In five years of renting out a pair of duplexes on Medford's west side, Sara Keese's worst memories are hardly of late rental payments or maintenance duties, but of tenants who failed to read the portion of their rental agreement that forbids drastic alterations to the home's appearance.
"I had a lady in there that painted every single room," Keese recalls. "And I mean she painted!"
The biggest tenant taboo, according to property management agencies, is painting. Most landlords prohibit painting. Ones who allow painting often change their mind after realizing the cleanup involved when tenants move out.
In addition, less-than-professional paint jobs often result in ruined carpet.
To spackle or not to spackle? While tenants often patch nail holes before moving out, John L. Scott property manager Terri Callaway says most property managers say, 'No thanks!'
"They think they're doing you a favor by patching holes, but you go in and you've got these big white spackle sites and you have to paint the whole thing," she says.
"We'd rather have tiny holes. Even leaving the nails in is not such a bad idea. And the worst thing I've seen is when they use toothpaste!"
Other changes that require landlord permission include adding utilities, such as an additional phone line or cable connections, changing locks or replacing old fixtures.
After coating one room in a purple and pink "I-don't-know-what-design," Keese says, the tenant went on to paint other rooms in "too dark" colors and patterns like camouflage.
"Obviously, she lost her deposit. Of course, I heard all about how she'd paint over it when she moved out and I wound up doing it myself."
Thankfully, Keese says the majority of tenants have respected the terms of their lease. And, for the most part, she's been open to minor changes, like planting flowers, adding new blinds or repainting old cabinets.
While most major changes are prohibited by landlords, area property managers offer some helpful tips for renters who want to put a more personal stamp on the not-so-permanent version of "Home Sweet Home."
"It's pretty common for a tenant to want to try to create their own style," says John L. Scott property manager Terri Callaway. "And it can be done, within reason and without causing major changes."
First and foremost, rental units painted in bland white or varying shades of the same can be livened up in a host of non-altering ways.
"Painting is usually a pretty big no-no," Callaway notes.
"There are some landlords who will let tenants paint in neutral shades, but painting is not as easy as people think it is."
Aching to paint? If a landlord is open to minor changes, ask to paint a single wall for accent. Promise to repaint when you move out — and keep your promise. If painting is prohibited, consider any of the following:
- freestanding room dividers, customized with paint and other materials, can feature photos, beadwork or fabrics
- 'peel-and-stick' wall paper border, available at most retail and hardware stores, can be applied and removed without damage to walls
- some design websites suggest applying fabric, using a liquid starch, to one or more walls
- hang an attractive quilt or blanket in the center of a wall using thin staples
One past tenant, Keese notes, created wall panels out of a lightweight material, which she carefully nailed on a center wall for a "tasteful" look.
Additional color can be added with curtains, pillows and area rugs. For any needed furniture shopping, opt for bold patterns to offset neutral walls and avoid matching sets of anything which contribute to a washed-out look.
For added color, painted bookshelves or tables can add hues other than white and off-white. Think brick red, denim or black for a measure of sophistication. Stenciling on the furniture adds further custom appeal.
For bathrooms, invest in new towels and rugs for color and texture. Shower curtains can be fitted (with a tension rod) over glass shower doors to add color to a dull room. In older rental homes, where wall-mounted sinks are common, create hidden storage, and decorative appeal, by attaching a colorful fabric skirt.
Throughout the home, arrange custom items such as artwork and photos to make a space feel like home.
"A lot of times, owners will allow really small nails to hang things on, like art and photos," says B&B Property Management owner Ron Bost. An alternative to nails, are the popular 'suction cup' wall hooks that prevent holes in walls.
For added warmth in the home, consider foliage.
"Potted plants are nice because they can put them around and they can go with you when you leave," Bost says. "You can get a lot of different kinds of containers, too."
Surprisingly, a wide range of traditional decorating projects can be revised for tenants eager to decorate as thoroughly as homeowners, minus the mortgage.
"Basically, you should discuss any changes with your landlord before you move in," says Callaway.
"Find out what they're OK with. If they don't want you to change anything, find creative ways to make the place look different without making major changes. There's quite a bit you can do."