Goodbye paint and nails, hello fabric and artwork

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April 12, 2004 // UPDATED 1:12 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Katie Andersen
Katie Andersen

Rental redecorating dos and dont's

With the rise of decorating shows such as "Trading Spaces" and "Design on a Dime," viewers are increasingly taking interior decorating into their own hands. For renters, however, the rules of decorating are constrained by more than just time and budget limits, landlords will only allow aspiring do-it-yourselfers and budding interior designers to do certain things; painting is usually forbidden, as is changing fixtures or carpet. However, that doesn't mean you can't change the look of your rented home.

Diane Hansen, a co-owner of Copenhagen Properties -- which owns rental units in Loring Park, Stevens Square, Elliot Park and Lyndale neighborhoods -- recognizes tenants' desires to enhance and personalize their apartments.

"White walls can be boring," she said. "I completely understand why people want to change them."

In many cases, though, renters aren't allowed to change their apartments on their own. While the state hasn't passed any laws specifically outlining what a tenant can or cannot do to redecorate, according to "Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities," a handbook produced by the Minnesota Office of the Attorney General, "a tenant cannot alter the rental unit without the landlord's permission." "Alterations" typically include painting or papering walls, resurfacing floors, dismantling or installing permanent fixtures, and altering woodwork or carpet.

Copenhagen Properties generally uses the same lease for each unit, which mandates that tenants cannot paint or make any other major changes.

"The problem is, we can't just let anyone paint," Hansen said. "There are issues with [painting] skills, concerns with damage to the floors and woodwork and costs to clean up any mistakes."

In general, the "no changes" rule is final, but Hansen said Copenhagen is "starting to explore the possibility of being more flexible [with painting]. We could restrict paint colors to neutral colors that are easy to cover or increase the security deposit to cover the cost of painting it back." However, Hansen added, "No [tenants] really want to bother, though."

Sometimes eager tenants can negotiate redecorating terms with their landlord -- once in awhile an owner will even offer to pay for supplies if a tenant will do the painting or other work for free. Even when a landlord seems amenable, Hansen strongly urged renters to get permission or redecorating arrangements in writing, and to hold on to a copy of it.

Yet, even in cases where an agreement has been reached, things can get complicated ("What do you mean I wasn't supposed to paint the woodwork? You said I could paint.") Hansen said it's usually best for everyone if renters stick to more superficial alterations, many of which can have dramatic results.

Beat the white wall blues

Instead of painting, Hansen suggests other options to dress up a neutral-colored apartment.

"Some people use decorative fabrics, and that makes a pretty dramatic statement," she said. "We had one tenant who was really into art and decorating. He draped really bold, colorful fabric all over the walls and ceiling. It was really beautiful."

Robin Strangis, an interior designer with Loring Interiors, 275 Market St., Ste. 215, said color is key to improving a dull apartment, even if you can't put it directly on the walls.

"Use colorful rugs over your carpet," she advised. "They add style and can help establish a color scheme without painting the walls. Then, use the colors in the rugs as accents in pillows."

Strangis also suggested using artwork to achieve a dramatic effect.

"Fill large walls with art, or with black and white photos in similar frames," she said. "Your art can help add color."

Hansen also recommended using artwork to cover neutral-colored walls, although she cautioned against leaving large holes behind.

"We let people hang things and put holes in the walls," she said. "We recommend that they use small nails, though, so that there aren't huge holes to patch up when they leave."

Hansen also cautioned against tenants patching up any nail holes themselves. When tenants do not know what they are doing, it can cause bigger problems that end up being more expensive in the long run, she said. She also noted that while rumors abound about toothpaste being used as spackle, it probably isn't the best option.

"We don't know exactly what people fill holes with if they do it themselves," she said. "If there is no problem, then I guess it's fine, but it would probably only work with small holes."

Think big

For rooms where the problem is not a lack of color, but a lack of architecture and structure, Strangis offered another suggestion.

"A large item of furniture, like an armoire, can add focus and create an architectural element for a room that may be lacking in any interesting architecture," she said.

In small rooms, Strangis encouraged tenants to explore the "big" picture.

"Don't be afraid to have a few large, bold accessories, even if the rooms are small," she said. "A large piece of pottery on a pedestal can fill a boring corner. Chunky candlesticks can make a cocktail table more interesting."

Strangis' final advice is to use light to make a decorative statement.

"Lighting can add dimension and depth," she explained. "Use candle light when entertaining and add accent lighting and small up-lights in the corners for dramatic effects at night."

For more information on rules governing what tenants are able to do alter rental units, consult the "Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities" handbook online at, or contact your landlord.