If you’re a renter, chances are your kitchen has some…quirks. Wonky cabinets, a retro backsplash, minimal light, and drab colors are often part of the deal when signing a lease. But just because you can’t knock down walls or rip out countertops doesn’t mean renovation is off the table: Plenty of simple and inexpensive DIY projects that can make a huge difference in the look and feel of your kitchen fall well within a renter’s purview. With the right tools and a little guidance, you can nudge a rundown room a little closer to your dream space. I talked to a few experts to get the details and learn about the trends.
Any home refresh project, big or small, is an exercise in balancing form and function. The reworked room should look great and meet your personal needs, acting as a reflection of both your taste and routine. “The kitchen is the heart of the home, in terms of how it’s going to function and how you share it,” says interior designer Michelle Zacks. “So you have to think about really smart space planning in addition to aesthetics.” Consider your habits and play to your strengths: “Do you need tons of room for pots and pans? Do you need lots of display space because you have a great ceramics collection?”
Kim and Scott Vargo, the husband and wife design duo behind Yellow Brick Home, agree: “It’s not about how much space you have, but how you use it. The biggest thing for us when renovating small rental kitchens is to identify and then eliminate the pain points particular to each space.” Having a clear understanding of exactly what you want to rework will keep the overall project manageable in scope; it’s a good idea to live with your kitchen as it is for a while before you make any changes, to naturally butt up against the things you most need to address.
“With the rise of Pinterest, there is so much great inspiration out there and people are doing so many unique and creative things to their kitchens,” says Zacks. “If there’s something you want to rework, you can probably find a way.” Scroll down for a few projects renters can tackle on their own, with tips from the pros about how to get them done.
Swap out the hardware
“Something a tenant can do all on their own—and for a relatively low cost, depending on the material they choose—is replace the hardware,” says Kim Vargo. Swapping out the basic cabinet knobs and drawer pulls, which likely came standard with the kitchen, is a quick and easy upgrade that can totally change the look of a room—and it requires little more than a screwdriver and some patience. “Cabinet knobs are a great place to get funky,” says Zacks. “I like Rejuvenation, Etsy, and Anthropologie for unexpected and cool pieces.”
Elise McMahon, the artist and designer at LikeMindedObjects, suggests sourcing your hardware used. “I’m such a salvage hunter,” she says. “I would recommend going to your local thrift store—usually people stick to the clothes, but there’s often great brackets and other hardware available in the home section, which you can always paint or add a powder coat to as a way to update the look.”
Just don’t forget to save the original pieces to reinstall when you eventually move out. “Store the old hardware in the attic or a broom closet to switch back when you leave the apartment,” says Kim Vargo. “That way you can take the item that you invested in with you to wherever you go next.”
Brass and Leather Drawer Pulls
Jerico Drawer Pull
Augment your light situation
Light can make or break a kitchen. Not only will you want to spend less time in a room that’s dimly lit, but it’s harder to cook if you can’t see when your roast chicken has hit a nice golden brown. Adding windows or a skylight is not in the cards with a rental kitchen, so augmenting and adjusting the existing fixtures is your best (and brightest) bet.
One low-effort but high-impact update that a tenant can pull off all on their own is adding LED under-cabinet lighting. “For kitchens that don’t get a lot of natural light or have just one chintzy fixture, this is a great option,” says Scott Vargo. “There are great, affordable, sometimes even stick-on products available now that are practically invisible once installed.” Affixing your lights as far forward under the cabinets as possible (toward you, not the wall) helps to keep them hidden from view, so all you see is their gentle glow. “Adding light there draws the eye to the back of the countertops, and adds a ton of depth to what might be a small space.”
For an even lower lift, Zacks recommends making space on a kitchen countertop for a table lamp. Try a chic but rechargeable model that can be easily moved to wherever you need it most, regardless of where your outlets are.
If the light in your kitchen is fine but the fixture is bad, make like you would with basic hardware and swap it out. “If you have standard built-in lighting, a statement hanging light is a fun addition—and there’s no reason why you can’t DIY it,” says McMahon. Ikea and other lighting supply stores sell pre-wired lamp sockets with nice cords that easily hook into existing overhead electrical boxes. One cheeky suggestion: “I love using a colander as a light shade in a kitchen or dining room,” she says. Simply drill a larger hole in the center of the bowl and string it onto a pre-wired socket with a pretty rope or chain. “It’s a great fixture for above a table, and casts really unique light and shadows.”
Pierre Charpin for HAY Portable Lamp
Phillips LED Light Strip Plus Smart Wireless Light Base Kit
$80.00, Home Depot
Hemma Cord Set
Rethink your storage
Because you likely can’t redesign the cabinet layout of your kitchen, storage adjustments for a renter are, as Zacks puts it, “a little more decorative than foundational.” But floating shelves can add plenty of much-needed organizational real estate, especially if you have a pretty collection of tableware. “I love to keep beautiful bowls and cups on display; having those out all the time can definitely alter the look of a kitchen.”
McMahon agrees: “In my own kitchen I focused on doing open shelving because then you don’t have space to hide and accumulate things. Seeing everything all at once forces me to be deliberate about the objects I use and collect, and reminds me to use the things I love.” To hack open shelving in a kitchen with a wall of full-blown cabinets, simply remove the front doors and hinges (saving each piece!) and, with your landlord’s approval, paint the remaining frame and shelves a cohesive color. Leave a few doors on if you want to conceal a particularly messy or cluttered areas; the display-style shelving works best with dishes and glassware.
(If you need even more storage space, “look at images of Julia Child’s kitchen for inspiration,” she suggests. “You can mount a pegboard just like that to hang pots, pans, and utensils, which will free up a lot of room.”)
Finally, don’t forget to think about the inside of your cabinets, too. The Vargos consider loading a kitchen with lazy susans, bins, and baskets—organizational tools that don’t require mounting hardware—to be the best first step in maximizing functionality. If you’re willing to use a drill to get the job done, they suggest adding pull-out bins and shelves “to provide easier access to those deep, dark, recessed cabinet spaces.”
Riggs Walnut Shelf with Brass Dot Brackets
$65.00, Crate & Barrel
Elfa Narrow Pull-Out Cabinet Drawer
$28.00, The Container Store
Wall Control Kitchen Pegboard Organizer
“I’ve been seeing peel-and-stick surfaces pop up more and more recently,” says Kim Vargo. “Especially during the pandemic when people are looking for low-commitment but high-impact ways to update a space.” Your backsplash is the obvious place to try the trend, if you have a blank wall behind your stove that is exposed to splatters and spills or to cover any existing dingy tile. Opt for a brand that sells larger sheets instead of individual tiles if you’re looking to cover a big space quickly. And look for a backsplash that features tiles with a bit of texture—that “pop out” rather than sitting flush—because they look more like real tile. All you’ll need for installation is some careful measuring and a steady hand.
Stick-on resurfacing can transform other parts of the kitchen as well, like linoleum floors or appliances. These projects take a bit more planning and may require more upkeep because they cover higher-traffic areas, but they’re worth it if you’re looking for a major aesthetic shift. “It’s a DIY way to radically revamp the look of your kitchen,” says Zacks. “And because there are so many options, it can be super personalized to you.”
Tic Tac Peel-and-Stick Subway Tile
Vinyl Floor Tile Peel and Stick Decals
Reface the cabinets
For a slightly bigger project—and one that’ll definitely require your landlord’s approval—try changing out the fronts of your cabinets to instantly alter the aesthetic of the room. “Assuming the cabinets are functional and in good condition,” says Kim Vargo, “refacing them is sometimes all you need, even in a larger renovation. It’s a really easy way to brighten up a room.” You may even be able to get a rent break out of the upgrade; ask about getting the value of the new doors taken out of what you owe for the next year.
Hasslarp Patterned Cabinet Door
Quarterline Agave Cabinet Door
Be bold with color
“Color in the kitchen is making a massive comeback,” says Kim Vargo. “I always think that the rooms we paint dark colors feel deep, thoughtful, and kind of like a hug.” While emerald greens dominated the design space last year, she’s seeing more terra-cotta, rich reds, and deep golden colors popping up now, which add warmth and coziness to any room.
With the approval of your landlord, you can think beyond your walls when applying color to the kitchen. “People are getting a little more adventurous with painting their cabinets,” says Zacks. “I like the lighter on the top, darker on the bottom look—it adds some nice dimension to a small rental kitchen and works with any color palette.”
Semi-Gloss Paint in Tanlines
Standard Finish Paint in Ghost Ranch
Semi-Gloss Paint in Negroni
Originally Appeared on Epicurious