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!]
Funny, just yesterday I was staring at my plastic (gasp) shower curtain and wondering if you have a good non-plastic option. Ask and you shall receive. Your bathroom looks wonderful Erin!
Thanks so much, Kim! We do still use our plastic liner with our canvas curtain, just FYI. Maybe not strictly necessary, but with two splashing kids and no bathroom fan, it feels like a smart move. But! It’s the same one we’ve had since 2013—we just throw it in the washer every so often.
Thanks for clarifying. I’ve never thought of washing the liner. Will try!
Erin, speaking of shower liners and small spaces – does your liner bluster around you wildly while you shower, and if so have you found a fix? I’ve seen some magnets meant to weigh down the liner but wanted to seek your wisdom on the matter.
Doesn’t happen to us!
We’ve had a fabric-only shower curtain for close to 10 years now with no problems (actually two – one was the cheapest IKEA version and the other a much pricier one. Both functioned exactly the same). Water seems to get trough enough for the exterior of the curtain to feel wet to touch, but I have never experienced water actually getting trough (i.e. splashing out of the shower).
I have the same! I love to have only a fabric one. I’m not a fan of plastic at all.
I have a fabric shower curtain from H&M Home but not sure if it’s still in their collection.
Lovey. It’s amazing how those small tweaks make the whole room feel classsic!
A few years ago, I lived in a quaint, character-filled space — I had to light the oven and stove with a lighter, the ceiling was sort of falling in, and the only door was on the bathroom, even though the living and bedroom spaces were separate. In its paint, stucco walls, and general atmosphere, it felt tuscan — reds, yellows, creams. It was probably unsafe (the mice lived under the sink and we had an agreement — I didn’t enter their space, and they didn’t enter mine), and it hadn’t been updated in at least 50 years, probably more. I made no improvements, but basked in the sub-$1000 rent for as long as possible.
My next apartment was owned by the same family and just generally lacked thought — every wall in the bedroom and living room was painted a different color (every single wall), the kitchen was a mix of dark purples and blacks, the lighting made the whole space feel sad and dreary. Before we moved in, we were able to overlap our lease with the previous apartment and take some time to do a little work. We painted every wall and ceiling — walls got a grey so light that it was almost-but-not-quite white. Kitchen also got fresh, clean open shelving (ripped down the black, patchwork shelves) and a patched crack in the wall. Bathroom got a new medicine cabinet, wall patching. The work took a few weeks for us DIYers, but the resulting space was so, so dreamy and the repairs relatively minor. Afterward, the curtains seemed to float in the breeze, the walls reflected the softest, sweetest light, and we spent many weekend mornings (pre-baby) reading in bed in this relaxing space.
Then a year later, we decided to move to a new city. Hopefully the new tenant enjoys our changes!
I’m renting an older apartment and don’t have a bathroom fan either. Curious what you do to keep the bathroom well ventilated!
Nothing really to do but try to keep the door open while we shower!
On my wish list for the next place we live in is a bathroom fan for sure. Our bathroom is so prone to mold around one of the windows ( cant open it our neighbors would see us) as well as the other window but less so because that one can open without privacy issues (but then you can hear everyone else discussions and smell cigarettes yuck). I’m so vulnerable to allergies and sinus infections it is ridiculous. That fan is mighty high on the dream list!!!
Oh, to have a window! Maybe you could open the window but use a little tension rod to hang a simple curtain? No one sees you bathing, but the place gets a chance to air out a bit more?
We are also bathroomfan-less, and during the damper months we get a little mold on the window sill. This fall I tried putting tea tree essential oil on the mold-prone areas before closing the windows for the year, and it worked! No mold build-up until spring! (when I just reapplied the oil). I basically just used a tiny kid’s paint brush to put a coat oil EO on the sill, and done!
Awesome! Might try painting some on the corners of our bathroom too!
My partner lived in Chelsea for twenty+ years and his bathroom was outfitted with that same yellow and black tile. Fast forward to 2012 when we were looking to buy. We walked into what is now our apartment in the East Village and loved the open layout, huge windows and pre-war details. And then we saw the bathroom, and, you guessed it: an entire room of yellow and black tile!
I am not going to lie, I have had many (MANY) fantasies about an all white space, but until a pile o’ money drops on me, it’s bumblebee for now.
Ha, same! With these updates though, I’m not feeling so bad about it. (Only real gripe is that the kitchen was renovated in a totally different style so the whole apartment still feels mismatched.)
I love the yellow and black tile, actually. We have a white bathroom up here in the heights (recently but poorly renovated). The white is fine and bright and neutral, but my mom once lived out in ridgewood with a pink and black tiled bathroom from the 20s, and that is the dream. I’m dying to know what our walls once looked like under all these layers of paint.
Natural rubber bath mat for me makes the bathroom a better experience. Could not explain why. We did take the liberty of hanging our own towel hooks and a toiletries holder, which has made everything less cluttered. Every little personal touch is so heartening, especially when you plan to rent the same place until you win the lottery (so, basically forever).
Ha! Yes. Have come to love it, too. Made infinitely more lovely after stripping away that cabinet!
I had the pink and black tile years ago, in my apartment in Astoria! Pink toilet, tub, the works. Lots of friends suggested I do a kind of “Parisian” theme – pink and black and white – but even with a fresh coat of white paint (on the upper portion of the wall, above the tile) and bright white towels, it never quite pulled together. I decided that the pink was just the wrong shade for “Parisian” and that it was really more of a “midcentury Floridian” pink , so I got a bright green little palm plant and that did it – the kelly green (and palm-tree vibe) worked kitchily with the Pepto pink, and the black and white let both colors pop. I’m very much a “neutral colors” kind of person and I normally don’t want any colors “popping” anywhere, so I can’t say that “Art Deco kitsch” was my first choice for a bathroom style, but I have fond memories of that bathroom, kind of like the way that sometimes, caregiving causes you to love someone rather than vice versa (ie the way that sometimes, you love a person because you take care of them, rather than you take care of them because you love them).
Now, after a work-necessitated move to an area where the housing market is dominated by what I call “developer’s specials,” I have the blandest beige bathroom you’ve ever seen, with a ridiculous two beige sinks (why!?), a beige shower, AND a beige-tile-surrounded soaking tub, all sprawled across a vast expanse of beige tile floor. The extra space is nice, but I miss my little Art Deco Kitsch bathroom. I suppose it’s always easier to appreciate these things in retrospect. I love the reminder to “pre-retrospectively” appreciate these little details of daily life!
Ha! “I normally don’t want any colors ‘popping’ anywhere” might be my favorite reader comment. x!
I’m an advocate for investing in rentals even though that goes against more traditional financial advice, especially in really expensive real estate markets. We split the cost to replace carpet with laminate flooring with our landlords in 2015. We wanted a baby and our carpet was so disgusting I’d have been horrified to have anyone tiny crawling around on it. My in laws rolled their eyes “because you don’t know how long you’ll be there.” Now the kid is 2 and with child care+CA real estate prices we’ll need to add the second baby in this little place before we have enough of a down payment to look for our own home. The cost was not small but less than one month’s rent and honestly a drop in the bucket compared with how big the down payment needs to be – and it’s made our whole house imminently more livable. The light and recessed mirror look great! Like you I’m a neutrals person myself but I like your yellow tile 😉
I also have the exact same yellow and black tile in my apartment, although somewhere in its history the cute floor tile was lost to some very questionable linoleum (greener grass, etc.) other than that, same poorly ventilated, peels bathroom. Question about how you navigate the built in soap holder (we have the same black black wall-mounted soap dish/ambiguous round thing holders): how do you keep it from being constantly covered in soap scum/drowning the bar of soap, since it doesn’t drain?
People ask me this so often, but we don’t have a big problem with it! I guess the only thing we do that might help is I always cut the bar of soap into four pieces, so we use just one small square at a time. I think the smaller soap size really cuts down on the scum/gloopiness!
Such a great change-out. Often the seeming smallest adjustments can make such a huge difference – if only for a fresh point of view in a familiar space. And I always appreciate your approach with making decisions with regard to longevity and waste! Would love to see that at the forefront of more people’s minds.
I adore this bathroom. Where do you keep your towels? (I’m sure this is addressed in another post.) We have an over-the-toilet set of shelves that work, but aren’t ideal, as evidenced by the fact that the towel stack recently took a tumble into the (open, of course) toilet. Nooooooooooo.
We hang ours on the back of our bathroom doors from hooks we put right into the door!
Sometimes even if you know you’re just renting, it’s worth it to front a bit of money for your own wellbeing. We live in a free-standing house, which is amazing—but it’s also only 220 sq ft. When we moved in, buying new light fixtures was non-negotiable for us. The existing ones were terrible by anyone’s standards, so I found some relatively inexpensive hanging bulbs to go over our couch and a couple black metal sconces with high-efficiency Edison bulbs for our dining area (Schoolhouse Electric was the inspiration but unfortunately not in the budget, so I did some serious internet digging and eventually got both from Amazon). We compromised on the kitchen light by just spray painting the metal piece white so it blends in with the ceiling a bit more. I work from home, so I spend a ton of time in this space and good light is super important to me. I know we won’t get to take the lights with us when we leave, but I don’t really mind the thought of “gifting” them to whatever future renters end up living here.
Also we moved in around the time you did your shower curtain post. Someone mentioned a white Tyvek shower curtain instead of plastic to prevent mildew. We got one for $35 and LOVE it for our tiny space. It lets tons of light from the window in, stays clean and has a lovely, papery feel. I always love your posts, and love browsing the comments too. What a rare and lovely comment community there is here. <3
I believe I commented on that original post about the Tyvek option. So glad you found it useful!!
We moved from a micro-sized 2 bedroom to a tiny 2 bedroom about a month ago. The bathroom is (of course) also small and we have (for the first time and instead of my beloved cotton shower curtain) shower doors- ack! It has been quite the adjustment but I think we might just remove them and deal with it when/if we move. Aside from that, we installed hooks for towels and super simple over the door hooks for our robes. We still need a solution for the soap dish (there is no room under the mirrored cabinet, so we may replace it and move it up to make space. I love your blog and all of your tiny space tips – thank you for sharing. This space is a treasure.
I saw on Instagram stories that you ripped out the old mirror and put in this new one. I know you just moved out of your place temporarily due to lead paint so I just wanted to mention that you should make sure that the wall you just ripped open didn’t have a layer of lead paint as well. We did the exact same thing and found out after the fact that the wall in fact did have a layer and we Miatakenly exposed our kids to lead dust and had to have the whole place cleaned. Another thing to be VERY careful of is asbestos in these old homes. Most people do not know that asbestos used to be used in the wall and ceiling compounds. We also discovered this after opening our walls. After going down a paranoid rabbit hole of research and testing, we decided to move out of our pre-war apt as it was just too risky with having young children. So many people in NYC don’t understand the dangers lurking in the walls of their “charming homes!” My dear friend in carrol gardens had a leak in her ceiling and in turn exposed her 4 kids to asbestos and lead and there was a horrible lawsuit involved. So perhaps look into it for the sake of your kids!
Hey there: yes should have said that’s specifically why we did this work while we weren’t living in the apartment. We had the gentleman who did the lead abatement take down the mirror during the course of the work so the dust would be cleaned at the same time as part of the lead clean up. The whole apartment was swabbed for lead dust afterward. We’ve been fastidious!
I always find it baffling how different the renters world works in the US compared to Germany (where I live). There has never been a light fixture or mirror in any flat I rented. (Also, you usually have to pay for minor repairs until 100€ yourself, with a yearly cap.)
I have however lived with way more horrible bathrooms, grew up in a bathroom which was similar in layout to yours, but the tiles where dark brown (on walls and floor) and like most times here, the tiles extended to the ceiling.
Now, in Leipzig, landlords almost always choose a faux marble tile which basically looks beige and like it’s always dirty. So I am glad you finally embraced you yellow tiles, I have (slightly enviously) admiring your bathroom style whenever we got a glimpse of it 😉
Also that mirror really was the perfect choice for the space!
So fascinating! Is there electricity? Do you install the fixtures yourself? So many questions!
You install everything yourself (lamps, mirrors, shower curtains, kitchens) or hire someone if you don’t feel capable, but pay for it yourself.
There is a rule in Berlin that kitchens are supposed to have a stove and a sink (but that actually does not mean there are cabinets) sometimes there is already a kitchen your landlord put in that you have to use, more often than that you buy the one the previous owner put in from them or buy/bring your own.
This might sound like a lot of work, but in return you can do what you want as long as you want (with historical buildings I was once not supposed to paint the molding or doors – why would I? – but it was more of a verbal agreement, not even in the lease). 54% of Germans rent – this is why it is comparatively friendly to renters (though sadly the market sadly is not immune to rising rents either).
Here in Ecuador, most apartments come with bare bulbs and without kitchen appliances (stove, fridge) as well! I usually change all the lightbulbs over to warm florescents as soon as we move in and then just try not to look at them. I’m actually grateful for the boob-shaped ceiling fixtures our current place has in the living/dining room area!
However everywhere we’ve lived has had some kind of permanent mirror installed, as well as built-in closets in every bedroom (sometimes on multiple walls). That took some getting used to!
Your tile is in the same style (prob same era) as my parents’ bathroom tile. Theirs is sea foam green and black, with the same soap holders etc. Neighbor’s bathroom is pink and black. I personally love it and I think you’ve now brought out its best.
Yes! The apartment we were temporarily in had the same tile but in pink! Growing up, my grandparents had the same in a slightly more mustard shade in one bathroom and avocado green in another! This has been such a lovely exercise in bringing out the beauty of an old-timey space.
I also have a yellow and black tiled bathroom!! I actually love the yellow but ours also has a yellow and black tile floor in a shade of yellow that clashes awkwardly with the color of the wall tiles. Just after moving in we purchased a black rubber floor mat, about 1/4 in thick, similar to gym flooring, cut it to size, and installed it over the ugly floor tile. Haven’t looked back. It’s incredible. Looks nice, easy to clean, and warmer on bare feet!
Investing where we live, rented or owned, is investing in life! And paradoxally I’ve found that the smallest changes (opposed to dramatic expensive ones) end up being the better ones and the most effective.
Love this! I think many people overlook the potential that older apartments / homes have. With just a little bit of effort, “sad” spaces can be turned into something really special.
“You don’t get what you don’t ask for” (or, the answer to every question you don’t ask is no) has been my lesson/mantra of the year. After A LOT of hesitation, we asked our landlord if he’d consider putting up a fence for our yard and he said no problem, and I only wish I’d worked up the nerve to ask a year ago. (Very unrelated in subject matter, I also pushed myself out of my comfort zone and asked our HR Director to re-evaluate our parental leave policy and they responded by DOUBLING the number of weeks we’re allotted. I’m still stunned that a simple request (one I mulled over for months and months) resulted in such a huge change. Consider the lesson learned!)
So glad about your fence, but AMAZING about the parental leave. I think about this so often and wish so much it was something that more women and men in the workplace asked about.
Lovely post, beautiful old/new bathroom, awesome comments!
I have a blue and black tiled bathroom! And even though we own our house , we have only updated the lighting fixtures, replaced the shower head, painted the interior of the recessed mirror and added a fresh coat of white to the top half of the walls. Everyone asked us when we were going to renovate it and we get the surprised look when we say we’re not. We love the old charm of it and we save a ton of money leaving it as is. Love your cheery yellow bathroom!
I can relate to your yellow bathroom woes (even though I think yours is cute!). Our rental has a pink/black/mirrored art deco bathroom extravaganza (there is a hand-painted flamingo mural in our black shower…). The shower curtain, towels, and mats are all WHITE for a reprieve.
My #1 mini-reno tip for all renters is to replace every outlet cover/light switch with a fresh white one when you move in. Super cheap and feels so fresh.
Wow!! the yellow and black tile combination turned out really well. It is amazing that small changes can bring out so much difference. You are so creative. Can you suggest some more DIY decor ideas for bathroom?
Hi Erin! Thank you for always being so kind and answering all my inquiries 🙂 Curious what finish your mirror is in? Thanks so much for your time!
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