Tenants don’t give a shit about your property. Learn it, live it, love it.
While that’s not usually the case, it’s definitely the thought that runs through my mind when I’m undertaking any decorating/renovating projects in my rental properties in order to provide a practical living environment [for my tenants] and minimise maintenance costs.
Unfortunately, tenants are only but mere mortals. There are going to be times when they fail to remove their grubby shoes off their cheese and chive trotters before they enter their home. Similarly, they’re not always going to gag and strap their snotty, adolescent children to the boiler, preventing them from smothering the walls with their own feces. They call the consequences “wear & tear”, but it’s debatable, and I’m more inclined to call it landlord cancer. It definitely hurts.
These are incidents landlords should always consider, and consequently influence how they maintain their rental properties.
I’ve recently decorated/renovated a few properties in-between tenancies, and I’ve mainly focused on making them practical and durable. I believe that’s the key, focusing on durability. I don’t want to have to spend money on renovating between every tenancy; I want my properties to be long-lasting and endure the trials and tribulations of greasy tenants. At the very most, all I want to do between tenancies is touch-ups, and in most cases I believe that’s achievable if the pennies are spent wisely.
In one way or the other, buy-to-let properties take a beating, it’s the nature of the beast, and that’s why it’s important to decorate/renovate with that in mind. Like most novice landlords, I used to concentrate primarily on making properties aesthetically pleasing for as little as possible, but I quickly realised it’s a false economy, which no one benefits from. A healthy balance between aesthetics and durability is usually the best solution for both tenant and landlord, even if it initially costs a little extra.
Too many landlords pollute their properties with shiny cheap fittings and get possessed with keeping everything “light and airy”, while losing focus on the realities of buy-to-let and how people (especially tenants) live in the real world. Don’t be fooled by all the property transformation shows and the glossy good-living magazines, where the end product is of spacious rooms, with magnolia walls and carpets, and blooming flowers. It’s not real-living.
Obviously there’s a catch in all this. Making a property long-lasting isn’t the cheapest route, the initial investment will be bumped by the premium products required. But overtime, you’ll save a bundle, and there are of course, ways to save in other areas to make the final cost more bearable…
So here are my decorating/renovation tips for landlords:
Schedule your renovation
Time is money. The longer you spend renovating, the bigger the financial hit. Vacant properties won’t return sausages.
Make a realistic plan, and stick to it, but allow for contingencies. If you’re planning to redecorate in-between tenancies, start decorating the day after the tenants leave, and source all the tools and supplies well before the job. If you can start before the old tenants legally vacate/surrender with their permission, even better. You’ll know what needs doing during the final inventory inspection.
If you know you’re going to need outside help from professional labourers, it’s important to book their time in advance. If they’re any good, they’ll be in demand.
Unoccupied/Empty Property Insurance
Something to be wary of is that building insurance policies often become invalided if the insured property is unoccupied/empty for over 30 days (some policies allow for longer periods). If you’re going to be doing substantial renovation or maintenance work while the property is empty (which is common), then I recommend checking your policy to see how long your property can be empty for before your policy becomes invalid.
If your property will be unoccupied longer than your policy will currently cover you for, you should contact your insurer to notify them. You may need to purchase yourself some Unoccupied Rental Property Insurance so you’re still covered.
Apply for Council Tax Exemption
If the property will remain unfurnished and vacant during your renovation, contact your local council and apply for landlord council tax exemption. You may or may not succeed, but it’s worth shoving your rotten nose in their faces and enquiring.
Cashback credit cards
If you’ve ever thought about getting a cashback card but never quite had the cahoonas, there’s no better time to pull the trigger than before spending a considerable amount on renovating. You can get up to 5% back on all your purchases. More details on the MSE website.
I ignored cashback cards for a long time because I thought they came attached with small-print conditions that would later come back to chew my arse off. Turns out, as long as you clear your monthly balance, they’re actually legit (but still carefully read all the T&C’s). I opted for the Capital One card. Glad I did.
Use tiles where you can
Use tiles over paint/laminate where possible, especially in rooms that are moist and prone to mould, like bathrooms, utility rooms, and kitchens.
Tiles are much more durable, resistant to infestations and easier to maintain than paint. Dark tiles with a dark grouting is always a good choice (white/light grouting can quickly become grubby looking).
Mould is a common and often serious problem in properties, especially for landlords because it comes attached with potential health risks, and you don’t want to fight that legal battle. It can also slice through paint/plaster like a knife cutting through warm butter, which means it can be extremely expensive and difficult to remove/resolve, so it’s one of those cases where prevention is definitely the best cure.
I recently encountered my first experience with mould, which I fortunately managed to contain quickly, but it could have easily escalated out of control and been the cause of my post-traumatic stress disorder and my demise. Since then, I consciously take extra steps to avoid mould.
Avoid light paints and carpets
Getting caught in the “Magnolia” trap is an easy thing to do. Guilty!
Light colours provide the illusion of space and cleanliness, which of course is the perfect cocktail to entice prospective tenants. But the compelling illusion has an extremely short life-span, especially in BTL properties. A few months of practical living and the once-glowing shades of magnolia become gloomy and murky. It’s extremely difficult to keep light walls and carpets clean, and generally speaking, it’s work that most tenants won’t have any interest in participating in. Ultimately, applying a light colour palette is a sure-fire way to exhaust your funds on frequent coats of paints and replacement carpets. Avoid it.
I find that mid-toned browns and greys are most practical/durable. They don’t cast too much of a shadow (especially in rooms with access to natural lighting) and they’re neutral so they go with most other colours.
Spend a little extra on good quality flooring
Floors are the biggest victim of wear and tear in any property because they receive the most physical contact, and that’s why I always spend a little extra on thick and durable carpets that can withstand heavy treading and toxic carpet shampoos. Carpet retailers should be able to provide advice on which particular carpets are suitable for BTL properties. And, where I can, I use tiles on the floor (for reasons already explained).
With the combination of cheap and light carpets (e.g. £3.99 per m2) I used to have an extremely high carpet turnover. It was ridiculous and a total waste of money. Avoid. Spend a little extra on the heavy duty stuff.
There are mixed feelings towards laminate flooring. Some find them durable and long-lasting (which they can be), but they’re also prone to malfunctioning. For example, if they get wet/moist, they expand, and that can cause problems. This frequently happens in the winter due to the moisture in the air, but also, most people clean laminate flooring with a wet-mop, which is a recipe for disaster. However, I do think dark laminate flooring is a durable solution, because even if they expand, you don’t need to replace the entire lot (unlike with carpets), just the area which is in ruin.
Gap fill with mastic/filler
Don’t leave gaps unattended, especially around windows, sinks, baths, showers and cookers. Gaps can manifest into all sorts of unwanted problems.
Carefully and neatly apply mastic filler (assuming they’re not the size of my baggy butthole) to conceal gaps. Unwanted gaps can lead to leaks, mould, access routes for creepy crawlies, and breeding grounds for infestations. On a side note, you can get anti-mould mastic/filler, which is what I opt for.
Budget/Decorate for your target audience
I feel I need to cover two key points in this area:
1) If your property is going to realistically achieve £200 pcm, don’t spend £10,000 on redecorating because you’ll NEVER recoup your money in your lifetime, nor mine (I intend on outliving you). Budget with your audience in mind. If your property is achieving £200 per month, then you’re going to get £200 pcm tenants- they won’t be expecting much in terms of decor, and they definitely won’t be expecting high-end fittings. They’ll most likely expect 4 black walls, a urine-bucket, and some cockroaches.
2) If you’re trying to flog a 3-4 bedroom house, you should be targeting the family market. Decorate/renovate with your target audience in mind; consider what they will need/want as a family. Don’t try to please several demographics, you will fail by wasting time and money. However, sticking to a neutral theme will ensure maximum appeal.
Extended warranties & Insurance
When a cashier offers the extended warranty policy on a newly purchased product, it’s usually a patronising, “don’t be ridiculous, you’re wasting my time” moment. They get declined so often that you can tell they hate asking the question and a part of them dies when they utter the words, but with Big Brother watching, it’s clear they’re made to push the sale.
However, they can often be worth it, especially for landlords. Assuming that the price is right, I usually obtain the 3-5 year extended warranty when I purchase white goods for my BTL’s. I recently purchased a cooker for £320, and I think I paid £45 extra for a 5 year extended warranty. That warranty guarantees a product replacement service if any faults occur. Worth it.
So before you raise your eyebrows in disgust and snub away the offer, you may want to reconsider.
Keep all your receipts
Keep receipts for every purchase, even for a 99p pack of nails. Every penny spent on redecorating can be offset against your tax bill.
Don’t get personal with your taste
This is like the golden rule when it comes to decorating/renovating a rental property, but landlords seem to love breaking it. It reminds me of when people play Blackjack and hit on 14/15/16 when the dealer has a bust card. The decision is not even comprehensible, it’s just straight ghetto, but people still do it. In any case, go ahead, bust your shit up, see if I care.
Keep your shit together and remember that YOU will NOT be living in the property. Every “personal touch” you add to your property is a potential repellant to tenants. Try to keep everything neutral, so your tenants can apply their own touch. It’s a lot easier to transform a blank canvas into a home than converting someone else’s home, and tenants will consider that when viewing your property.
Avoid cheap bathroom fittings
It’s ok to cut costs in some areas when it comes to renovating a BTL property, but through years of experience, I’ve discovered that bathroom fittings is not one of them. Cheap and flimsy taps are definitely a false economy, especially when you consider the labour costs to get them fitted.
Good, solid taps should last forever, and they can be reused and refitted to most sinks.
Buy tiles & paint in excess
Buy a little extra when it comes to paint, tiles and laminate flooring, and store them in the property’s loft (if it has one). This will allow for easy touch-ups/replacements, and it becomes easier to purchase more of the exact same product. It’s amazing how many shades of the same colour there are, and to make it worse, every brand has its own unique tint. We live in a world where white is not always white. I always keep tins of paint in excess to avoid mismatching shades. I don’t even remember the name of the paint I applied to a wall last week, let alone when my tenants vacate in the forthcoming years.
Spend money where it needs to be spent
This lesson is usually learnt through personal experience, because most first-time landlords WILL spend as little as possible, no matter what anyone tells them. I know it’s extremely difficult to fight the urge (and many don’t), but I thought I’d waste my breath regardless…
There are certain areas where it doesn’t make practical sense to cut costs because you’ll end up spending more in the long-run. I’ve already mentioned a few, but here are the areas I usually spend a little extra on (i.e. don’t get the cheapest solution):
- Paint. I try to get specialised paint for specific areas e.g. anti-mould paint for bathrooms. Also, you’ll notice the difference in longevity when it comes to a brand name like Dulex and a retailer’s cheaper alternative brand.
- Door locks. It’s particularly important to change the barrel between tenancies, especially if the relationship ended badly
- Bathroom fittings
- If there’s any anti-mould alternative for a product, I usually opt for it
- Where appropriate, use tiles instead of paint
Call in the professionals when required
Don’t be stubborn and don’t be too cheap.
If a task is out of your skill-set and isn’t realistically acquirable, then get someone qualified in. It will usually work out cheaper than rectifying your badge-job anyways.
Quotes, quotes & quotes!
I can provide you with a dozen examples of when I’ve been massively over quoted for services. But I won’t. Just take my word for it. I think most of us have been there, anyways.
There have been instances I was being quoted almost double what other people would do the same work for.
Simply, always get shop around and multiple quotes for services and products, and not just settle with the cowboy that comes easily and/or first.
Avoid unnecessary furniture and fittings
A general rule of thumb of mine is to always go unfurnished. Furnished isn’t even an option for me. I know many landlords provide furniture, and there are some exceptions where it makes sense (e.g. holiday lets, student lets, HMOs etc), but mostly, forget it.
Furniture creates so much bullshit hassle (e.g. disputes over theft and damage), and the extra rent the furniture manages to drag in usually doesn’t compensate. This also includes unnecessary fittings, like shelves and decorative features. Bear in mind, extras like shelves alone won’t generate extra rent, so why provide them?
The blatantly obvious point to remember is that the more you provide with your property, the more you’re making yourself responsible for; the more reasons you’re creating to be called upon when something falls on its knees and crumbles into disrepair. Each item you provide is like a loaded gun.
Not convinced? Still tempted to go furnished? Fine! But before you make the biggest mistake of your stupid life, read my blog post on BTLs and Furniture.
Gas safe registered engineer
Any gas/plumbing work in a BTL property MUST be completed by a Gas Safe registered engineer. That’s not my futile, belligerent advice, it’s the law, unfortunately.
Well, there you have it. That’s the end of my incomplete list- I’m sure I could have expanded, but my fingers are starting to numb, and if history dictates anything, I’ll need the use of my fingers, hands and wrists for later tonight.
If you have any extra tips, please share! I’d especially love to hear any stories where your decorating/renovation inexperience has cost you…
Disclaimer: I'm just a landlord blogger; I'm 100% not qualified to give legal or financial advice. I'm a doofus. Any information I share is my unqualified opinion, and should never be construed as professional legal or financial advice. You should definitely get advice from a qualified professional for any legal or financial matters. For more information, please read my full disclaimer.