Is it Legal for Renters to Make Home Improvements?

Posted April 17, 2013 in Landlord & Tenant by

A couple with tools and paint brushes


Tenants often think about making improvements to the property they are renting, especially if they like the location and the landlord, and plan to stay for a long time. This article deals with tenant improvements above and beyond the landlord’s requirement to keep a unit safely habitable.

Don’t do anything to improve your rental property until you’ve read your lease or rental contract and have discussed the improvements with your landlord.

Your lease or rental agreement probably contains a detailed repair/modification/alteration clause prohibiting alterations or improvements. Some of these clauses are so strict that they forbid the tenant from painting the walls or even using nails to hang pictures or shelves.


Get Permission

Even minor work can result in major consequences if you don’t get permission first. Landlords are ultimately responsible for making sure any work done on their property adheres to real estate regulations, building codes, zoning ordinances or other rules governing construction and habitability.

They don’t take kindly to “random acts of improvement.”

Without landlord permission, you probably won’t be reimbursed. You could be forced to restore the property to its “pre-improvement” condition, at your expense. You could lose the rights to property you buy that becomes part of the improvement. You could lose some or all of your security deposit to correct or remove the work. You could be evicted.


Removable Improvements Are Safer than Fixtures

These improvements could include major appliances like refrigerators, ranges, washers and dryers that plug in, screw in or otherwise require simple wiring or attachments to connect to an electrical or water source.

A tenant can often change simple fixtures in the home. Updating cabinet hardware, light fixtures and switch plates, electrical outlet plates and bathroom fixtures is a simple way to update the home. Be sure to keep the original items, however, and replace them with no damage before you move out.


Permanent Fixtures

A fixture is personal property owned by the tenant, but made a permanent part of the rental property so that removal would be impossible or impractical upon termination of the lease or rental agreement. It increases the value of the property. Adding a new shower stall, track lighting, built-in bookcases or new windows, remodeling a kitchen or refinishing or carpeting floors are examples of installing permanent fixtures.

Once you permanently nail, screw, cement or otherwise attach something to the property, the item legally becomes a “fixture” that belongs to the property owner.


Negotiate for Improvements

You can try to negotiate with the property owner for permanent home improvements that will remain after your lease expires. The landlord may even agree to pay for some or all of the work, or reduce the rent to cover your cost. Never rely on an oral agreement. Always get it in writing.

A detailed contract itemizing the work to be performed and signed by the tenant and the landlord helps prevent misunderstandings. Without an agreement, a landlord is not automatically responsible for reimbursing a tenant for tenant-initiated improvements.

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