly faucet—plastic spiky knob and all—that you're dying to get rid of? Walk down any hardware store fixture aisle and you'll be dismayed to find that the shower heads and faucets used in rental units are always the cheapest and flimsiest. If it's worth the money to you to change the fixtures—swapping them back, naturally, when you move out—then you'll be surprised at how easy it is to do it yourself. Get a good wrench, some plumber's tape, plumber's putty and a little bit of know-how, and you can keep the same good-lookin' fixtures with you wherever you may move.
(As for that "know-how": the book is out of print, but used copies of Time-Life's Complete Fix-It-Yourself Manual can be widely found for under $10 online, and no house should be without it. Its chapters on appliances, plumbing, electricity and home electronics are written and illustrated in the simplest, easiest-to-understand way, and can save you the humiliating annoyance of calling the evil landlord and dealing with bumbling repairmen for basic fixes.)
Venetian blinds are one of the cruelest atrocities widely forced on renters, and they're surprisingly easy to replace without doing significant damage. With just some J-hooks, curtain fabric, clamping curtain hangers and a simple wooden dowel, a room can be completely transformed from a plastic-looking office cell to a warm, cozy space by jettisoning those horrible, dust-collecting contraptions.
First, remove the sliding covers at the top to disassemble the blind from its cartridge, and unscrew the cartridge from the window casing. Attach two simple J-hooks to the wall above the window, and place the wooden dowel, cut to size, across the hooks. Cut and hem the fabric to the size of the window—slightly larger if you want a ripple effect—and clamp the hangers at 6-inch intervals across the top. Slide the hangers on the dowel and—voilà!—basic, inexpensive curtains that make a huge difference to the room, with only four patchable holes to deal with afterwards.
Even getting rid of the smallest and seemingly unobtrusive ugliness can make a healthy difference to a room when inexpensively swapped. A close examination of gaudy light switch covers, dingy cabinet handles or tacky glass lighting domes can reveal an easy, low-impact solution to sprucing up and modernizing your personal space. New stainless steel towel holders, for example, are cheap, and replacing those bulbous oak monstrosities along your merry renting way will make you happier than you can imagine.
Rental units may belong to someone else, but ultimately it's the place where you live. Basic interior design doesn't have to be an unattainable luxury, and with a few simple steps, a fearless but smart approach and a couple hundred dollars, an otherwise imposing hospital room can be transformed into a cozy home—and that's something everyone deserves.
Former landlords can contact Gabe Meline at firstname.lastname@example.org