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    Should You Spend Money to Update a Home You're Renting?

    Finally, finally, we were the lucky recipients of a highly sought-after duty station on the West Coast.

    “You’ll love it!” Everyone clamored, “It’s amazing!” Because (fill in the blanks here with the hundreds of reasons), “It's the best assignment ever!” 

    It wasn’t. Not because of the location, not because of my spouse’s long work hours, not because of the exorbitant cost of living, and not even because I missed my friends on the East Coast.

    It was because our rental house was the absolute worst. Obviously a battered, bruised, and neglected income property (even though the zip code commanded well over BAH) whose long distance owner couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars it would take to fix major issues, let alone update cosmetic niceties, it had seen better days decades prior to our arrival. 

    We rented it sight unseen, because of all of the reasons with which we all are familiar: scarce rental inventory, zoned for the right school, and we can endure anything, it’s only 18 months. We did this to ourselves, and it was the worst feeling. I dreaded going through the front door. Every. Day. I had to make changes starting with a major deep clean, which helped, but more intervention was needed.

    It wasn’t my house, and we’d only live there for 18 months, so why would I dump my own money and sweat equity into a place we hated? Because I couldn't sleep while stewing about why I would live in a dump knowing I could at least fix the place up to my lowest standards.

    Time was ticking, and to get any worthwhile ROI, I had to move fast. Down went the disgusting and dated kitchen wallpaper, up went fresh coats of paint throughout the house, and out went the wretched carpeting--especially the matted, smelly portions surrounding the toilet. I didn’t care that the wood sub-floor was revealed afterwards; it was finally clean.

    Would I do it again? Yes. Did I sleep better at night? Yes. Did I still dread coming back after traveling somewhere fantastic? Absolutely. In fact, we spent plenty of money on “staycations” within the area, not only to soak in all of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but to avoid the dark, dated, dungeon we called home.

    Should You Spend Your Own Money to Update a Home Youre Renting (1)

    Should You Spend Money to Update a Home You're Renting?

    To Spend or Not to Spend

    You’ll have to leave financial sensibilities aside, because it likely never makes sense from a dollar and cents perspective to improve someone else’s home, but it's your quality of life factor that has to be heavily considered. If you love hosting parties, but you’re too embarrassed to have people over, that’s a solid fact to weigh over the lifetime of the lease. The trick is to calculate what your budget can afford for maximum lifestyle results.

    With anything subjective, there isn’t one right answer, but starting with a month’s rent, or security deposit amount is a good point to subtract from. If your homeowner didn’t approve of or is unhappy with your changes, one of their first recourse measures is to mandate you change it back, or withhold all or a portion of your security deposit.

    Horizontal view of couple having empty wallet

    This leads directly to the legalities of changing the property without direct permission from the homeowner. It's never a great idea to go rogue and change something so drastically that you risk eviction. Many owners do have change clauses within the lease describing exactly who pays for what, and how the updates are handled. 

    It's a delicate dance, the negotiations of who pays and who reaps the most benefit. For professional investment property owners, it's a no brainer--keep renters happy within reason because happy renters take better care of the homes they live in. 

    For those who have had to rent out properties in desperation, finding a tenant that will tolerate deficiencies is one thing, finding another who invest their own money and time into fixing the deficiencies is another. 

    If you're hoping your landlord will allow you to update or make upgrades on your own dime, start with the information in 3 Ways to Convince Your Landlord to Let You Upgrade. 

    Common Renter Projects

    Take a look at common requests from renters that owners often oblige. Don’t forget to maintain receipts from the supplies you’ll need on hand to accomplish the projects and be reimbursed. 

    • Paint throughout the house, including cabinetry
    • Kitchen and bathroom updates
    • Removal of carpet or installation of replacement flooring
    • Update light fixtures
    • Upgrade door locks and exterior doors
    • Install a security system
    • Landscape and garden improvements such as flower beds, gardens, and fence installation.

    It’s easy to see how the initial couple of hundred dollars budgeted in paint could blossom into a larger project once the work begins. Planning for and maintaining the end point of the workload helps to keep your money in your pocket.

    Young couple choosing color of all paper in new home

    For those who don’t have a “creative eye” and don’t happen to see or feel the presence of worn carpeting and dingypaint, consider yourself lucky and spend your potential DIY dollars on something fun. But, for those of us who absorb positive and negative energy from our living spaces via aesthetics, we have to find a balance between comfortable updates and throwing money down the drain. 

    Ultimately, our homeowner didn’t balk at any of our improvements, even without explicit language in the lease regarding alterations. I was willing to forfeit the security deposit if there were any issues. The changes made home life more bearable. It wasn’t a secret that she intended to sell the property after our departure, and our changes either fixed problems or lessened the workload to get the home in shape for buyers to view. Win for her for sure, partial win for us.

    Looking back, we likely did not spend beyond a month’s rent to make the home livable in my view. We did, however, probably tip the scale in the wrong direction by spending money on more overnights than normal, just so we didn’t have to sleep one more night there.  

    Don’t do what we did! Read Tips to Make Your Pre-PCS Househunting Trip a Success and and Checklist When Looking for a Rental Home.

    Ask These 10 Questions Before Signing a Lease

    Dawn M. Smith


    Dawn M. Smith

    Dawn is a real estate and military life writer who has a serious HGTV habit. When she is not writing, her teen daughter, Army husband, and golden retriever keep her busy through chauffeur duties, travel planning, and long dog walks. Dawn is pleased to share her experiences with MilitaryByOwner readers who are hoping to simplify military family journeys of all kinds. Follow Dawn on Pinterest for more ideas and resources and visit her site at Dawn M. Smith Custom Content Creation.

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