Before and After: A Small NYC Kitchen’s $3,600 Redo Offers Smart Takeaways for Renters
There are some eyesores in apartments that renters can typically change, like old hardware, dated light switch plate covers, window treatments — and sometimes more, depending on how lenient leases and landlords are. But there are other more permanent eyesores, like walls placed in inconvenient spots, older tubs and toilets, and past-its-prime flooring, that just aren’t worth it financially to upgrade if you don’t own the place (or that you won’t be able to upgrade without forfeiting a security deposit).
That doesn’t mean that the task of creating a home you love is hopeless, though. Brooklyn renter Summer McCorkle’s (@domicile.space) kitchen redo is a great example of learning to live with less-than-perfect unchangeable features while taking on projects for the pieces that are changeable.
Summer’s railroad-style place in Greenpoint came with a kitchen that had yellowish walls, yellowish floors, and orangey wood cabinets — with the exception of one random white one “that hung in the middle of the wall, right when you walked in,” Summer says.
“I really couldn’t bear to live in another Brooklyn apartment with the standard-issue brown cabinets,” Summer says. As far as she was concerned, those had to go — as did the white box-shaped cabinet, and the floor that “was so yellow and bleached by the sun,” and the dingy shelf above the stove. (“I wanted something less sculptural and scrolly,” Summer says of the shelf.)
But, of course, in a rental, not all of that was worth demoing. Instead of scrapping it all and starting fresh, Summer got the help of a friend-of-a-friend contractor “with an amazing artistic aesthetic” in 2020 and embarked on a month-long reno that met her needs and her budget (about $3,600).
“The landlord said if I took the apartment as-is, I could do whatever I wanted to it, and they would keep the rent affordable for me,” Summer says. “After 18 years of living in New York but feeling like I would never be in a position financially to actually buy here, I really took this opportunity to upgrade a classic Brooklyn rental into something that felt like mine, like a home. And though it wasn’t exactly cheap and all my friends thought I was crazy for doing this to a rental, it was worth every penny to me.”
Summer started by giving the room a bright white coat of paint to make it feel a bit larger, brighter, and less dated. She also covered the damaged floors with crisp new vinyl in a high-contrast black and white design that’s a spin on classic hex tiles.
As for the cabinetry she didn’t like, Summer kept the existing framework but changed the doors to a birch plywood to save on both money and materials. She did decide to ditch the cabinetry above the fridge, though, and replaced it with new fabricated-to-spec birch plywood shelves.
“For me, the key to small space living is first to edit, edit, edit,” Summer says. “How many plates, glasses and cups do you really need? Water bottles? Kitchen gadgetry? And then measuring down to the inch the space available in your cabinets and any other spaces in the kitchen and then searching for the perfect thing that can fit there.”
For example, Summer says she loves her addition of a small shelf for prep. Where the white cabinet that jutted out once was, Summer installed a stainless steel shelf with a white metal bar stool from Wayfair under the stainless steel ledge that’s perfectly functional for a quick snack or breakfast. A spare stool from IKEA in the corner by the window offers an extra seat for a guest so they can chat with Summer while she cooks.
Some of Summer’s other small kitchen go-tos? Her narrow-but-tall Simplehuman trashcan, an under-cabinet paper towel holder from Amazon, a minimalist dish rack from Hay, risers to create more storage inside her cabinets, and a plug-in under-cabinet light from Wayfair. Summer is a big fan of decanting when it comes to kitchen storage, and uses a combo of leftover kimchi jars and Container Store canisters for the job. “I think consistency in storage is the most effective use of space,” she says.
“The best part is, all of these things you can take with you when you leave, which is perfect for renters,” Summer adds. And speaking of renting, there were definitely some parts of the apartment kitchen that Summer had to learn to live with even in the “after” — namely, the shelf above the stove. “That would’ve been impossible to remove without causing a lot of damage to the wall so I accepted it, painted it with Farrow & Ball’s Railings, and now I love it!” Summer says. “It’s so useful to have an extra surface area for fruits, bread, and flower arrangements.”
“The kitchen counter I wanted to also replace, but I felt my budget was getting a little unwieldy, so it stayed,” she adds. “In retrospect, I should’ve just done it, but oh well — it’s functional and unfussy. At the time it seemed too expensive, and I thought, ‘I’ll just do it later if I want.’ But I can honestly say I’m just done on doing anything else to the apartment because of the upheaval it causes.”
All that said, “I would say maybe don’t do the extent of what I did to a rental,” Summer advises — unless you’re gifted with the perfect set of circumstances. In Summer’s case, she took on the project during the summer of 2020, when rent was low in NYC. After losing her job, renovating the kitchen became a project she could pour her energy (and time and dollars) into, but now, Summer’s advice would be to “save your money for a down payment on your own place!”
But renters, fear not: Even if you’re not taking on a floor-to-ceiling makeover like Summer, there are still smart lessons you can apply to your own home. “I would strongly recommend doing simple renter friendly things like replacing light fixtures, door handles, and using consistent wattage bulbs throughout,” Summer says. “That alone makes a huge difference.” She recommends asking your landlord for permission to change the paint color, too. “Before you move in, ask them if they will paint it what you want and that you’ll chip in if the paint costs more,” she says. “In my place, I used Farrow and Ball’s Wevet throughout, and it was worth it.”
And in Summer’s specific case, her landlord was so pleased with her remedies that he bought a new range to complete the place. (You might not always experience the same appreciation in your own place, so proceed with caution and always get major changes approved by your landlord first.)
All in all, Summer is pleased with the total transformation her kitchen has made. “Everyone who comes over comments on how they feel so calm and zen-like in the space, and it’s truly becomes an oasis and escape from the city,” she says. “That makes me really happy.”
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