Photography by Keyanna Bowen

Published on September 15, 2020

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Photography by Keyanna Bowen

Photographer and interior design blogger Keyanna Bowen has always lived by the motto “you have not because you ask not,” but in 2017 she pressure-tested the adage like never before. At the time, she and her husband had just found a great apartment in their dream neighborhood in Salisbury, Maryland, but the rental’s 1950s kitchen left quite a bit to be desired. “From the cabinets to the floors, everything was beat up, dated, and dingy-looking,” recalls Bowen.

Before signing the lease, Bowen boldly appealed to her landlord and convinced him to invest in a transformative, $1,900 rehab that would give the kitchen the same “organic, coastal vibe” as the rest of the home. Below, she walks us through how she devised a rock-solid design plan, earned her landlord’s trust, and drafted a renter-friendly construction contract.

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Photography by Keyanna Bowen

Keep the Next Tenant in Mind

Bowen knew she had a better chance of getting her landlord’s approval if the renovation had universal appeal, so she honed in on timeless details that most future renters would find attractive, like crisp white tile and beadboard paneling. If you want to get more personal, Bowen recommends exploring temporary options like removable peel-and-stick flooring that the next tenant can easily swap out if your choice isn’t their speed.

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Photography by Keyanna Bowen
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Photography by Keyanna Bowen

Channel Your Inner Landlord

Landlords are drawn to building materials that are affordable and easy to come by, Bowen notes, so skip options from online boutiques with limited stock. (In short: If it isn’t sold at a local hardware store, it’s not going to fly.) Also consider how much upkeep your materials will require down the line. Stains in butcher block countertops like Bowen’s, for example, can quickly be sanded out.

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Photography by Keyanna Bowen
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Photography by Keyanna Bowen

Crunch the Numbers

Use your monthly rent as a starting point when devising a budget for your refresh. According to Bowen, that number gives you an indication of how much your landlord values their property. Be prepared to invest some of your own money and labor into the project, too. This give-and-take will not only keep the landlord’s costs down but show them that you’re dedicated to making the reno a success. Bowen’s design plan, specifically, cost $1,900 ($500 of that being her own cash) and included the following simple yet effective DIYs: painting the walls and cabinetry (Benjamin Moore’s Chantilly Lace and Behr’s Ultra Pure White, respectively), spray-painting the drawer pulls black, installing a new backsplash and countertop, and rehabbing the Dutch door.

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Photography by Keyanna Bowen
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Photography by Keyanna Bowen

Dot Your I’s and Cross Your T’s

Pull inspiration photos to get your landlord excited; make a list of materials for them to review; put together a specific timeline—a presentation (whether digital or analog) will further prove that you’re serious.

Alongside that, create an addendum to your lease that not only states exactly what work you are suggesting but protects you in case the landlord doesn’t like the results. (Be sure to have a lawyer or realtor review your verbiage.) Bowen’s states: “It is understood that the tenants may perform the work themselves or hire a contractor at their discretion. It is at the tenants’ discretion to deem the work satisfactory. Landlord may review the work upon completion. If Landlord deems the completed work unsatisfactory, however, tenant will not be held responsible for any costs or labor associated with changes the Landlord wants made.”

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Photography by Keyanna Bowen

Nail the Pitch

Set up a face-to-face or Zoom meeting with your landlord to present your proposal so nothing gets lost in translation. Chances are they have never had this conversation with a tenant before, and no matter how convincing you are, they may be a little skeptical of handing over a check on the spot. If you run into this, make like Bowen and butter them up by offering to have the costs deducted from your rent over time.

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Photography by Keyanna Bowen

If you are really lucky, your landlord may even be open to hearing your thoughts on other ways to amp up your rental. Bowen’s was so receptive, she is planning on tackling her bathrooms next: “He says he hit the tenant jackpot.”

Introducing Domino’s new podcast, Design Time, where we explore spaces with meaning. Each week, join editor-in-chief Jessica Romm Perez along with talented creatives and designers from our community to explore how to create a home that tells your story. Listen now and subscribe for new episodes every Thursday.

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