Before and After: This Dramatic Kitchen Redo is the Work of Creative, Budget-Savvy Renters

published Jan 9, 2023
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Are you a renter feeling limited, home improvement-wise, by the terms of your lease or by the fact that you might someday move? Heed this advice from Lily F Tsutumida: “Do the math and consider what it’s worth for you to be happier in your space while you’re there; if it’s feasible, go for it!”

Lily (@komposition_official), an artist who creates wooden wall hangings, and her husband, Evan, bit the bullet and decided to invest in their 1970s-1980s rental kitchen so that it was a more pleasant place to be. Before, it was “dated, dingy, damaged, and sad,” Lily says. The linoleum flooring was torn, the cabinetry was dented and discolored, and the washer and dryer hookups were located so that installing laundry would mean sacrificing one-third of the kitchen space.

“There was an overwhelming brown and yellow darkness — and not in the fun ’70s kind of way,” Lily adds. “As people who love to cook, it wasn’t an upbeat or enjoyable space to prepare meals in. Due to rising prices in our area, we started to accept the fact that we’d be in this place for a few more years and decided we wanted to invest what we could in it even if our landlord wouldn’t pay. We got the okay to make improvements as long as they were on our own dime, and we decided to go for it rather than signing on for higher rent in a different place.”

Those improvements included, for instance, replacing the linoleum floors with vinyl plank, which the couple also had professionally installed throughout the rest of the apartment. The total cost came to $4,000, “which is much less than it would have cost us to move into a different place with existing upgrades,” Lily says. The rest of Lily and Evan’s redo cost about $300.

As for the other changes they made, many of them were low-budget but impactful. They started by painting the cabinets white (Behr’s Swiss Coffee) and installing new pulls. “This was definitely a time-consuming job as we had to remove, sand, and paint each piece, but the payoff was HUGE, and the cost was extremely low,” Lily says. Lily and Matt also added a peel-and-stick subway tile backsplash and a blue water-color-inspired peel-and-stick wallpaper above that, both of which took less than a day to install.

"The wooden sign to the right of the window is handmade, though not by me," Lily says. "It was a gift and features our family name in Japanese kanji."

“We’re proud of the color and texture we added into the space with the backsplash and wallpaper,” Lily says.

Another major difference-maker in the space is the countertops — once a stained yellow and now a bright white. At Lily and Evan’s request, their landlord paid to have the countertops sprayed over with latex paint to give them a more modern color and pattern. “We weren’t afraid to ask the landlord for simple upgrades we thought they’d go for, knowing their usual budget for maintenance,” Lily says. (Again, renters, take note!)

Lily made the artwork hanging above the trashcan. You can find more of her work at @komposition_official.

The one slight bummer for the couple is that it was too costly to rearrange the washer and dryer hookup, but even still, the “kitchen is now a bright, modern and airy place to cook, even with the laundry taking up a big portion of the space,” Lily says.

If you look above the laundry units, you’ll see one of Lily’s favorite changes. “We’re most proud of our choice to remove the cabinet doors above the laundry area to create the look of open shelving,” Lily says. “It felt like a risk, but we went for it and love the result. The open shelving area allows us to show off some of our nicer-looking items, adds character and texture, and makes the space feel bigger.”

Best yet, this step is doable for most renters! “We still have the cabinet doors and can easily reinstall them when it’s time to move,” Lily explains.

Her biggest takeaway from the project should be a takeaway for renters far and wide; just because you start with dated (or cookie-cutter) apartment bones doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. “As renters sometimes we feel powerless to improve our spaces,” Lily says. Her advice is to create goals for what you want to change, ask your landlord about it (don’t be shy!), and calculate what’s worth it for you from there; her kitchen is living proof that it’ll make a big difference.