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Designing a Rental vs. Our Own Home (Is There a Difference?)

Over the course of the garden apartment renovation, you all have been so encouraging, and for that, we can’t thank you enough! We’ve been soaking in your feedback and listening to your questions, and a reoccurring theme seems to center around our design decisions in this soon-to-be rental versus our own homeIs there a difference?, you’ve asked. We’ve also heard from several of you that own income properties or hope to soon, and you’ve told us from both sides of the fence how you may choose finishes a bit differently – or, maybe, exactly the same.

For most, the point of owning a rental is to make income, so we could see how less spendy upgrades are more attractive to landlords with multiple properties. When we purchased this house more than 4 years ago, we didn’t seek out a multi-family building, but there were so many other things working for it – the price, the right amount of renovation and, most importantly, the location. So while we’ve embraced becoming accidental landlords (because, yes, we still own our little condo!), the decisions we’ve made throughout the garden renovation still impact us more than, say, if we were just snatching up properties around the city to make a profit. While this won’t be our home, it’s still our house. We live here, too.

When it came to the renovations, we needed to be smart. We’re far from absentee landlords (in fact, we pride ourselves on the fact that we respond to our tenants the same day, if not within the hour), and simply put, durability for the long haul was an important factor in every decision we made – for us and them. Before our former tenants moved out, we asked them – besides obvious cosmetic fixes – what they would change. What could be better? We took their notes to heart, and we were mindful in our decisions, spending more where it mattered and pulling back where we could.

So! What made us choose some things and not others? Would we go back and do anything differently? We weighed the pros and cons of 3 things that we might’ve (sort of) done differently in our home, versus 3 things we would do in any home – ours or otherwise. Let’s dig in!

3 things we would have done differently in our home:

Thing #1: The laundry room. We closed off an opening to the utility room (opting instead for a pocket door in a this newly added mudroom), moved the water hook-up down and to the left, swapped the ceiling fixture for a wall sconce and properly re-routed the ventilation to the outside. Aside from that, we installed beadboard to conceal a foundation issue that was corrected years ago, gave everything a fresh coat of paint and added storage!

We were working with a teeny, tiny room and existing in-wall plumbing, but had this been in our own home, we would have considered a larger plumbing reconfiguration. Maybe there was a way we could have added the stacked washer/dryer to the concrete wall? (But then we would have lost a window and valuable storage space.) In a barely 4′ x 6′ space, we did our best to make it functional and sweet, but a lot more money could have had us moving the walls around a bit more. Maybe. See the full laundry room reveal right here.

cabinet | door pulls | jars | mirror | shelf | planter | sconce

Thing #2: Butcher block countertops. We enjoy how butcher block only gets better with age, even using the material ourselves in our own kitchen renovation! That said, in our own home, we used butcher block as an accent countertop and lined the perimeter of our kitchen with strong quartzite. Because we only needed two inexpensive runs of butcher block to get this job done, it felt silly to splurge on a pricier stone, where we would have likely needed to purchase an entire slab (and only use less than half of it and spend even more on the fabrication). However, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t a teensy bit nervous about the abuse it may receive from renters. Although we sealed it with five coats of Waterlox, it’s still going to be a bit of a gamble. In a year (or two), we’ll see if it needs some love, but the good news is that it’s a countertop that can be sanded down and re-sealed.

butcher block | cabinets | finger pulls | tile | utensil holder (similar) | marble slab | cutting board (similar)

Thing #3: The bathtub. This is another if money were no object decision. The tub in the garden was rusted and stained, and the design detailing on the exposed side was far from our favorite. To replace the tub completely would have been a much larger job – which would have included ripping out the tile, installing new drywall and, more than likely, replacing the plumbing. Because a new bathtub was purely a cosmetic wish, we instead chose to have it reglazed, a decision that we don’t regret for a second! But. If it were in our home, well, we’d probably be saving our pennies to swap it out once and for all.

As you can see, the 3 things we would have done differently were mostly a result on where chose to save, rather than splurge. We’re more than happy with our choices, and we also don’t feel that our decisions lessened the overall outcome of the apartment! Next, moving on to the …

3 things we did (and would do again) to a rental and our home:

Thing #1: Wood-look tile floors. We hit the books hard on this topic. Demolishing the existing floors in the entire unit and adding new was no small task, and we knew we wanted an option that would last (and last and last). We considered everything from luxury vinyl to ceramic and porcelain, but after interviewing a few contractors and reading through every last article that Google churned up, we landed on these porcelain wood-look floor tiles. They immediately brought a warmth to the unit that was lacking (remember this?!), and if we allow it, they’ll more than likely outlive us! Read all about our tile adventure right here.

Thing #2: Finishes. Before deciding on gray cabinets, brass hardware and marble accents throughout, I had a moment of hesitation. You guys know that these are things we prefer in our home, but would our future tenants like it, too? Solid brass hardware will get a patina with time, a look we personally love. Marble can etch and get dull with use, but again, we live for that character! I actually had a whole Amazon cart of less expensive brass-painted hardware, but I just knew we’d be replacing them in a couple of years when their coating begins to chip. Would some of our splurge-worthy choices be worth it in the end? Scott said it best when he told me, that’s the kind of renter we’re looking for. Someone who loves the brass – and the marble and the ORB! – as much as we do.

sconce | hardware 6-8″ | finger pulls

Thing #3: IKEA cabinetry/vanity. This was our first IKEA kitchen install, and countless times throughout the process, Scott and I looked at each other and said, can we re-do our kitchen in IKEA cabinets? They’re well made and soft-close hinges are a standard, and although we do love our cabinets, well, we might love these more. One thousand percent, we’d do it again – bathroom vanity included! (After all, you’ve seen that we also chose an IKEA vanity in our master bath!)

There are still a few more full room reveals to share – the bathroom! the kitchen! – but for anyone who chimed in with these questions throughout the renovation, we hope this provided a bit of clarity. And for other landlords out there, please chime in with your own tips and decision making processes. We’d love to hear!

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  • Ryan8.9.17 - 5:55 AM

    This is a really great post. The spend vs save balance is a tricky one that I have struggled with in both my main house and backyard casita. I keep reminding myself to not over-improve my house. While I have no intention of selling anytime soon, I want to make sure I get at least a 100% return on each improvement I make when it comes time.

    On another note: have y’all ever thought about using the garden apartment as a short-term rental instead of having a permanent tenant down there? You always talk about your great neighborhood, so I’m sure you’d have no problem keeping it occupied. There’s more income potential in an STR that would help you recoup your reno investment faster and hosting is actually really fun! Just curious…

    Can’t wait to see the full reveal!ReplyCancel

    • Kim8.9.17 - 9:03 AM

      Hi, Ryan! Well, that’s the second most asked question about the garden, ha! We thought about it for a hot second, but in the end (and with so many other things on our plates), we would rather rent it for a year long lease than need to worry about the cleaning and maintenance as people come and go. We LOVE that idea, but just not on our personal property where we also live – for now, anyway! Things could always change, but we’ve been happy with the rental situation for as long as we’ve lived here. :)ReplyCancel

  • Paige Flamm8.9.17 - 8:04 AM

    My husband and I are on the brink of another cross country move and are fighting this battle right now! I love the freedom that home ownership gives you to do what you want to your space, but love the financial freedom renting gives you when everything goes wrong in your house and someone else has to pay for it.


    • Kim8.9.17 - 9:04 AM

      There are a lot of factors to weigh, for sure, and buying isn’t always the right choice. Good luck on your move and all the decisions you’ll have on your plate!ReplyCancel

    • Jane8.10.17 - 7:17 AM

      Paige, I hear you! My family has rented the same house for 7 years. People think we are nuts but the real estate is out of our reach in our little DC suburb town. Because we love the town, love our rental, and love our landlord we have preferred renting. Our landlord has spent a lot on cosmetic improvements and more significant fixes (new furnace, etc) and we are always so glad to have a smaller set monthly rent and no surprises in finances. To make up for renting and having no equity, we invest more.ReplyCancel

  • JoniB8.9.17 - 10:22 AM

    So how come we never get any shots of the bedroom? I am assuming there is at least one in the apartment. While it might not be the most exciting room in the place it would be nice to see the whole apartment configuration.

    • Kim8.9.17 - 11:20 AM

      We’ll definitely be sharing those (there are 2!) when we film our final vlog. They’re literally a blank box with a closet. More to come!ReplyCancel

  • Melissa A MacGregor8.9.17 - 10:48 AM

    We are going through this debate as well! We’re in the midst of a long distance renovation of our condo in Florida. We ultimately decided on LVT plank floors because they are a little more forgiving and we have downstairs neighbors. The LVT allows us to put an insulating layer down to cut down on noise (we hope!), and installation is quicker and cheaper. I also did a lot of research and talking to our contractor. We are reflooring the entire 1000 square feet for the same price of carpet in 2 bedrooms! We are going to seriously consider an Ikea kitchen when our reno time comes (hopefully a few years from now!). Might have to go spend a week down there to get installed. Poor me!ReplyCancel

    • Kim8.9.17 - 11:00 AM

      Those are such great points about the LVP. We were thisclose to going with LVP (had debated some pretty options at Lumber Liquidators!), as it had so many things going for it – sound reduction, a bit warmer on the toes and installation costs. In the end, we just couldn’t shake the idea of renters moving their furniture in and out and scuffing up the LVP in the first year! I think if this was our OWN living space, it would have been a tough decision, since furniture would stay in place. All good things to consider!

      I’ll be thinking of you while you vacation – er, renovate – in Florida, ha!ReplyCancel

  • Vanessa8.9.17 - 11:45 AM

    We have two rentals in Oregon (yay!) and one thing that made it easier/better I think, is that they were both our homes, not just rentals. They have all of my paint colors, rose bushes and projects from when we lived there and those choices made sense for us as a young family. We lived in one for three years and the other for seven so we aren’t unfamiliar with their quirks and limitations. Some choices are great and add to the value, some were “of the moment” trends that seem weird 10 years later. I think your floor choice will go out of fashion long before it stops being useful but there is nothing worse than having a beautiful new wood floor getting damaged by people dropping furniture on it. It’s not like they can even help it – moving is hard. The tile is a perfect choice in my eye.

    I do feel differently about the two houses, and expect to sell the ranch in a few years but the old farmhouse is where I hope to spend my old age. Having renters is the perfect way to keep ownership while I move around.ReplyCancel

    • Kim8.9.17 - 11:55 AM

      I love this, and you make another good point – the things that will come in and out of home fashion. Many of these decisions will likely feel dated down the road, but our hope is that some of the choices are neutral/classic enough to not feel so obvious. The wood-look tile is one that we wonder about though! It’s very ‘of the moment,’ yet still feels so traditional/classic, too.ReplyCancel

  • Jen8.9.17 - 8:52 PM

    I think I’ve already said this on another thread, but it bears repeating. As someone who has been renting my entire life, I want to say THANK YOU for putting so much thought and love into this renovation. I want to cry sometimes at the cheap and ugly “fixes” many landlords make. Yes, I understand it’s an investment and landlords want to make money, not spend it. But that rental unit is also going to be someone’s home. I believe that if you invest in creating a good base, you’ll attract the type of renters who will take care of the property. If you offer a mishmash of the cheapest stuff you can possibly get away with, this sets the tone and shows that you don’t care much for the property; your tenants will likely follow suit. Also, thank you for not doing short-term rentals with this unit. I know it’s a great opportunity, you can make more money, etc. But STRs are contributing to worsening housing shortages and escalating prices in many cities by taking units of the long-term rental market. They’re literally contributing to the displacement crisis in a lot of places. I hope you get the best-ever tenants who appreciate the work and love you’ve put into their home!ReplyCancel

    • Lindseh8.10.17 - 7:31 AM

      Agree on short-term rentals. I’ve stayed in a couple before I realized how bad for communities they are. While the convenience of a bigger space and a kitchen was great (although we never use the kitchen for more than the fridge), I’m committed to not staying in them in cities anymore because of the reasons you listed. (I’ll still stay in them at the beach, which is a different animal.)ReplyCancel

      • Kim8.10.17 - 9:20 AM

        Those are all great points! We love hearing from all sides.

        And Lindseh, agree with you on beach rentals or vacation towns, but yes, right now, a STR isn’t in the cards for us.ReplyCancel

  • Jane8.10.17 - 7:19 AM

    You guys are great landlords! I think the butcher block kooks good even with wear and tear, so it seems like a good choice. Plus, Waterlox is pretty tough stuff.

    This was a great post to read and think about. I have had landlords that don’t think things through and you end up with awkward or hard to maintain situations.ReplyCancel

    • Kim8.10.17 - 9:21 AM

      So true. Why make the cheap choice when we literally live right upstairs? It will be harder on us to deal with issues when things break bad than to just do it right the first time around. At least, that’s our hope.ReplyCancel

  • Lindseh8.10.17 - 7:33 AM

    Our area had a major, 1,000-year flood last year and thousands of home flooded. All of my friends who have had to redo their homes opted for wood-look tile and I love it! It may be a current trend, but I think it has some staying power because it really does look like wood. And it’s SO MUCH better than 12″x12″ white squares with dark grout (the worst!).ReplyCancel

    • Kim8.10.17 - 9:20 AM

      We are SO happy they’re gone forever! HOORAY!ReplyCancel

  • cheyenne8.11.17 - 8:15 PM

    I have oak butcher block countertops in my rental (my House actually, but being rented for the next 5-ish yrs until I return). I may not have made the decision to use wood counters (among other decisions) if I had expected to be renting the place, but so it is. I sealed them with oil only (many coats) and they seem pretty tough up against water, etc. The only thing that is a problem is leaving metal sitting in water (specifically non-stainless stuff). I made a few major marks right off the bat with a copper-bottomed pot, a cookie tray, etc. I ended up doing a refinishing job on them and it was a pain, but not as big as I had expected (the black oxidation marks sanded out easily and weren’t super deep). The freshly sanded spots, once re-oiled, were lighter than the original wood but evened back out after a while. My verdict: the awesome of wood counters outweighs the PITA of keeping them ‘nice.’ By a long shot :) If you used a special water-barrier sort of sealant, you may not have this issue at all.ReplyCancel

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We’re Kim + Scott, Chicago based content creators behind the Home + Lifestyle brand Yellow Brick Home.

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