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Trying Cheap and Easy Renovations

By Matthew Demmer
Quick Tips
  1. Be careful – Apartment owners love any excuse to pocket some of your security deposit, so make sure that you have permission before starting in on any major project and don’t put any holes in the walls that you can’t cover up.
  2. Spick and span – Give the apartment a good scrubbing before making any renovations. If cleaning toilets and scraping five years worth of muck from behind the sink isn’t your thing, you can hire professional cleaners to do it for you.
  3. Equip yourself – Make a detailed list of the tools and equipment you’ll need for the particular job you have in mind ahead of time. You should always keep a basic toolkit tucked away somewhere for when you need it.
  4. Little changes, big difference – Sometimes all that’s necessary to turn a drab, prison-cell apartment into a sick pad is a few changed light-bulbs, different doorknobs, and new ceiling fixtures. For more ambitious (and expensive) renovations, however, a paint job usually does the trick.
  5. Need extra help? – Beyond this guide, the Do It Yourself Network has instructions on how to do almost anything to your apartment that you could possibly want to do.

You don’t have to be Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor to give your new spot some minor upgrades. Even though you’re just renting the place, there are still many cheap and easy home improvements that can help to make a tenement feel like a brand new condo. Head over to Home Depot and

, for a small cost, you can hide those light boxes your landlord put in with some more attractive fixtures. Is your shower low pressured? Install a high-pressure shower head. Are your doors creaky? Spray some WD-40 on the hinges. Do the lights give off an eerie glow? Switch the bulbs to compact fluorescents. Other cheap and easy fix-er-ups include replacing cabinet knobs, door handles, and toilet seats. Just remember that you’re still renting, so don’t go too overboard. Also, ask permission from your landlord before making any major adjustments, and make sure to keep the old bits and pieces so you can reinstall them upon your exit.

Here are some tips for sprinkling a little DIY magic around your first crib...

So Fresh and So Clean

Before you start any renovation, the house is going to have to be clean. And I don’t mean kick the dirt under the cabinet clean, but a deep, professional job here. Technically, landlords are supposed to have this done before you move in, but they frequently don’t, and even if they do, they’ll usually just go for a guy with a dirty mop and a dustbuster. Unless you feel like scrubbing five tenant’s worth of crusted soap scum and hair from the inner railing of your shower door, probably best to hire someone to do it for you. Professional cleaners usually offer a few different services, but the higher-end companies like MerryMaids will run around $25 /hr per maid. One should be enough to tackle all of the places where you don’t want to go: around the toilet, the shower, the fridge, the stove, the sink, etc. On the cheaper end, you could check sites like CraigsList or the classifieds to find anybody that’s strapped for cash and doesn’t mind doing some dirty work.

A Basic Toolkit

It’s always good to have a toolkit lying around the house just in case you need to put something together, take something apart, or play handyman with your girlfriend. A basic toolkit should include

  • A screwdriver set with small, medium, and large flathead and Phillips screwdrivers or a cordless electric screwdriver/drill
  • A pair of needlenosed, lock-jaw, slipjoint, and lineman’s pliers
  • A hammer (to hammer in the evening all across this land)
  • A roll of duct, electrical, and masking tape
  • A utility knife with a set of extra blades
  • A set of vari-sized screws and nails
  • A handsaw (with a wooden handle)
  • A level
  • A measuring tape

Baby Steps

All too often it’s the little things that make a difference in the way a rental apartment feels. Replacing preexisting appliances and structures is very costly. Fortunately, it’s often also completely unnecessary. Below is a list of cheap and easy mini-renovations that can fundamentally change the way an apartment feels. Prices are given for most items as found at retail stores. Even better deals (and more interesting hardware) can often be found at antique stores and flea markets. Also, flip to the back of Domino magazine to the Domino Deals for uber-hip hardware at very good prices.

Cabinet Knobs

Most knobs ($1 – $2 a pop from Home Depot) have a standard-sized hole so you won’t need to replace the back screw. Just keep the bolt steady from the back of the door with a screwdriver and unscrew the old knob by hand, then screw on the new one.

Door Handles

Door handles ($30 for a set of three at Target) usually have a metal sheath that sits tight against either side of the door and covers the assembly. To remove, just apply hand pressure and turn left (counterclockwise) or pop off with a flat headed screwdriver. Once off, it’s just a matter of unscrewing a couple of screws and replacing the old with new. If you don’t have to, try to keep the original latch, as this will significantly reduce time and effort.

Ceiling Fixtures

Ceiling fixtures (as low as $40 at Gracious Homes) come in many different varieties, but the wiring is pretty standard. The first rule of any electrical work is to turn off the fuse that controls the electricity in that part of the house. Then unscrew the old ceiling fixture, being careful not to pull the wiring from the ceiling. There should be two different wires coming from the ceiling connected to the light fixture. The wires are twined together with a plastic cap screwed onto the connection to protect it. To remove, unscrew the plastic cap, detwine the wires, and connect the new wires. Usually the wires are color coded (black and white or black and black with a white stripe). Make sure to match like with like. If you have enough length from the ceiling or the wiring is frayed, you may want to cut the wire then strip it so you can connect the fresh wire to the new ceiling fixture.

Toilet Seats

What’s better than not having to worry about how many other butts have nestled into your toilet seat. Besides, there’s nothing worse than an uncomfortable or ugly plastic seat that you’re going to have to stare at and sit on every time we’re in the bathroom. Toilet seats ($12 and up from Home Depot) come in two sizes: elongated and round front. Measure your seat from back to front and then match it with the one you want before you buy. Seats are normally attached with two (usually plastic) screws that screw into bolts underneath the bowl in the back. To unscrew, put on a pair of latex gloves (rubber ones don’t have enough feeling), reach underneath the toilet, unscrew the bolts on either side, and take off the old seat. Reverse to reinstall. Not a fun job, but definitely a difference maker.

Shower Heads

Nothing is more annoying than bad water pressure in the shower. You stand there shivering for five minutes trying to get wet only to lather up and wait another hour to rinse off. You literally have to cancel dates in order to wash your hair. Occasionally, a bad shower is a result of bad pressure in the building, caused by living on a high floor of a building without a water pump or in an older building with badly clogged pipes. On other occasions, it may be due to a clogged water restrictor in the shower head itself.

If you have good pressure everywhere else in the house, the shower head is probably the culprit. If the head is old, it probably makes the most sense to replace it (at $50 and up at Bed Bath and Beyond). Either way, just unscrew the shower head while keeping a firm grip on the angled pipe coming out of the wall. There should be a small holey disk just on the inside of the shower head. If you want to either clean or (unlawfully and totally and completely unsanctioned by this enviro-loving, tree hugging, as green as Kermit the Frog website) remove the restrictor, take a thin piece of metal, like a long nail or small screwdriver, and put it through one of the holes. Then use the piece of metal to pry the restrictor out. Soak the head in warm water and vinegar to remove soap scum and clean off the restrictor (or just accidentally drop it in the toilet and then fall on the flusher). Check out our tips for turbo-charging a trickling shower for more shower head recommendations.

Window Covers

Most post-grad apartments get less light than a Norwegian winter. But some grads have the even unluckier distinction of getting streams of dawn’s early light pouring into their windows every morning. But have no fear, a good night’s sleep is just a few hours away. First measure your windows very carefully, then walk into Home Depot and buy a custom-fit blackout shade with a tension rod for around $10-50. It don’t look great, but it’s the easiest way to a good night’s sleep.

Creaky Doors

WD-40, nuff said. Also good for removing tree sap and stickers from cars, cleaning out ceiling fan motors, keeping bathroom light bulb threads from becoming corroded, and maybe, just maybe, curing arthritis. Need anymore, check out this absurd list of 2000 uses for WD-40.

Light bulbs

Landlords often cheap out on light bulbs, so if that new apartment looks drab and dirty, it may very well be the light. But rather than go out and waste money and kill the environment by buying a set of incandescents, try a compact fluorescent light bulb. Though more expensive per bulb, they produce 70% less carbon dioxide, use significantly less electricity to light (leading to lower electrical bills), and can last up to ten times as long. Didn’t I tell you we were tree hugging hippies? In fact, all of the Gradspot computers run on distilled cat urine.

Paint Job

Starting to feel like the Bob Villa of recent grads? Kick it up a notch and try painting the rooms. Change that dreary, uncomfortably off-white wall to one that brightens up the space. Painting the walls can make a huge difference in an apartment, but be forewarned: painting will take a few days, and before you move out, you’ll have to revert back to the original color.

To get started, you’ll need a roller with extra sponges, a couple of brushes (both wide and very small for detail work), a few rolls of painters tape, a couple of good drop cloths, some paint trays, and a utility knife. Once you’ve got your supplies and picked out your color, it’s time to test it out. Instead of painting a small piece of your wall, get a large piece of cardboard, paint it with your color of choice, and then stick it on the wall. This way you can be sure that the color will look good in your apartment. If one color doesn’t work, you can just apply a new hue to another piece of cardboard and avoid repainting the whole wall each time.

When it comes time to get your roll on Mr. Miyagi style, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Always tape edges cleanly. Don’t wait too long to rip them off after you’re done painting because the paint can crack
  • Use semi gloss for the baseboards but flat for everything else.
  • Always keep the ceiling white
  • Tape the drop cloths to the floor just at the bottom of the baseboard to avoid dripping on the floor
  • Always keep a can of turpentine around to clean up minor mistakes
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