Tip # 166: You don’t get what you don’t ask for.
Ask and ye shall receive (sort of), but more than that, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.
In even the best case scenarios, being a renter with any kind of investment in what your apartment looks like—or how it functions—requires some amount of delicate dancing around requests and improvements.
In general, it feels like there are three tiers of requests: the strictly necessary, the mostly necessary, and the not-quite-necessary-but-my-gosh-wouldn’t-it-be-great-for-me-but-also-for-you.
In the first category, the landlord typically responds swiftly. A leaky faucet or a rotting baseboard and accompanying exposed lead paint? Yes. We need to fix that. ASAP, or close enough. In the second category, the request is reasonable but the urgency might be lacking. A bathtub with peeling paint that floats around your feet as you shower? A tub that won’t drain? Sure. Sounds a little fussy, but we’ll fix it. The last category though, is the one that makes me squirm a bit. You don’t like your rusty bathroom mirror? You’d like permission to replace it? It’s anyone’s guess whether the landlord might be up for that kind of upgrade or ignore your request altogether. And the cost of that repair? That’s on you.
Asking permission to make mostly cosmetic changes is relatively new territory for me. I’ve said in a million ways that I usually take a slightly more reserved approach to improvements, but when our apartment was in the midst of being torn apart anyway, I decided it was now or never. I could ask our landlord for permission to make tiny bathroom improvements, or forever hold my peace.
And so I asked. And so they said go for it. Simple enough, it turns out.
We didn’t gut renovate the room. There was no hacking away at tile or installation of new plumbing. There’s still not a working fan or a window, but there is a replaced mirror, a fresh coat of paint, a new light, and, most mundanely miraculous of all, an electrical outlet.
The real win? A newfound love for our yellow bathroom. In a world with plenty to be glum about, wishing away cheery yellow bathroom tile, seems especially silly. I loved the challenge of taking something ostensibly less than perfect and breathing new life into it. In the process of stripping away the worst of the bathroom, I’ll admit I’ve come to kind of love what I thought I hated.
To be clear: these simple tweaks required a bit of investment. The mirror we chose wasn’t inexpensive and I ended up paying someone to help with the installation. But chosen from among a range of options including most cheaply constructed from fiberboard, I decided I couldn’t justify the short-term savings I’d get choosing something that I knew would have to be replaced again in another ten years. An extra $50 to add an outlet? Seems like a cost a landlord should front, but yes, let’s do it! I don’t own the bathroom and it’s unlikely that I’ll be the one enjoying the mirror or the outlet that far down the line, but I still couldn’t help feeling that making smart choices now would ultimately mean less wastefulness in the future, regardless of whether I would be the one to reap the longterm benefits.
Details for the curious:
+ We found this excellent Vintage Recessed Medicine Cabinet to replace our rusty, broken one. Our previous mirror had been wall-mounted but removing it revealed a cavern in the wall behind it, where at some point a different cabinet had been recessed into the wall. I did a lot of searching for a simple vintage replacement that I could restore and install in the existing hole myself, but I couldn’t find anything with dimensions that wouldn’t have required some extensive framing work to mount properly. This one ended up being exactly the right height for the existing space and it required some fairly straightforward patching to make it fit width-wise. The very best part is that it’s recessed into the wall. The bathroom feels a full foot bigger without a cabinet looming over the sink.
+ When we removed our previous medicine cabinet—a combination light and mirror—we also lost the only light in the bathroom. I wanted to replace it with something simple and in keeping with the existing bathroom design, so I chose the Alabax Small Sconce—the smallest version of the same light fixture from Schoolhouse Electric that we have in other places in our apartment.* It’s the perfect thing for this small space and I love the bright white ceramic. Note: I was ready to make the switch myself, but when we removed the mirror we found that the previous electrical was woefully out of date and lacked a proper junction box among other things. I decided to hire a local electrician to do the job safely for us. While he was there, we also had him install a combination outlet and switch. Modern conveniences abound.
+ Above our door, we hung a white Brake Angle Shelf, also from Schoolhouse Electric*. I’ll write more about the joys of the shelf in a separate post, but suffice to say it’s my current favorite tiny apartment storage solution.
+ Off to the side, and out of view in these shots, we also keep a white First Aid Kit for stashing actual medicine and band aids and other necessities. We bought ours a few years ago an in a bathroom without any other kind of storage to speak of, it’s been the perfect thing for keeping things neatly nearby but out of reach for the littlest among us.
+ For a long time I swore by clear plastic shower curtains for small bathroom spaces. Then I had a second kid and an apartment full of babysitters and visitors and I craved just a sliver of privacy. I bought this charcoal colored Canvas Curtain Panel when Silas was a newborn and I haven’t looked back.
What about you guys? Any renters out there who have made similar investments in temporary spaces?
*Schoolhouse Electric was kind enough to supply the new shelf and sconce for this project. This post isn’t sponsored by them, but they are offering a special one-day free shipping offer—today (6/12/28) only—for anyone who’s been eyeing something and is feeling ready to take the leap.
[NB. I’m working on a longer post about working safely in a historic apartment, especially as related to lead paint, but I wanted to clarify here that we weren’t living in the apartment when this work was done and that I did not personally remove the mirror. I asked the gentleman doing our lead paint abatement to remove it for me so that any lead dust would be cleaned as part of the general lead paint removal that we had going on in our apartment at the time. More soon! UPDATE: Here’s the lead paint primer!]