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The renter's guide to renovating your apartment

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For so many of us, renovating a home with our own touches of paint or a fancy new light fixture can make a space much more livable. But what if you rent and are bound by a lease? Well, one DIY interior designer in Washington, D.C., says set that security deposit free into the universe. Imani Keal joins us now to tell us how to take that risk. Welcome to the show.

IMANI KEAL: Hi. How are you?

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RASCOE: I'm good. Let's start off with what led to your own renovation journey.

KEAL: Yeah. So I started renovating my studio apartment back in the pandemic days. I lost both of my restaurant jobs, and my hours got cut at my full-time job. And I went from being a person who was almost never at home to being a person who was always at home. Sitting in - around and looking at my apartment, I started to feel like the walls were closing in on me, so I started taking walks, and the only place that was open around the time was Ace Hardware. I would be in Ace Hardware, like, 2 to 3 times a day, just trying to make my apartment look good since that's where I had to be all of the time now.

RASCOE: And your motto is actually, my security deposit is with God (laughter).

KEAL: My security deposit is with God. I have unburdened myself in thinking about it because almost anything can be fixed. If you put up a picture and there's a little hole in the wall, OK, you put some spackle on it. If you put up some peel-and-stick wallpaper and it takes a little bit of the paint off, OK, you paint right over it because 9 times out of 10, your landlord is going to come behind you, and during the turnover process, they're going to paint the room anyway.

RASCOE: Well, that's a good point. So what type of decorations, renovations are you talking about? Is it the stick-and-peel wallpaper? Is it putting up pictures? You're not knocking down walls.

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KEAL: I think for the average, everyday renter, yeah, you probably are going to be sticking with things like adding some art to the walls, maybe with picture hooks, maybe doing a little bit of painting. I think at the heart of it, what renters really need to understand is that there's no such thing as my landlord wouldn't let me do that until you ask. A lot of people work off the assumptions that just because they don't own something, that means that it's impossible. But if I'm going to pay these very expensive D.C. rents, I'm going to enjoy living in this place, and it will be cute because I'm cute. I can't live in an ugly home just because I don't own it. That's crazy.

RASCOE: You know, buying a home is so expensive these days, and it is a far-fetched dream for a lot of people. Like, is that one of the reasons you're encouraging people to renovate their rentals?

KEAL: Of course. Living in D.C., New York, San Francisco, like, very expensive places, it is just hard to buy a home. But also, I look at my life. It would cost me so much more to buy a home than it would be to just enjoy where I am right now and rent. People have this assumption that renting is really for, like, the under 30s, the childless and - I don't know - people who just aren't smart enough to buy a home. But some of us just don't want to. Some of us - that's not our goal.

RASCOE: Well, what tips do you have for a renter who wants to renovate but doesn't know where to start?

KEAL: If you've never painted anything before, start in your closet. Start in that office. Start in your basement. Start somewhere that nobody can see so you can practice your skills. And then once you get a bit more confident, start with the bedroom. Go into the bathroom. Do something out in the kitchen or the living room. I know a lot of the hardware stores around here - Lowe's, Home Depot, Ace Hardware - they have DIY classes almost every weekend that you can go to, and you can learn things that you see on the internet in person.

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RASCOE: So what happens, ultimately, when you move out? Will you try to get everything back to the way it was, or do you just let the landlord deal with that?

KEAL: You have to have a conversation with your landlord. Some of the upgrades that you make, they may want to, like, pay you to keep it there. Your landlord might appreciate that. They might work with you that way. Or you can just say, hey, I'll have this up for while I'm here. And then when I move out, I'll put in the old fixtures back up. If you have a really cool landlord or have a good landlord, just throw the question out there. Just ask.

RASCOE: That's designer Imani Keal. Her Instagram account is imaniathome. Thank you so much.

KEAL: Thank you so much. I'm so excited.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONRA'S "MS. HO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.