Friday, May 18, 2012

Renovating your rental

So, the day has come that you are the proud owner of a rental property…or perhaps you are still looking forward to that day. Whether you inherited a property, built a new home and the old one is now going up for rent, or you bought (or added on) something specifically to rent out, you are about to embark upon a new phase in your life: you are going to be a landlord.

One of the things few people think about when embarking upon landlordhood is preparing a property to be lived in by renters. Oh, you can just take the money and give them the keys and let the debris fall where it may, but if you want to be a landlord and have the least difficulty with the actual property, you may want to consider some strategic renovations before you stick that “For Rent” sign in the front lawn.

First of all, expect that your tenants will damage anything that can be damaged. It’s not that all renters are wantonly destructive (some are but most are not), it’s just that people tend not to take care of your property the way you would. Part of it is the wrong-headed notion that landlords are rich (you own more than one house, right? You must be rich, then!), but another part of it is simply that people just don’t care—it’s not theirs, it doesn’t matter. This attitude is the cause of ruined carpets, broken drapery rods, bent blinds, burnt counter tops, damaged floors, and a host of other problems you will know nothing about until your tenants move out. And all too often, the damage not only exceeds the security/cleaning deposit they paid, you end up losing subsequent rental income because you cannot rent it out the way they left it and you can’t wave a magic wand and have it in pristine condition overnight, either.

If you can possibly afford it—or if a tenant has thoroughly trashed your rental unit and you pretty much have to renovate from the ground up—here are some practical renovation ideas you might want to consider before you place that first ad.

The kitchen is called the “heart of the home”—it is also one of the most likely places for your tenants to cause damage. I recently renovated a 3 bedroom flat and the kitchen was so badly damaged I had to strip it to the bare walls and start from scratch. Here are some lessons I learned:

Countertops: no Formica/Melamine countertops. One hot pot placed on the counter top and you have a blister—the blister will break and cause a hole. Water will get into the hole and swell the substrate…which will then mildew and smell, as well as provide a handy breeding place for nasty little bugs. Formed surfaces like Corian and natural surfaces like granite are hard-wearing but not impervious to the inventive kinds of damage tenants can inflict, and shockingly expensive to replace. What to use? Ceramic tiles with a dark grout. Use the same tiles for the counter top and backsplash and keep extra tiles and grout (in an air-tight container). Tiles won’t burn or scorch but, like natural surfaces, they can be cracked or broken. Fortunately, however, a broken tile doesn’t require the replacement of an entire counter top—just replace and regrout from the spares you have kept aside.

Floors: fatuous manufacturer’s claims to the contrary, laminate floors are a bad idea in the kitchen (anywhere, actually), especially in a rental. I had a laminate floor in a room in a house I used to live in…somebody dropped something heavy on it—the corner of a piece of furniture…and it dented the floor. No big deal? Well, that’s what I thought until I mopped it. The dent actually broke the surface seal and water got into it, and it swelled up. I still didn’t think it was a big deal until I tried to replace the damaged panel—not an easy task. Vinyl flooring is a popular choice in the US, but vinyl floor tiles will come up at the corners and sheet vinyl can be torn, burnt, and the surface scraped by pushing something heavy over it…like a refrigerator (you don’t need to ask me how I know this). Again, the best floor for tenants is ceramic tile, for the same reason it is a good idea on the counter tops: a light coloured tile will make the room look large, light, airy, and clean—dark grout will not show accumulated dirt and stains from spills. And a single broken or chipped tile can be replaced much more easily and cheaply than any other flooring choice. Use a larger tile than those on the counter top and backsplash, make sure they are tiles made for floors (not wall tiles—those are too thin) and that they are safe when wet…and keep an extra box or two for replacements.

Cupboards: if the existing cupboards are in good condition, then spray them for bugs (do this after every tenant moves out while they are empty) and paint them inside and out with a washable enamel paint. Additionally, it is a good idea to cover all of the shelves with a sticky-backed vinyl, otherwise you may be looking at some serious clean up time when your tenants vacate. It is amazing the kinds of sticky messes you will find on those cupboard shelves!

If the cupboards are not in good condition, replace them with real wood carcasses if at all possible. It may cost a bit more in the in the beginning but in the long run, they save you money. Pressboard carcasses need only one sink overflow or burst pipe or liquid spill to swell up and subsequently crumble. Don’t ask me how many of those I have had to replace due to water damage—I have lost count. Before you install new cupboards, spray them with a sealant on all surfaces to help kept them water resistant.

Resist the urge for trendy: install plain cupboard doors with simple, inexpensive, easily sourced knobs and pulls. If your tenants lose or break a knob or handle, you don’t want to have to replace them all because the cutesy ones on the rest of the cupboards are no longer available. And make sure your hinges are sturdy and affixed with stout screws. You don’t even want to know the kinds of things tenants can do to cupboard doors!

Do not remove cupboards without a good reason. “It’s the fashion” is not a good reason. No kitchen ever has enough storage space, so don’t make it any less. If there is an expanse of counter space, like a breakfast bar, that has no cupboards above, consider adding some suspended from the ceiling. Abundant storage space appeals to people and you want to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of people in order to have the best choice of tenants.

A good reason to remove a lower cupboard is to install a bank of drawers. Few kitchens have enough drawers. If the kitchen has fewer than eight drawers, consider adding more.

Walls and ceiling: no wall paper…it peels, it is hard to clean, it stains. If there is wallpaper, steam it off and paint the walls with a washable enamel paint. Use a light neutral colour on walls, ceilings, and woodwork, including doors. If your tenants want to repaint, refuse permission: tell them they can use colourful curtains and accessories but leave the paint alone because you have kept extra cans of paint for touch ups (and you have, haven’t you?).

Fixtures: keep lighting fixtures simple: no fancy chandeliers or dangling pendants—simple ceiling fixtures that give good light and aren’t so pretty your tenants will be tempted to steal them. Remove under-cupboard task lighting if possible—the more stuff you leave to damage, the more that will be damaged.

Avoid ceramic sinks if possible: the porcelain can crack and chip away from dropping pots and such into the sink. A thick stainless steel sink can better withstand the kind of abuse tenants tend to give. And avoid the trendy taps and clever single handle faucets, too. A simple tap with two twist-type handles is the simplest (and therefore cheapest) to repair.

Appliances: provide as few as you can get away with and only built-in items that are difficult to steal. (I once rented out a furnished unit and within six weeks the tenant had stolen and sold everything that was literally not nailed down including the refrigerator and the kitchen stove!) You may be required to provide certain minimums, so check your local laws, but if you are permitted to rent out a house with no kitchen appliances, do so. Otherwise, go for built-ins like a counter-top mounted cooking surface and built-in oven. Again, don’t go for trendy: the simpler the appliance, the fewer gadgets like timers and probes and electronic clocks, the more difficult to break and easier (read that “cheaper”) to repair. Avoid ceramic and glass-topped cooking surfaces as they are easy to scratch and crack and difficult to repair. Better a simple top with plug-in coils or a gas top with sealed burners.

While it is unlikely that you will provide a refrigerator for your tenants, when you renovate, leave room for any size fridge in the kitchen—you have no idea how large a fridge a prospective tenant might have and you certainly don’t want to lose a good one over fridge space! So, don’t box in the area for the fridge, leave it open and leave plenty of room.

If the kitchen has a garbage disposal, you may want to consider removing it. Not only can it be dangerous in the hands of a tenant’s children, your tenant may not be too careful what s/he puts down it, giving you headaches and plumber’s bills. Same thing with a dishwasher: remove it and put in that bank of drawers or a cupboard door and tell the prospective tenant it is a cupboard for the trash bin. If you feel you absolutely must provide a dishwasher, buy the cheapest one you can find with the least amount of features…you will probably have to repair (or replace) it frequently. Definitely do not provide a microwave oven. If the kitchen has one built in, remove it and make the space into storage.

Ceramic tiles are the only floor treatments to consider—seal the floor before setting the tiles to waterproof the floor, then seal the grout, especially at the baseboards/skirting boards, once the tiles are installed.

If the bathroom has only a tub, consider adding a shower as it makes the place more “rentable.” Most men prefer a shower rather than a tub bath. But do it right—spend the money to have a plumber open the wall and install a proper shower and don’t add a hand-held shower head. Don’t give the tenant anything to break or pull loose (I had a tenant rip the hose completely out of the wall, making a huge mess and necessitating an expensive repair). Avoid shower doors if you can—one more thing to break or for you to have to laboriously clean when the tenants leave. Shower curtains are cheap and you can expect your tenant to provide his own.

Check the tub—if it is fibreglass, consider replacing it with a porcelain-finished cast iron tub. I had to replace a fibreglass tub last year because it had a hole in the bottom—a split at least eight inches (20 cm) long. Then I had to spend a small fortune repairing the bathroom in the flat downstairs (which I do not own) because of the water damage caused by my tenants continuing to use the tub with a hole in the bottom!

Tiles around the shower/tub should be the same ones you used in the kitchen counter and backsplash so you don’t need to keep a lot of different spares on hand. If the sink is mounted on a cabinet, tile the top of it to prevent scorch marks from curling or flat irons and cigarettes (it is not enough to say your unit is non-smoking—I have had to completely repaint an entire 120 sqm non-smoking flat to be rid of the nicotine stains and stale cigarette smoke smell, and I had to strip, sand and paint a beautiful natural wood bathroom cabinet that was ruined with cigarette burns).

If the sink is a wall-hung model, replace it with something supported from the bottom. A cabinet-type sink base is best. People lean—even sit!—on sinks. A pedestal-style sink is not as secure as it looks (often the pedestal is not supporting the sink, it merely hides the pipes). And provide an over-sink mirror that is the door to a built-in medicine cabinet: those are harder to steal or break than something just hung on the wall.

Make sure the toilet is in good working order and that the valve behind the toilet (for controlling water flow) is not stuck or corroded shut. If you don’t already have one, a low-flow toilet will reduce the water consumption and therefore your bill. Be particularly certain that the toilet is secure on the floor and that there are no water leaks that can cause costly floor damage.

Provide a locking door knob or handle. Don’t cheap out here by putting in a sliding bolt or chain or hook and loop lock—those are easily forced and they take out your door jamb, too. Install simple, bright lights in the bathroom, preferably over the sink so the tenant has enough light for shaving/make up/hair styling. And stay away from wall paper: if it is already installed, remove it and paint with the same enamel paint as used in the kitchen.

In general:

Window treatments: It might be tempting to put in cute curtains, but the smart money is on putting up a sturdy wood pole to hang curtains from and leaving the decorating to the tenants. Metal rods and brackets are easily torn from the walls, pull-type drapery rods are easily damaged. Vertical blinds and even custom metal or wood blinds all fall prey to the carelessness of a tenant. Solid wood poles mounted with long solid screws (or molly bolts, if you have hollow walls) above every window will last the longest.

Floors: high traffic areas like entries, hallways, back doors/mudrooms all benefit from ceramic tile with sealed grout. They are the easiest to clean and least likely to show wear. Wood floors, if finished with polyurethane, also hold up well. Carpet is a bad idea but if you must install it, choose a dirt-friendly colour to hide the inevitable stains and invest in a really, really good vacuum because you will need it when the tenants leave.

Walls, ceilings, woodwork: wallpaper is to be avoided. Washable matte finish paint in a neutral colour on the walls, white on the ceilings, white gloss enamel on painted woodwork, polyurethane on natural wood. Keep paint in sealed cans (lay a sheet of plastic wrap over the surface of the paint to prevent it from drying out) for touchups later.

Locks: make sure all windows and doors have fully functioning locks. You don't want too get sued by your own tenants when a burglar comes through an unlockable window and someone gets hurt. Keep a complete set of keys for every lock in the house, including any padlocks (like for the garage door) that you supply. If there are remotes, keep one for yourself. If there is an emergency—or if the tenants lose their keys or move without returning the keys—you will need a set.

None of these renovations will prevent a tenant from damaging your property, but they will cut down on repairs and the dead time (your rental will be empty and not generating income) while you are doing the repairs. Best of luck in the landlord business!

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