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How Did Our Rental Decisions Hold Up More Than One Year Later?


Roughly a year and a half ago, we completed a full renovation of the garden unit apartment in the basement of our home. Do you remember where we started? Back then, the unit was a little darker and a little colder than what we would have preferred – and that’s putting it politely! It also left a lot to be desired in the usability and tenant privacy departments, so when our former former tenants decided they were moving on, we took that as a sign to take on that 2017 complete overhaul, allowing the unit to shine the way we knew it could!

Since that renovation, we had tenants lease the apartment for almost a year and a half. They just purchased their first home in a nearby neighborhood, and we couldn’t be happier for them! We’ve received a lot of questions about how all of our (hopefully!) rental-friendly renovation decisions held up after 16 months of tenant use, so we’re here to break things down and give ourselves a score on each decision. Now that our design decisions have been put to the test, we’re asking ourselves the question: Would we make the same decisions again?

We’ve assigned each choice a score of 1 – 5:
1 = Why on earth did we ever think this was a good idea?!
2 = We probably should have gone in a different direction.
3 = Just Ok.
4 = Great decision, but requires a bit of upkeep.
5 = Wow, that was money well spent! We nailed it!

So, how’d we do? Let’s find out!

How Did That IKEA Kitchen Hold Up?

cabinets | sinkfaucet | countertop | drawer + finger pulls | sconce

Prior to this renovation, we had installed more than our fair share of IKEA kitchen cabinets, but never in an actual kitchen. This was also our first time utilizing IKEA appliances, making it a true, head-to-toe IKEA kitchen. So, how did this kitchen fare after well over a year of use by our tenants – who, as it turned out, were a pair of talented Chicago chefs that cooked constantly?

Score | 5

The kitchen still looks great! During the kitchen selection process, we learned that IKEA appliances are manufactured by Whirlpool and are backed by a 5 year warranty, so everything still functions perfectly and shows only the most minimal wear and tear. The cabinets and finish panels all held up equally well. With the exception of a couple of teeny, tiny nicks in one side panel (a small pot of color matched paint will fix that right up!), there is no visible wear to the finishes or mechanicals of the cabinets. After this first go-round, we’d happily take on another IKEA kitchen, rental or otherwise.

On DIY Butcher Block Countertops for the Kitchen and Laundry Room…

We opted to pair the IKEA cabinets with self-fabricated butcher block countertops. Our thought was two-fold: Butcher block is afforable and beautiful, but it’s also a surface that, we think, looks better with age and use. And if it ever gets ​​​​​​​really bad, we can always sand them down and start frsh! The fabrication process was pretty straightforward, if not a little stressful, since one incorrect cut could lead to a ruined slab, but we took our time and were very pleased with how they turned out. The countertops were finished with Waterlox to keep them sealed from liquid penetration without relying on a poly or lacquer coating.

Score | 4

The countertops held up exactly as we expected them to! There is one watermark and another area where it looks like a very hot pan was set down, but aside from that, they look nearly perfect. Prior to the final decision to use butcher block, we calculated savings of at least 75% over manufactured stone by going the DIY route. While stone would have required almost no maintenance, we felt that the butcher block would lend a warmth richness to the kitchen, and they do! Butcher block is like marble, in a sense – the first handful of scuffs and marks can feel painful, but as the surface receives use over the years, it all evens out. We may refinish them in a few year, but for now, we’re still happy with this decision.

How About the Wood-Look Tile?

The former flooring in the garden unit was mismatched 12″ x 12″ ceramic tile that was showing its age. There were more than a few cracks, chips and nicks, and the floor dipped and bowed visibly in a couple of places. We knew that changing out the flooring was necessary and would also be one of the largest budget line items of the project, so we searched high and low for tile with the perfect mix of warmth and durability.

Score | 5

The removal of the old flooring and leveling/installation of the new flooring was a huge project. The team we hired was in the space for over a week and ended up using something like 20 bags of floor leveling compound to fill in the low spots. The porcelain wood-look tile is a mid-tone brown, not too yellow, not too red – just right. It keeps the space feeling cozy, and we still absolutely love it! After the first rental cycle, the flooring shows absolutely no wear. None. It’s actually kind of crazy how good it all still looks! We would absolutely use wood look tile again in the future.

The Mudroom Took A Lot of Space From the Kitchen. Was It Worth It?

It was 1,000% worth it! The kitchen layout was a huge struggle for us at first, but our friend Daniel came through in a huge way with a this adorable doodle on a piece of scrap paper and saved the day! We knew that the mudroom would cut in to the kitchen’s square footage pretty significantly, but it was necessary to offer our tenants privacy in the form of access to the utility closet without entering their space.

Score | 6. (Yes, 6 out of 5!)

The mudroom has been an absolute game-changer in the way we’re able to keep separation between spaces with our tenants while residing in a common building. Prior to the completion of the mudroom (which also involved relocating the access door to the utility closet) we’d have to enter the garden unit to do something as simple as flip a breaker to replace a light fixture. Now, we can access the guts of the house – water heaters, electrical utilities, and most of the water shut-offs for the whole house – without bothering our tenants. As an added bonus, the back door to the outside is no longer ​​​​​​​directly in their kitchen, which keeps their home warmer in the winter. In addition to the kitchen and flooring, the mudroom addition is near the top of the list of impactful changes to the space!

How Did the Tiny Laundry Room Hold Up?

cabinet | door pullsshelf | sconce

Along with the addition of the mudroom and reconfiguring of the door to the utility closet, the layout changes we made at the back half of the unit also carved out space for a cute little laundry room! The unit had a washer and dryer previously, but they were outdated and mismatched side-by-side units that took up a huge amount of space. We shifted to a stacked unit that opened up floor space and allowed for a handy floating cabinet topped with remnant butcher block to match the kitchen countertops.

Score | 4.5

The laundry room holds up! These stacked washer/dryer units don’t feature the most modern connected technology, but since they’re fully mechanical with no digital circuitry, they’re known to last for a very long time, which we were mindful of when purchasing. This unit has been no exception and still looks, but more importantly, functions great. The added headboard along the bottom half of the walls still looks great as well and offers a wipable surface that resists scuffs and scrapes. We’re deducting a half of a point here, because if it were in the initial budget, we would have loved to push the wall into the utility room by a foot or so to gain more laundry space. Although the room is small, it functions beautifully, and our tenants appreciated having a dedicated laundry space – with a door.

What About the Doorknobs and Hardware?

The exterior front, rear, and mudroom doors of the space were given some hunky and modern matte black handlesets, so it was only appropriate that we upgraded all of the interior doorknobs and hinges as well. Along with a fresh coat of paint, doorknobs and hinges are an easy way to update the look of doors to keep things looking fresh.

Score | 5

The hinges and knobs show no signs of wear and still look near-perfect. Much like the hardware in our Chicago kitchen, we love that the black doorknobs and hinges show great contrast with the freshly painted white doors and lend a pop of detail to a space that is otherwise fairly monochromatic. We love the impact that this simple upgrade can bring to any space!

Okay, How About the IKEA Vanity In the Bathroom?

hardware | TP holder

We chose this vanity top/cabinet combination because it checked all of the necessary boxes for long term rental unit duty. The porcelain top features an integrated backsplash that wraps partially around the sides and keeps water from splashing all over the bathroom. The cabinet is finished in a durable grey stain and has front legs that elevate it from the floor, a simple detail that goes far in a small room.

Score | 5

Like the IKEA kitchen, the vanity has held up incredibly well! There are no visual signs of wear and the drawers still open and close smoothly. The drawers also feature clever dividers that have held up well. In the last year, we’ve received multiple questions about this vanity, and we can safely say, no regrets!

The Existing Tub Was Reglazed, Right?

vanity hardware | door knob

Yup! Elsewhere in the bathroom, we opted to reglaze the perfectly functional, but somewhat stained existing Kohler bathtub. The years had not been super kind to the finish of the tub and there were a couple of chips and scratches, as well as a bit of surface rust near the drain. We brought in the pros and had the whole thing reglazed and it came out looking like new!

Score | 5

The tub looks as great as the day we pulled back the masking paper from the reglazing work! Had the timing and budget allowed for it, we may have replaced the entire tub, but given the good structural condition of the existing tub, we chose to reglaze. If we had gone the replacement route, we would have not only had to purchase a new tub, but also replace the tile in the tub surround and handle some significant plumbing changes. The glaze is holding up great and the tub is still (almost) blindingly white! This portion of the bathroom would definitely score high on the ROI scale.

Did All of the Hooks Hang In There?

Unfortunately, no, they did not hang in there! (Above, an image after our repairs.) The garden unit has a great little entry space inside the front door that features enough room for a small chair or bench and enough wall space to hang coats and backpacks without having an actual coat closet. We decided to maximize the space with a series of hunky cast iron hooks (these are similar), but made a sliiiight failure in judgement …

Score | 2

… in the form of installing the hooks into drywall using anchors supplied in the packaging. We love the hooks, but not our install process. By the time our first tenants had moved out, 3 of the 4 hooks had pulled completely out of the wall under the weight of heavy Chicago winter coats. We remedied the situation in a similar fashion to our DIY laundry sorter and mounted a spare pine board directly into the studs and mounted the hooks to the board. Simple, easy and so. much. more. sturdy. We should have just done this the first time around, but lesson learned.

Thoughts on the Recessed Lighting?

The garden unit sits half below grade, but it still has quite a few large windows and gets pretty great natural light. Even still, one can never have enough lighting options, so we had our contractor add nearly 20 recessed LED lights throughout the space. The placement of the lights allows them to fill up the corners of the space, and they’re all on dimmer switches (and often times paired with an additional center light or sconce) so the perfect lighting scenario can always be achieved.

Score | 5

The biggest compliment we can receive when people enter the garden unit for the fist time is: This doesn’t feel like a garden at all!, and the added lighting helped us achieve that sentiment. While we were at it with the can lights, we also replaced all of the existing central fixtures with slim flush-mount units and swapped all of the bulbs out for 2700k warm white LEDs. The bulbs will last the better part of a lifetime and the warm glow suits the space perfectly! We’re huge fans of recessed lighting and kind of can’t stop adding it everywhere.

Final Average Score| 4.6

With only a couple of exceptions (those pesky hooks! the water rings!), we’re incredibly pleased – surprised, even? – with how all of the changes and finishes held up to almost a year and a half of use by our first post-renovation tenants. Every decision we initially made was overthought, as we do, but besides building the coat rack, only normal touch up and cleaning was required in order to get the unit ready for its new occupants!

If you have a rental – whether you’re living in one, own one or thinking of investing – we’d love to hear your thoughts on materials and finishes to either utilize or avoid completely! We might just have another unit (or two) in the works. (Wink, wink.)

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  • Lindsey4.23.19 - 12:46 PM

    I’m so glad your hard work has held up so well! I’d love another update in a few years , especially because it sounds like you had some really great tenants who took good care of the place! This bring me to a question: how do you find good tenants? We’re considering using our current bungalow in a desirable neighborhood as a rental when we move somewhere bigger, but I’m so worried about tenant issues!ReplyCancel

    • Kim4.23.19 - 1:21 PM

      It can be hard, we’ve been so lucky to have really long term tenants for the most part, but we also had a not so great one… but just one, thank goodness!

      The big thing is that we always run credit and background checks, and we both make sure to meet them and set aside time to ask them – and them, us – lots of questions.ReplyCancel

  • Carolyn Stoner4.23.19 - 1:35 PM

    Oh man. I wish my butcher block counter looked good still. The area around the faucet is pretty damaged. ReplyCancel

  • Julie4.24.19 - 2:08 PM

    What did you use for window coverings? We always provide the cheap white blinds and usually replace them (for $5) over cleaning them between tenants. We like no carpet, and have found laminate countertops to hold up well after 30 years. As a landlord, I feel like an appliance repair man, and like the cheap ones, and would never do a panel faced dishwasher. But again, my rentals are in class b- neighborhoods.ReplyCancel

    • Kim4.26.19 - 9:04 AM

      We use Bali Blinds solar shades. They’re easy to wipe down, super durable and provide filtering light for our garden unit!ReplyCancel

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