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Creative Ideas for Remodeling a Rental Property

Find out how these landlords make the most of a renovation budget to help land great tenants and maximize monthly rent

When Denise Supplee was getting a property ready to rent, she realized she didn't have enough budget to renovate the kitchen. "It was a really old kitchen—I'm talking white metal cabinets from the ‘50s. While it was functional, I knew it would be tough to get a renter to go for it," says Supplee, a Philadelphia realtor and investor who has owned and managed more than 200 rental properties. "I had enough money for the materials, but not the work."

 

So the rental entrepreneur got creative. She listed the rental at $1,900 a month, but included a note that she'd drop the rent to $1,600 for a handy renter qualified to rehab the kitchen. Not only did she find a tenant with the skills to do the work, she made a savvy business choice: "Not only did I get a brand-new kitchen for the cost of materials, but that tenant ended up staying for more than three years because he had a home he really liked. He'd put his own touch on it."

 

Whether you've purchased a property with the intention of finding renters or you're turning a home into a rental unit, improvements and renovations may help maximize rental income. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the number of renter-occupied housing units in the U.S. stands at a 50-year high, and increased nearly 20 percent between 2005 and 2015 (from 36.7 million to 43.7 million). The steady growth has also driven small-scale renting through online rental sites. But the ROI on a rental isn't a guaranteed slam-dunk; as Supplee discovered, maximizing your profits as a landlord takes smart planning and, sometimes, a little creativity.

Start a Remodel in these Rooms
 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the exception of sleeping and watching television, most Americans' activity is centered in the kitchen (cooking, food prep, eating) and bathroom (personal care). Not surprisingly, kitchen and bathroom remodels may offer the best ROI for landlords, as renters see the value in these rooms, too. Kitchens and bathrooms also have a bigger "wow" factor when prospective renters view a property, says Dana Bull, a real estate investor, agent and landlord in Boston. Supplee agrees: "While other rooms can be changed with design elements, you get what you see when it comes to kitchens and baths."

Rental Property Value x 15 Percent = Maximum Budget
 

According to the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), a full kitchen remodel budget shouldn't run more than 15 percent of the market value of the home, or five to 10 percent of the home's value for bathroom renovations. Bull and Supplee agree this is good advice for any home—whether primary dwelling or investment property—but they typically spend less on homes they plan to rent.

Spend More Time—Less Money—on Renovations

 

Investing research time is one way to lower rental renovation expenses. For example, Bull purchases "scratch and dent" appliances with superficial damage and has saved 20 to 50 percent on refrigerators and stoves with minor dings or defects. "Almost any store that sells appliances has scratch-and-dent models they sell for deep discounts," says Bull. "You just have to ask." Also ask about warranties for as-is or damage-discounted appliances.

 

Patrick Dawson, a general contractor who owns more than a dozen rental properties on Long Island, buys major appliances on President's Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day or the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas. "Big discounts are offered on quality appliances," he says.

 

Timing may impact the price, too. Manufacturers typically launch new appliance models in September and October, and at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in January. (Refrigerators are the exception—new models are released in spring.) Appliance retailers are more likely to lower prices on inventory to make room for new models, so prime shopping time to leverage these discounts is December.

 

As for fixtures, Supplee buys used cabinets and caps her spending at 10 percent of the total kitchen renovation budget. (According to the NKBA, cabinets and appliances typically eat up most of a kitchen remodel budget—30 percent and 14 percent of the budget, respectively.) "I'm lucky, because there's a big warehouse that sells used cabinets right near my house," says Supplee, who also recommends connecting with with local contractors. "They might be able to hook you up with used cabinets after the demolition of a kitchen."

 

If an owner's budget doesn't have room for replacing cabinets, showers or sinks, the pros recommend updating cabinet hardware, door handles, sink fixtures and shower heads. These relatively inexpensive upgrades create a fresh "blank canvas" for tenants, says Bull.

 

When choosing fixtures, Dawson's two priorities are durability and cost. "You want it to last, which means it'll be fairly low-maintenance, and you want it to be cheaper than the alternatives." An example? He opts for laminate flooring over wood, and never carpeting, which requires professional cleaning every time a tenant moves out.

 

Dawson also looks for products with lifetime guarantees, such as window blinds. "I bought window blinds that weren't the best quality, but the lifetime guarantee means I can replace them at no cost if they break." His only caveat: read the fine print. These guarantees are typically based on the manufacturer's estimated lifetime of the fixture or appliance, and there may be deductibles or maintenance required to keep the guarantee valid.

Have You Ever Heard of "Greige"?

 

If the answer is "no", it may be the kind of detail you need to know if you want to get market (or higher) rate for your rental, says Bull. "I have a few properties in nicer areas of Boston where you can get $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom," she says. "If I want to get that, I know I have to paint the walls ‘greige' [grey-beige], update the kitchen with stainless steel appliances, and make sure all of the other cosmetic changes I do are in line with other rental properties in that area," she says. To get a sense of design trends in the neighborhood, go to open houses and check other rental listings in the area.

And Then There's Light

 

"In one of my rentals, there's a small room with no windows—it was a bonus room that didn't feel like such a bonus," Supplee says. "I bought a white electric fireplace for $400 and it transformed this dark space into a sweet little room."

 

Supplee's takeaway: paint the walls and ceilings, clean the windows and add lighting in spaces that feel dark, including inexpensive exterior lighting. Small lamps along walkways looks great at night when prospective renters may cruise by for a look—and it creates a sense of security, says Supplee.

 

Lighting a backyard space can also entice renters. Sky Cole of Fort Collins, Colo., said patio lighting at the home she's renting sealed the deal when she and her boyfriend were looking at houses to rent. "We love to entertain, and it made the space feel like a cozy spot for barbeques," she says. "It's a small thing, but it set the house apart from the rest.

Keep the Landscaping Low Maintenance

 

According to HomeAdvisor's 2017 guidelines, homeowners pay an average of $3,300 on landscaping—a rate that doesn't include monthly out-of-pocket expenses or time for upkeep.

 

Great landscaping can upgrade the curb appeal of a rental, but it doesn't increase the rental rate or deliver the return on investment you'll get from better appliances or refreshing interior paint. Unless the yard is in rough shape, landscaping should be the last item in your budget, says Supplee. Instead, buy a few hard-to-kill potted plants for the front porch/walkway or backyard, such as coneflowers, zinnias or daylilies.

 

Once the renovation is complete, Bull recommends the final touch of springing for professional photography for the listing—an expense that typically runs her $100 to $200. "Even if you have a room you weren't able to brighten up so much, professional photos will make it look great. Prospective tenants will remember how great the photos looked when they see the place in person," says Bull.

Did You Know?

Single-family rental homes make up nearly 40 percent of the overall rental stock in the U.S.
– Census Bureau American Community Survey