Here’s Why Every Apartment You’ve Ever Rented Is Painted in “Landlord Off-White”

published Jul 15, 2021
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For nearly a decade, stark white walls have dominated Instagram feeds. Brilliant white surfaces serve as the foundation upon which the artifacts, gadgets, and bric-a-brac of life stand out in full color: the monstera plant, the thrifted portrait, the smart thermostat. But beneath the galleries that adorn many walls lies one very specific pearly hue, brought to life by the least likely of influencers: the landlord.

I’ve endured many a paint squabble with landlords over the years. The worst offense was the hardboiled landlord who patched up marks with a slightly darker shade of eggshell, leaving my walls spotted for years. I wanted to understand the reasons for the “landlord off-white” hue that everyone seems to know and detest viscerally, so I did the unthinkable: I dove into the belly of the landlord forum beast. What I learned… honestly made sense. Their not-so-secret secret? Semi-gloss, off-white paint.

According to No Nonsense Landlord, a landlord blog, a semi-gloss finish is a time saver, allowing landlords to wipe walls clean between tenants and saving a long weekend of top-to-bottom painting. Sensible! But why the off-white? Why not a tasteful light gray, or perhaps a warm, subdued taupe? 

Any “landlord off-white” tends to be a more palatable neutral, less expensive per gallon, and most importantly: it hides dirt. With landlords overseeing multiple units, possibly on multiple properties, time and cost are critical. They can stockpile cans and trust that the color will work in any situation. Ultimately, the least expensive coat of semi-gloss that offers two coats per wall is the most efficient avenue for landlords.

If you’re a lucky tenant, your landlord is a painting pro, and even though you don’t get to choose your color, your place looks crisp. Unfortunately, if you’re not among the lucky, you’re one of the countless others who devote a massive portion of your income to rent payments, only to get stuck with the “Landlord Special,” where your light switches and windowsills have been painted over — and crusted with — off-white paint.

It can be frustrating when your rental doesn’t receive the time and attention you’d have preferred, especially given the considerable monthly bills. But the “landlord off-white” color everyone loves to hate has become (through no fault of its own) iconic.

Today, white paint sells, with 60 percent or more of paint companies’ sales falling into the white category. With such an array of opportunities, white and off-white blend into one amorphous swatch. Millennials, and now, the elder Gen Zers, continue to meander from rental to rental, even from city to city, trying to build independent lives and navigate an economy that is stacked against them. With many young people fearing homeownership an unattainable goal, the achromatic “landlord off-white,” devoid of character yet adjacent to perfection, may serve as a grim reminder of their unending social and financial circumstances. Yeah, that was a pretty demoralizing sentence to type out! 

But the pervasive off-white hue is one simple piece of a much richer puzzle. I’ll always look back on this period of my life and recall the layers and layers of caked-on off-white paint covering who-knows how many eras of grime. But more acutely, I’ll remember the vibrance I brought to these spaces, unconfined by four walls painted in a color of my landlord’s choosing.