Learn to effectively and efficiently
renovate units between tenancies
for post-COVID-19 renters.
As a rental property owner, you want to get more value from your properties by attracting higher rents and retaining good tenants. One way to achieve both goals is by renovating to create a more functional, attractive, and enjoyable place to live. In addition to higher rents and lower turnover, you can expect some or all of the cost of a renovation to be recovered in the added resale value.
The Kitchen: Consider what upgrades will get you the best value for your time and financial investment. Focus on aspects of the home that provide obvious value to tenants. A renter is less likely to focus on infrastructure, such as electrical and plumbing systems, so long as they work. Kitchens and bathrooms are the spaces people focus on when evaluating a potential home.
Renters want kitchens that are bright, clean, open, and functional. Ample cabinet storage and countertop work space, together with appliances, are the core of the kitchen. Think carefully before considering layout changes. If the location of the appliances work, don’t relocate them. Relocating appliances, or moving outlets and light fixtures, can trigger expensive electrical upgrades to meet current code requirements. Adding or reconfiguring cabinets and countertops and replacing outdated fixtures, while keeping appliances in the same location, is an effective and efficient way to upgrade a kitchen without electrical upgrades.
When should you consider kitchen layout changes? People do want a functional working triangle between the sink, cooktop, and refrigerator. If the kitchen does not have a functional working triangle, and moving one or two appliances can create one, consider the cost/benefit tradeoff. Moving appliances is likely to make more sense in a high-end property than in a low-end property, where the increase in rent might not match the added cost. When moving appliances, you’ll likely require some electrical upgrades, which means adding outlets and new circuits to get up to code. However, if you are moving appliances, consider adding lighting, since you are already upgrading electrical systems.
The Bathroom: In the bathroom, layout changes are even less likely to make sense than in the kitchen. The three main plumbing fixtures are the toilet, shower, and vanity. Avoid moving the toilet if you can, especially more than six inches (the toilet drain line is expensive to move). Unless it would vastly improve the layout, relocating the tub or shower is unlikely to return a lot of value. Moving the vanity, particularly along the same wall, is less likely to create problems. If you can fit a bigger vanity with more storage and countertop space, it might be worth it. Similarly, you should avoid moving light fixtures or outlets unless you’re looking for a bigger project, as these moves may trigger expensive electrical upgrades.
Instead, consider new finishes and fixtures, which go a long way toward making the space attractive. Focus on replacing the floor tile, replacing the vanity, redoing the shower, and upgrading accessories like lights and towel bars. An upgraded shower, new flooring and fixtures, and a fresh coat of paint make a bathroom look and feel new. Keeping the design bright and simple makes the bathroom feel luxurious.
A note on showers: It’s becoming common to convert tub/showers into standing showers. Most adults prefer a standing shower and do not take baths. A standing shower is also more attractive and feels luxurious. However, there are two important considerations. First, if you would like to attract young families, they will want at least one bath for children. Second, a standing shower requires more space than a tub/shower. Most tubs are 30 inches wide. The minimum width for a shower, including curb, is 35 inches. Make sure you have the extra five to six inches needed before converting.
A final point to consider is consistency. Many rental properties look piecemeal. Some areas might have been upgraded while others appear neglected. Prospective renters will assume a unit that feels consistent and fresh has been well maintained and cared for. For consistency, consider some easy wins. Replace light switches and outlet covers throughout the unit. Replace light fixtures using more contemporary options, but without relocating them (that’s more expensive). Make sure door handles, vanity pulls, and cabinet pulls are the same color. These changes should all be possible without changes to the electrical, plumbing, or mechanical infrastructure.
Pick designs and materials that have broad appeal and avoid short-term trends. Skylight’s Design Studio recommends bright, neutral colors like whites and grays for rental and resale value. We recommend simple patterns and clean lines. Durability is an important consideration because renters create more wear and tear. You want your renovation to last.
Project Materials Recommendations:
Countertops: Invest in quartz because its attractive, durable, budget friendly, and easy to maintain.
Stainless steel: Stainless steel is still the most popular choice for appliances.
Tiles: Use full-bodied porcelain on floors and walls because they are the best mix of durability, attractiveness, and value. Rectangular tiles are easiest to install.
Tile size: Tiles between 3” x 3” and 24” x 24” are preferable. Note, tiles are laid one by one, so the smaller the tile, the larger the job. Tiles bigger than 24 inches might require the floor or wall to be leveled, and the tiles become heavy and harder to handle. We prefer to work with tiles that are either 3” x 6” or 12” x 24” because they are neat, timeless, and easy to install.
Vanities: Bathroom vanities should be prefabricated instead of custom, unless your rental is a luxury unit.
Hardware finishes: Stainless steel and chrome are the most enduring choices. Bronze and oilrubbed bronze are popular today, but that trend might change before you’re ready to renovate again.
Finding a Contractor
I want to emphasize the importance of setting a project up for success from day one. To determine the right scope and budget for a project, get bids from two to three contractors. Have a solid idea about what you want before you speak to contractors, which will result in bids that are easier to compare. No two bids are apples-to-apples. You will always need to do some work to understand the differences.
Work should begin after you have a contractor and bid you’re comfortable with, a detailed scope of work and budget, and a signed contract. Starting without an agreement or with a vague scope of work often leads to major cost overruns and delays. It’s not unlikely for renovation costs to increase by 50% during construction (sometimes they even double!). The best chance you have at avoiding surprises is by picking the right contractor and having a detailed agreement. This is critical. If you can find a contractor to prepare a detailed scope of work and also guarantee the budget, like Skylight, that is your best bet.
Optimize Your Timeline:
Start planning as early as possible. Ideally, by the time a unit becomes vacant, everything will be lined up and ready to go. Waiting until a unit is vacant to start contacting contractors will bring pressure to rush through the process.
Keeping floor plans and many photos of a unit will enable you to get quotes without disturbing current tenants. Consider apps like Canvas or Magic Plan.
Stick with materials that are in stock to ensure a quick start and overall process. Avoid moving plumbing and electrical fixtures to avoid possible costly delays due to unforeseen conditions in the property.
For optimal renovation results, pick upgrades with the best return, stick to enduring design trends, have a firm scope of work, and plan ahead.
Josh Levitan is cofounder of Skylight. Skylight is a technology-driven general contractor providing turn-key renovations—including design, sourcing, and construction—across the Bay Area. If you have any questions about your renovation needs, you can reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org.