Photography by Dane Tashima

Published on December 22, 2020

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Renovating any kitchen is a big deal, but undertaking the task in a rental in New York City—home of the persnickety landlord—can be downright daunting. For Jordan Ferney, though, asking for permission rather than forgiveness, along with making choices that don’t break the foundation (or the bank), helped keep a recent project on track, even through a global pandemic.

At her family of five’s apartment in New York’s West Village, the creative worked with her landlord to plan out any upgrades and keep future tenants in mind for when her family eventually moves out. Certain additions, like light fixtures, will go with her. Others, like the subway tile, will be left behind for the next resident to enjoy (or they can decide to do their own updates). 

“I’ve always decorated my rentals. Even when I was fresh out of college with no budget, that was important to me, so it’s what I prioritized,” Ferney notes of her rationale behind taking up the deposit-friendly challenge. “I definitely broach the subject of making small changes. I ask to send over a proposal and see if the landlord cares if I change it.” Here’s her cheat sheet for renovating a rental kitchen.

Start From the Ground Up

When embarking on the project, Ferney began with the floor. “I didn’t hate the red tile [the apartment] came with when we moved in, but there was a brand-new blue countertop and I couldn’t make it work,” she says. “I knew that just a simple tile was going to be better.” Ferney spoke with the landlord, but they had the uniquely Manhattan challenge of the subway rumbling underneath the building, which occasionally shook the structure and caused the existing tiles to crack. Unfazed, Ferney found an affordable alternative that doubled as a bold-looking base: peel-and-stick tiles in a classic checkerboard. “We did it ourselves in a day and a half with $100,” she says, adding, “We paid for it and said we’d remove it when we left.” (A bit of residue remover, along with a hearty tug, does the trick.)

Timeless Designs Are Easy to Approve

A backsplash was the next step in the process. Ferney chose an inexpensive white subway tile that would look fresh long after she and her family someday moved out. Having that timeless aesthetic was also part of her negotiation strategy. “Nine times out of 10, [landlords] are fine to make changes. Especially since I’m not picking very edgy designs,” she explains. Another clincher: storing the upper cabinets in the building’s basement, which could then be reinstalled on top of the tile, if desired, when the Ferneys leave.

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The Right Lighting Transforms a Space

Choosing lighting that best suits an environment can be tricky, Ferney admits. After getting approval to replace the room’s existing lights, which “felt much too small,” she employed a simple trick: “We made paper cutouts of the different sizes of lights and tested them for proportions. It was easy to pick which one would be right.” Now farmhouse-style sconces line one wall and brass pendant lamps add warmth above the counter.

Practical Appliances Can Look Great, Too

“The oven we moved in with was already on its last legs,” recalls Ferney. She coordinated with her landlord on a replacement model and took advantage of the situation to align with the new style of the room—plus she offered to pay part of the cost in order to get a nicer unit. She scored an Ilve design at Wayfair for under $5,000, which fit the budget. And really, everyone wins: Higher-quality appliances mean higher value when it’s time to rent out the listing again.

Communal Countertops Help Gather People

Ferney brought in a narrow table to act as a makeshift counter, which now serves as a gathering place for her children to have a snack and hang out in the morning. “The kitchen is quite large, which is great, but it’s not as functional with kids,” she notes. “The low-maintenance option was to build a skinny, console-shaped table. It allows everyone a place to eat and we have 90 percent of our meals there.”

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Open Shelving Keeps Everything Organized

With three kids, an open shelving plan may sound like a lot to keep under control. For Ferney, though, it was the perfect option to showcase pieces she loves while keeping clunkier objects and pots and pans out of site. While the closed cabinets below hold the bulk of the appliances, gadgets, and less aesthetically pleasing kids’ stuff, the open shelves allow for easy access to the handful of items that get used the most—glassware, plates, and more. “I’m really pragmatic with how we use the space,” says Ferney. Judging by her approach to renovating a rental, we’d agree. 

Our Winter Renovation issue is here! Subscribe now to step inside Leanne Ford’s latest project—her own historic Pennsylvania home. Plus discover our new rules of reno.

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