When to Improve What the Landlord Won’t

Investing in a little apartment rehab can be worth a couple of paychecks

The USC student was 19 when she moved into her rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment. Over the next 16 years, she worked as an occupational therapist, a boxing gym manager, a horse trainer, and a stylist, living for stints in Colorado, Texas, New York, and Montecito. But she always held onto the apartment. By 2013, the quality of life in Santa Monica had lured her back for the better part of the year, and she decided to give her $2,500-a-month, one-bedroom apartment an upgrade.

Not every tenant has the cash—or the motivation—to revive a rental. This lessee had both. Eager to capitalize on the ocean-view unit’s remarkable light and location, she hired mother-and-daughter interior designers Peggy and Tessa Platner. Two walls were knocked out to open up the floor plan, and the cabinets, counters, and appliances in the kitchen were replaced. In the bathroom an ugly vanity got the heave-ho, as did the tub, making way for a faux-travertine-clad shower. The carpeting was jettisoned, and floor-to-ceiling closets were added in the bedroom. Total price tag: $100,000.

Daunted? Don’t be. Even renters who lack such resources can make improvements, say the Platners, who suggest smaller enhancements (but only with your landlord’s blessing). If hardwood floors lie under the carpet, expose and refinish them. Don’t be put off by the old range in the kitchen (if it’s an O’Keefe & Merritt or the equivalent, restore it to its original luster). Reglaze the sinks and tub and regrout the tile. Replace worn lighting with vintage pieces from such spots as Liz’s Antique Hardware, and add exotic touches from outlets like Hannoun Rugs from Morocco. In newer units the ubiquitous “cottage cheese” ceilings can be scraped and retextured, and outdated metal-framed windows may be subbed with newer vinyl or wood models.

The prodigal Westsider has no regrets about her investment, which was partly funded by her parents. She admits that it took her dad “a while” to understand why it made sense. “He owns apartment buildings in Nebraska,” she says. “Then he realized how rent control makes this situation something else.”