My DIY NYC Rental Kitchen Makeover–No Paint, No Reno

DIY Rental Kitchen Makeover in NYC

I never thought there was anything “wrong” or “ugly” about our kitchen. But as I scrolled through countless aspirational home makeovers where everything was gut-renovated, styled by a fancy designer, and set free by limitless budgets, I felt both inspired and left out:

What about the renters?

The brand-new custom cabinets I saw were close to impossible to achieve in a space I don’t own. I’m all about seeking forgiveness from my landlord instead of asking permission, but I wondered if there were small DIY ideas I could do without worrying if I’d ever see my security deposit again.

Since last summer, I took on the challenge of casually making over our rental kitchen in my free time–no paint, zero renovations, and not one e-mail heads-up to our landlord. I wanted to see: are home makeovers really all or nothing, or can you achieve real results with affordable, temporary changes?

While I don’t expect anyone to run to Home Depot after reading this post, no matter what is going on in the world, I still think it’s important to dream about possibilities and encourage creativity. And some of these ideas you can consider without even leaving the house.

Without further ado, my New York City kitchen makeover!

The Before: No Personality

Here is what our kitchen looked like before. (And before I knew how to take better pictures, ugh.) As I mentioned, I think it was perfectly fine, and we’d hardly complain if we left it this way. But observe The Bad: 

First up, the “Golden Biscuit” cabinetry. As I researched how other people handled these, I learned that the home-reno community uniformly advises to throw them in the trash. There are multiple offenses: the yellow-orange hue, the builder-quality “wood,” and worst of all, the arch shape that screams the 80s called and want their cabinets back.

Then there was the boring, mismatched color palette. The stove was white, the dishwasher black, the range hood cream, the countertops a grey-speckled laminate. Like lots of rentals where design is an afterthought, the color palette had no cohesion or style.

But even with its shortcomings, we still had solid bones to start with. Like the north-facing windows with a steady stream of natural light–that’s 100% a luxury I do not take for granted.

The vintage-y square shape of the tiles was an unusual and charming feature I wanted to highlight.

And lastly, we are blessed with a decent amount of counter space and plenty of cabinets, so we wouldn’t need to worry about building extra storage and adding carts.

The After: Warm and Colorful

While it’s not the poster child for “luxury,” overall it now feels so much brighter and full of personality. Before, I never paid much attention to our kitchen, but now I genuinely appreciate it! Including a new toaster, I spent $479.24 total.

For easy comparison, the Before and After again:

I’m not sure that showing off what I did is super helpful, since everyone’s starting off with completely different kitchen problems. So next I’ll share the ideas, influences and general principles I followed that I hope are useful considerations when attempting your own makeover.

My Makeover Philosophy

I could have gone in so many directions with this makeover. Here are some of the core ideas that influenced my choices:

Lean Into What We’ve Got.
I am a strong proponent of using what you already have, and building out ideas from there. To take stock of what we have, I snapped pictures of the existing colors in the kitchen to see if I could come up with an overarching “concept”.

Hey, if most of the kitchen is brown, why not make everything brown? That way it looks like you at least had a vision and made those choices on purpose.

Our apartment is also well-worn with historic character that I want to respect. So if the kitchen already has a vintage look, I’d rather lean into that retro feel than force-fit it into a modern kitchen it will never be.

As for kitchen accessories, I saw we already had a blue oven mitt, blue Dutch oven, blue dish towels, so if I went to buy a new accessory, I’d keep that existing color palette in mind.

Infuse Personality and Reflect Our Lives.
The homes that I’m most drawn to all have one thing in common: they reflect the people who live there.

So when it comes to decor, I’d look for homemade items, thrift finds, and objects that have meaning to us.

And while I’d love a brand-new sparkling white kitchen, I’m also practical to who we are. My husband’s always in the kitchen cooking something up for the family. It gets messy no matter what, so open shelving and wool rugs were out of the question. My choices would have been a lot different if our kitchen was rarely used.

Unify the Randomness.
When you live in a rental, you’re most likely dealing with a mishmash of less-than-thoughtful design choices from different eras, cheap installations, and a non-existent color palette. The challenge is to create cohesion and make even the unappealing details look like you confidently chose them. So instead of adding more colors and textures I like, I’d be choice-ful on how they’d complement what’s already there.

Focus on Natural Materials.
To me, luxury isn’t about the colors or finishings or prints. It’s about thinking first and foremost about nicer materials. That meant I’d be looking to primarily use wood, ceramics, stone, metals and other textures based in nature.

The Inspiration

Right away I knew I didn’t want to paint the cabinets. First of all, I was feeling far too lazy to even attempt that project with 15 cabinets. But I also love the warmth of wood tones, even if the “wood” isn’t the best quality. 

Since I’m not a designer, I hopped online to borrow some ideas. Few people keep their wood cabinets as-is, so I had to go down some deep rabbit holes, but eventually found some solid inspiration sources.

First up, Le Corbusier’s Cabanon with his wood tones and teal green accents:

And then this New York Magazine kitchen I was heavily influenced by. Actually, the entire home is my dream home!

What I Changed

Here’s what I did, step by step. Note: I took pictures at various stages, so sometimes the styling or objects look different.

*Affiliate links below*

1. Cleaned and Decluttered = $0

First things first, GET RID OF THE CHEEZ-IT BOX.

No thought as to how the objects relate to one another.
Clutter on the counter that didn’t need to be there, like a cup of pencils, a change jar, cooking spray, a box of cat food.
The range hood was dangling by a single screw.

I pared down exactly what had a practical home on the counter, then found storage space for everything else. I busted out the drill and fixed the range hood. Then I spent a night cleaning the cabinets with a little dish soap and water to bring out their original luster.

2. Created a Mini Art Gallery = $6.99

To add a thoughtful, personal feel, my favorite hack was taking off one of the cabinet doors to display my stepchild’s pottery. I wanted a clear acrylic shelf to add more gallery space inside the shelf, but I saw they cost over $20, so settled for a shelf from T.J. Maxx.

3. Maximized the Space Above the Cabinets = $72.93

To draw the eye up, cover the awkward empty space, and distract from the cabinets, I added IKEA baskets in a similar tone, as well as a plant by the window to frame the open shelving. Bonus: the baskets double as storage for some of the items that used to live on the counter.

IKEA Fladis Basket, $9.99 each
IKEA Gradvis Planter, $5.99
Ivy Plant, $16.99
(I later killed this, though…)

4. Changed the Backsplash Tile Color = $158.36

Before: The beige tiles with the criss-cross pattern made the kitchen feel outdated and drab.

After: Oh boy, finding a tile option in the right teal color was a process, but I lucked out with these tile stickers from Etsy. They come in multiple sizes, they were matte (I was adamant about a non-glossy finish), and the color had a depth that I hadn’t seen in most sticker tiles.

When I got the stickers, my first impression was that I probably could have printed them myself, but they were much easier to install than I thought–it took less than an hour to do 65 tiles. I’m not sure if I did a bad job cleaning the original tiles beforehand, but after living with the stickers for months, some of the sticker corners are peeling. But I also didn’t set the glue by heating them with a blowdryer. So, expect this temporary solution to actually be temporary. Although for me, the overall brightening effect they have far outweighs the peeling.

I do wish the tiles weren’t so expensive. To save money, I e-mailed the seller and asked to revise the order and price for the exact number of tiles I needed, but I miscounted and now there’s one mismatching tile. Oops.

Bleucoin Plain Solid Tile Stickers, $158.36

5. “Shopped the House” and Curated the Accessories = $158.17

The original countertop accessories were an afterthought, which made the kitchen look cluttered and unloved. For the makeover, I played off existing objects we had, like the pottery and silver espresso pot, and prioritized natural materials.

Crate & Barrel ceramic canisters, $69.99
Crate & Barrel wood canister, $24.96

Crate & Barrel Cuisinart Toaster, $49.95
Metallic outlet switch plates, $5.58
. I got mine from my local hardware store, but CB2 and Rejuvenation both have good options on sale.

When choosing accessories, think about the mood you want to convey. For this post, I grouped the elements as examples below, so you can see their overall effect.

Wood accessories add warmth. All-white kitchens can feel too cold and sterile. A few wood accents can make rooms feel cozier.

Ceramics and stones in muted colors make spaces feel more down-to-earth. And this material is a natural fit for playing with textures.

If your kitchen feels heavy or has excellent natural light, glass is great for reflecting light and creating an airier feel.

The shapes of the espresso pot, pewter pitcher and toaster all contribute to a charming retro feel, but the silver finish throws off some high-end shine.

As finishing touches, to make the kitchen feel well-loved, I found objects around the house and repurposed them as kitchen accessories: a pewter pitcher I got from a thrift store for $15, and a ceramic vase from my husband’s grandmother. You can never go wrong by mixing in vintage pieces.

6. Replaced the Cabinet Hardware = $81.30

This was probably the most time-consuming project with the least ROI, but I very much disliked the original handles in place, and wanted an affordable solution for a simple, seamless look. I wanted the handles to look more mid-century than 1980s, so I went all wood, with a natural stain finish.

Handles and knobs, $65.02
Natural stain, $6.79
Polyurethane, $9.49

7. Covered the Dishwasher Panel = $1.49

I was at the dollar store buying cleaning supplies, when I saw a display of vinyl rolls in different wood prints. For $1.49, why not?

While it’s not a 100% perfect wood-tone match, the dishwasher now blends in a little bit better with the rest of the finishings.

More Renter-Friendly DIY Kitchen Ideas

There are endless ways to update a rental kitchen, but not all of the ideas were a fit for my specific kitchen, so I’ve rounded up my favorite bonus ideas I collected along the way. And the cool thing about temporary updates is how easily you can swap them out if you change your mind.

Bonus Idea #1: Plywood Panels as a Backsplash

If I didn’t already install the sticker tiles, I would have attempted an all-plywood backsplash, because I prefer natural materials any day of the week. I was curious about how to temporarily hang panels on top of the existing tiles, so I tested it out!

I bought one plywood panel for $5.29, and a pack of velcro strips that hold up to five pounds.

Because I don’t have a saw, I bought the thinnest plywood I could, which was 1/8th of an inch. Then I swiped on an existing natural stain to give it some subtle color.

I hung up one panel with the velcro, took a photo, then poorly Photoshopped the entire backsplash area to test the concept.

Note: Be careful about placing panels too close to a heat source (ie. stove!). I applied a polyurethane coating as an extra measure.

The velcro holding up my test has performed with no issues so far, and the velcro tape backing comes off the tile cleanly.

I estimated I’d need 15 panels to cover the tile, so the total cost would be around $80, which is affordable and looks more custom.

Bonus Idea #2: Paint the Cabinets a Warm Charcoal Grey

If you have more time than money, and your landlord approves, painting can be one move that makes the highest impact. For my kitchen, I think warm grey cabinets to pick up the colors in the countertops would have looked nice, too.

Bonus Idea #3: Metal Sheets as a Backsplash

If you have a plain wall instead of a backsplash, I think you have more options to work with. If we didn’t have tile in place already, I would have considered nailing metal sheets directly onto the walls. And if fully covering the walls gets too expensive, you can always just do the area behind the stove.

Bonus Idea #4: Metallic Spray Paints to Unify Finishes

My mind was blown when I discovered there are metallic spray paints that convincingly fake the look of stainless steel. Two spray-paint opportunities for me would have been the range hood and also the dishwasher panel.

Bonus Idea #5: Peel-and-Stick Backsplashes

There are endless amounts of peel-and-stick options, and I’ve rounded up my favorites.

If you want to stick with the Golden Biscuit cabinets, a blue backsplash can make them look less yellow.

As a wallpaper option, pink terrazzo is a fun trend you can get in on for a short while.

There are even peel-and-stick backsplashes made of metal or glass, like this marble-esque option.

If you have white or pale grey countertops and can paint the walls, this red sticker tile could be a strong look.

This graphic pattern can add interest to all-white kitchens, while still keeping the color scheme minimal.

Bonus Idea #6: Re-Purpose Contact Paper

If you’re going to use contact paper for the counters, why not extend it up to the wall as a backsplash for a more uniform look? You can even add caulk to the joint line to make it look more realistic. For marble contact paper, I’d recommend a matte version.

Bonus Idea #7: Snap-In Floor Tiles

If I were really ambitious, I could have updated the floor, too, with either vinyl sticker tiles or snap-in planks that look like real wood.

Bonus Idea #8: Updating Grout Lines

To change the look and feel of existing tiles, for less than $20 you can try painting the grout a different color.

Hope you all enjoyed following along, as I had so much fun doing this creative exercise! I’m excited to tackle my bedroom and closet next!

I’d love to know–now that most of us are spending lots of time inside, are you appreciating your home a lot more, and have you caught the home improvement bug? What are some of your favorite rental-friendly ways to update a kitchen?

Feature Image: The Luxe Strategist

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