What We’re Fixing Up in a Rental and Why

I have gotten so many questions asking what we’re fixing up, how we got permission to fix things, are we paying for the cost ourselves, why bother fixing anything up if we don’t own, etc?

Hopefully this post will answer all of those questions.

Q: Do you rent or own?

A: We are renting our current abode: a two-story greystone in Chicago. You can see the before tour here and here.


Q: Do you ever plan to own a home?

A: Eventually, one day, we do hope to own a home (ideally one we can fix up and make our own!). But at this point in our lives, we don’t know where we’ll want to settle down so buying something we might only be in for a couple of years seems very risky. Not to mention, a lot of the condos on the market in Chicago in our price range are a certain style (built in the last 20 years) that isn’t really the look I’m going for (Dan is 100% less picky). I prefer older homes with character and unique vintage architectural detailing. Of course, those properties are much riskier to buy due to aging pipes, furnaces, vents, roofs, foundations, et al. So for now, we’re perfectly happy renting.


Q: How do you find your rentals? 

A: I’ve only ever found apartments on Craigslist! I use the map feature which allows me to narrow in on areas I’m interested in, click on the thumbnail to peek at the place, and can usually tell immediately if I’m interested.


Q: Any neighborhoods better than others to find a walk-up in Chicago?

A: Walk-ups are ALL over Chicago. It’s definitely easier to find them in the surrounding neighborhoods (Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and everything north of those, Wicker Park, Bucktown, everything west of those, and Hyde Park and south neighborhoods)… basically the closer you get to downtown, the less likely. River North, West Loop, and Old Town are predominantly high rises. That’s not to say you can’t find a walk-up, they’re just few and far between.

Q: So what are you fixing up in your rented house? And WHY?!

A: I think it seems like we’re doing a lot more to it than we are… probably because some of the projects don’t even feel like work to me. I’ve painted walls and cabinets, hung window treatments, and changed out light fixtures in pretty much all of my rentals. (Remember when I painted an entire kitchen in this home tour? And made over a scary bathroom in this one? Ain’t no thang!)

I’m a big believer in making a house a home. Even if it’s temporary housing. My surroundings completely affect my mood and just because something isn’t permanent doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like it to feel like my home while I reside in it.

The 2 smaller projects:

  1. I don’t mind spending $20 on a can of paint at Home Depot and a Saturday afternoon painting if it means I’ll be that much happier in a space. Fortunately, the entire home was painted before we moved in. But Dan and I tackled painting the bathroom vanity and living room shutters ourselves. And if you follow along on Instagram Stories, I finally tackled painting the entryway doors last night!
  2. As for changing out light fixtures, this was an investment I started making in when Danielle and I roomied up for a year (we changed a boob light in the upstairs hall of our apartment… nothing major. But the wheels were set in motion.) After that place, Dan and I moved in together, and changed out the living room, office, and dining lights–all of which had dark brown ceiling fans. :/ Not the look I was going for. Once I saw how much they changed and completed a space, I knew it was something we’d do in our current house.

Changing out light fixtures is a home upgrade I advise any readers who rent or own take on, as well! It completely transforms and customizes the space. The most important reason? You can take the light fixtures with you when you move. (Just be sure and hang on to your landlord’s original fixtures so you can put them back up before you move out.) Second, and the other reason this is something I’m always willing to do: I found a handyman on TaskRabbit who is very reasonable so he’ll quickly change out a few in an hour for his hourly rate. Two years with lighting we love? Worth it. Just wait til you see all of our before/after photos. Had we left the original fixtures, the rooms all would have had an entirely different look.

The 2 bigger projects:

  1. We changed out the stair runner. I’ll have a full before/after post on this project coming soon. The old runner was… in really really bad shape. I’m talking dirt came FLYING out of it into my face when I started ripping it up. It was decades old, completely worn, stained, and downright gross. I fortunately was able to partner with one of my favorite rug companies, Dash and Albert, which allowed us to get a much better quality wool rug. The Dash and Albert micro-hooked is crazy quality and will last the whole time we’re here (and years after). This did not require any permission from our landlord. Huge improvement for him. There are plenty of DIY tutorials to changing out a runner!
  2. The entryway tile. This was a very small area that we also hired our awesome handyman to do since this would have been too large a job, time wise, to try and figure out how to tackle on our own (another post on this coming soon!). I also had the fortune of partnering with the folks at Wayfair who have an incredible selection of floor tile (for any of you looking to redo a bathroom, entry, kitchen, laundry room, etc.). Now had I not been able to partner with Wayfair to supply the tile, this project probably would not have happened as it was for aesthetic purposes only. But I am so so so so so so happy and grateful we did because it’s arguably one of the areas we see the most – every time we go in and out the front door. And it’s the first thing guests see when they come in. Before/after post coming soon! Again – no permission from landlord required. Huge improvement to the place so he did not care. No we were not reimbursed by him to do this.

So that’s that! Changing out lighting (all of which we’ll take with us when we move), a few painting projects (which I enjoy doing), changing the stair runner (we hired a handyman), and changing the entry tile (also a brand partnership and our trusty handyman)… not too much! And because we’ll be here for TWO years (at least), we have a good amount of time to enjoy it. Maybe we’ll even resign when that lease is up. TBD.

Our landlord painted the entire place and changed the two back bedrooms’ carpets before we moved in and that did WONDERS.

Lastly – decorating and making a place look better is FUN for me. I’ve been doing it for years and will continue to up until the day we buy our first fixer upper.


Q: How do you approach a landlord about making changes to a rental?

A: This is a multi-faceted answer.

First–do you have a security deposit? If not, I’d almost say you can do whatever you want, but don’t be a jerk and ruin something or paint hot pink stripes on walls… all of the changes I do are pretty minimal or to old, worn out fixtures that could use a facelift.

Second–if you do, are you willing to change it back? They usually outline rules about painting very carefully. Of course, I like painting all rooms white so that makes that one easy. No colorful statement walls or anything. Painting cabinets cannot be undone – again, I’ve only ever done this to very old cabinets that need it. If you have new or updated fixtures, you probably can’t do much. Like in my last two apartments, the kitchens were brand new–no need to paint!

Third–are you willing to take on the cost yourself? I’ve never had a landlord cover the cost for any work I do. If I paint, that’s all on me. If I change out lighting, I’m hiring the handyman because I am taking that lighting with me. Because of blogging, I’ve been able to partner with brands for some materials (ie I’ve partnered with paint brands in the past who wanted me to spotlight their paint–not the case for this current place), but cost of labor and time and materials (brushes, ladders, drop cloths, etc.) is always on me. You never even have to tell your landlord (so long as there is still a lighting fixture up when you move out).

For bigger makeovers like painting cabinets or changing rugs or tiles… you have to first think whether this is a huge advantage to your landlord or not. Will it increase the property value or make it easier for them to rent in the future? Then it’s worth going to them. I move into decently dated (kinda run down) places… old bathrooms and kitchens where the landlords clearly don’t care about how it looks as long it’s functional. This makes it MUCH easier to make changes. Moving into a nice new, renovated place? Odds are you probably can’t do much.

If you want to make a change, my BEST advice is to email them with photos of what the after will look like, and ideally have photos of previous before/after makeovers you’ve done. Explain you’ll be covering the cost and tackling it on your own.

Q: Do you ever try and negotiate rent reimbursement for the projects you take on?

A: I’ve tried asking for rent reimbursement or materials cost, but get emphatically shot down every time. I’m a crappy negotiator. Let me know if you have better luck with that!


I hope this answers most of your questions! Please feel free to leave more in the comments and I can try and help as best as I can!