Remodeling rights for renters

You just moved into a new place and it’s amazing... except for one thing: the walls are an awful drab beige color. It reminds you of a prison or maybe a run-down retirement home. Plus, you can tell the paint’s been there for more than a few years. It’s faded in places and there are smudges, chipping here and there. You’d really like to liven up the place and get some dramatic color on the walls, but what if the landlord says "no?"

Here with the answers is real estate expert John Adams:

Question: Can I paint if I am told that painting is not allowed?
John: That military grade off-white is pretty boring and institutional, isn’t it? Sure, you can throw up some posters, but overdo it and the place starts to look a little too much like a teenager’s bedroom. It may seem the easiest way to personalize your pad and bring a little flair to it is to paint a wall or two—or a mural, if you’re so inclined.

Yes, you can paint, even though the landlord says you can NOT. But there may be a price to pay in the future.

Q: Like what kind of price?
John:  Well, at the very least, your lease agreement says clearly that you agree to return the property to the landlord at the conclusion of the lease in the same condition in which you received it, normal wear and tear excepted.

Q: What does that mean?
John:  It means that the landlord has the right to expect that the walls will be the same color when you LEAVE as they were when you MOVED IN.

Q: And if they are not?
John: Then the landlord usually has the right to repaint the walls which you painted to any color he chooses, including military off white, and make YOU pay for it.

Q:  Wait a minute. You just said that under the lease, one of the exceptions was “ordinary wear and tear.” Right?
John: That’s right.

Q:  So, isn’t it ordinary to paint walls from time to time, and don’t you normally get to choose the color?
John: Yes, the property typically needs to be painted from time to time, but the decision on when to do that and what color rests with the landlord, not with the renter.

For example, what if you are into darkness, and decide to paint all the walls and ceilings gloss black?  While it is true that the apartment may have needed a paint job, it is also true that the landlord will be required to repaint all those surfaces when you move out, because most renters do not want a gloss black apartment.

Q: But what if I choose a lovely pastel blue for the living room, and a really pleasant creamy yellow for the kitchen - I am really GOOD at picking popular colors!
John: From the landlord’s perspective, the color you choose is not relevant. The fact is that you agreed to return the property in the same condition it was on the day you moved in, and now it is different.

Q: Well, that’s just crazy.
John:  It may be crazy, but that’s what is in your lease, and that is what the law says.

Q: Is this just in Georgia?
John:  No, it’s essentially the same everywhere.  Even if you do a great job and the color makes your apartment look better than a page in a magazine, you’re still gonna have to paint it back to that drab off-white color before you move out.

Q: How can I get around this?
John: Read your lease. Then ASK PERMISSION TO PAINT. If your landlord says YES, get it in writing.  If he says NO, understand that you will either have to repaint when you move out or pay the cost of having it repainted.

If you’re using a pastel paint, maybe that’s not such a big deal. But if you’re going with a bold blue or a forest green, know that it’ll take several coats of that pale color to cover up the darker one later on—and paint ain’t cheap.

Q: If I am OK with losing my security deposit, then is it OK?
John: No, you are still legally responsible for any damage done to the property, and what you have done is considered DAMAGE under the lease.

If your security deposit fails to cover the full cost of the damage, then the landlord can sue you for the difference beyond your security deposit. That could ruin your credit.

One more thought: you may plan on living in this place for a year or more, but something unexpected might happen that has you moving on sooner than you thought. In an emergency situation, you don’t want to be stuck with that added responsibility—and if it’s a financial emergency that sent you packing, you’re likely going to want to get as much of your security deposit back as possible.

If you decide you want to paint anyway, know that there are consequences.

If you have an awesome landlord, you may be able to sit down and agree on a neutral color that’s not quite as barren—then you won’t have to worry about the four coats of paint it’s going to take to change your bedroom back to off-white after you’ve painted it black. Once you’ve had your discussion, type up an agreement you both can sign, saying you have approval to paint and agree to repaint it to the original color before you leave (or that you and your landlord have agreed it’s okay for you to leave it as is).

The bottom line:  Discuss remodeling plans BEFORE you sign the lease or be prepared to forever hold your peace.  If you want full control over your living quarters, buy your own house!