I Tried 3 Rental-Safe Cabinet Upgrades — And Was Surprised by My Favorite

published May 26, 2023
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White kitchen cabinets before makeover with metal pulls. Yellow countertop and white trim, window, sink
Credit: Ashley Poskin

If I had to pick a theme for my family’s rental kitchen, it would be 1950s-retro-meets-1990s-Tuscany. It’s not really my dream combo — I’d really rather have just the former, but when you rent, you learn to make do! I’ve tried a few renter-friendly updates to make our kitchen a bit more colorful and make the decor feel more seamless, but I’ve left the cabinets mostly untouched over the years. And boy, does it show — these cabinets need some love!

I’ve seen some really amazing cabinet transformations from other DIYers, but not all of them are ideal for renters. I’m not able to paint mine, for instance, and I can’t remove them, either. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything to liven them up. Recently, I took an afternoon to complete three much-needed projects on my cabinets. I was pleasantly surprised at the impact each one made, but one definitely stood out better than the rest (and it’s not necessarily the one I’d expected). 

Credit: Ashley Poskin

Here’s what I started out with. My cabinets are original to the 1950s kitchen and were sloppily painted white before we moved in. Not long ago, I used a Magic Eraser to clean them and it’s taken the top layer of paint off, revealing a layer of blue around the knobs. They’re a hot mess!

The cabinets had the original charming chrome hardware, but what worked in the 1950s just wasn’t working for us now. Don’t get me wrong — no one loves vintage like I do, but they weren’t easy to clean around and looked like an afterthought. Changing those out was my first project.

Credit: Ashley Poskin

Project one: Swap out the old hardware.

I ended up ordering these fantastic round cherry wood knobs and even though the current knob placement was farther apart than intended, I still really love them. The size is great, and I love the graphic element of the circle. They made such a big impact that I really could have stopped there, but I wanted to tie them in even more with a fun wallpaper that would set off the bright yellow countertops.

Credit: Ashley Poskin

Project two: Cover the cabinet doors with wallpaper.

Floral prints always feel so happy to me, and I like the idea of bringing in colors through patterns that reflect nature. It’s really a safe way to add color when you don’t have a specific direction to head in. I found this inexpensive botanical print wallpaper on Amazon and planned to just put up a panel on each door, letting the rest of the cabinet door act as a frame for the pattern. Once I got going, though, I had to change course: The paint was in such bad shape already that I found I needed to cover the whole door.

I knew that the pattern would help tie the cabinets in with the yellow countertops, but I was not prepared for how drastically this would change the overall look of the kitchen. It is a really great distraction, for instance, from my Tuscan-influenced merlot faux tile floor! I also really love how the natural wood knobs look with the botanical print.

Credit: Ashley Poskin

Project three: Add under-cabinet lighting.

The last improvement was the easiest, hands-down. I ordered a box of battery-operated puck lights and simply stuck them to the underside of the cabinets with an adhesive pad. They don’t make much of an impact during the day (in fact, you can’t even see them!) but are so nice in the evening. I turn them on after we shut the kitchen down for the night, and it adds a soft glow without having to turn on the harsh overhead lighting.

Credit: Ashley Poskin

The takeaway: Here’s my favorite upgrade.

As for what made the biggest impact, it wasn’t that intricately patterned wallpaper. It was the cherry wood knobs! Sure, the wallpaper was a big change, but simply adding the oversize knobs significantly affected the style of the plain wood cabinets — I was annoyed I hadn’t done it sooner! Swapping out hardware will always make a difference, but what set these particular ones over the edge was the fact that they covered some of the wear-and-tear that you could see around the old knobs, which gave the illusion of a fresh paint job (even though the paint is still very much the same). Replacing wimpy knobs with oversized hardware is a quick and easy fix for renters and homeowners alike, and feels like you’re working in a completely different kitchen. So if you only make one change, that’s the one to do!