House hacks for broke renters
July 30, 2009 1:04 AM   Subscribe

Old house hacks wanted! Please suggest some cheap ways to improve life in a crappy college house.

This week, two friends and I are moving into a rental house for the upcoming academic year. Rent is cheap, and the place meets our basic needs, but it's an old house with a boring dirt yard.

What low cost, unobtrusive improvements would you have made to your first crappy college house? What are your favorite house hacks? We're already thinking about building a garden bed and planting some vegetables in the backyard. What other DIY projects might we consider? I've read these previous threads, but they're focused on invasive improvements to owned properties. I'm more interested in interesting semipermanent projects for broke renters.
posted by ecmendenhall to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Garden is a good idea! Do any of you play music? Do you have any friends that work for one of these 1-800-GOT-JUNK type pick-up companies? I lived in a multi-person house and converted the basement into a moderately insulated practice room using discarded carpeting that I got from junker friends.

Alternatively, if you are that broke, you can get a job with one of these companies. You wouldn't believe some of the amazing stuff that rich people just want to get rid of.
posted by molecicco at 1:34 AM on July 30, 2009

The Rasterbator is your friend. I think black & white images would look awesome done this way. You can do whole rooms over for the cost of printing and bluetak (or whatever you guys use to stick posters to walls).
posted by b33j at 1:38 AM on July 30, 2009

Well, for interior stuff, one of my favorite things is to buy cheap blank canvases and paint them solid colors that I like, like buy three big ones, and then place them in a horizontal line on the wall.

It's an easy way to bring colors that you do like into a room and to set the color palette when you can't paint the walls. Also rugs. A color if you can find one you like, black if you can't.

Outdoor stuff: sun umbrella, lawn chairs, kiddie pool, small table, buy margarita glasses.

A whole dirt yard is hard. I think sunflowers would mitigate the problem but the season for doing that is ending, at least for us. It kind of matters where you live, as far as outdoor things. Other than that, nice big planters with some brightly colored flowers in a single color or color range on the porch, coupled with a couple hanging planters, would cheer things up.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:48 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Instead of planting or creating a flower bed, how about growing vegetables and flowers outside in some big pots? You can arrange them as if in a garden, and then you can take them with you when you leave.

When I lived in a crappy old college house, we painted the walls bright colors. The landlord wasn't excited by my roommate's pink bathroom, but he wasn't willing to paint it himself. So it stayed.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:51 AM on July 30, 2009

We had a small painting party and painted plain white and translucent shower curtains. One went in the shower; the other went on the living room wall with xmas lights behind it.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:54 AM on July 30, 2009

I meant to say, we painted designs on the shower curtains.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:55 AM on July 30, 2009

One of the best things that I did to some of my less than stellar apartments was a good old fashioned cleaning, followed by some new blinds and drapes.

Also, not really an answer to your question, but make sure to read the terms of your lease before making any changes to the property. (Sorry - I do alot of work in landlord tenant court)
posted by mcroft at 3:51 AM on July 30, 2009

fairy lights
posted by bystander at 4:18 AM on July 30, 2009

All the ideas about lighting are good. Think about what you want each room to feel like - a quiet study space, a place for gatherings - and plan the light accordingly. A couple cheap lamps from Salvation Army, plus some new/DIYed shades, can make all the difference. Be careful not to overtax what might be a really old wiring system, though.
posted by mdonley at 4:46 AM on July 30, 2009

We had a bar in our college apartment. They're pretty easy to build given a modicum of carpentry knowledge and the materials aren't too expensive. The trick is to keep it well stocked - not necessarily with top shelf alcohol, but with a wide variety of ingredients. Personally, it was a lot nicer sipping sidecars than going next door to play beer pong with Natty Light. Plenty of seating is also a must. If you're really planning to entertain, wire up all of the common areas with speakers.

One thing that was sorely lacking was stuff on the walls. Make sure to put some pictures up.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:10 AM on July 30, 2009

If you don't already have one, see if you can come by a grill— then focus on what you'd need to entertain as many friends as you'd like to have over.

One of my favourite college houses was also one of the oldest and most run down. It did, however, have a great shady porch and a backyard barbecue, and we hosted (mostly outdoor) potlucks and cookouts until it got too cold to do so. In our case we needed a couple cheap carts to use as prep space and a folding table to bring outside, plus whatever hardware you use in the kitchen.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:02 AM on July 30, 2009

Be choosey an carefully inspect any old funiture you bring into your house. Bedbugs are becoming more common.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:03 AM on July 30, 2009

Hang your bed frame from chains, attached to secure bolts in the ceiling. Much cooler than an old boring bed on the floor. Beware of the swinging effect if you are subject to bad hangovers, though.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:18 AM on July 30, 2009

Clean and freshly painted goes a long way. Freecycle and Craigslist/free are excellent resources. Don't buy small decorative objects; larger statements work better.

Ditto fairy lights, lots of fairy lights, esp. behind something translucent; the shower curtain idea is good, cheap sheer curtains work well. If you can scavenge wood chairs, paint them coordinated grrovy colors, whatever your version of groovy would be. College is far behind me, but my painted old wood chairs on the porch are everybody's favorites.

If anybody is an artist, a big sculpture in the yard would be fun.
posted by theora55 at 6:58 AM on July 30, 2009

You can layout a small patio area using paving stones. Planting items is also good and easy to pitch to a landlord as improvements to the digs and any yard improvements could be reimbursed by the landlord.

For the interior:

1) meticulously clean and that includes windows;
2) fresh paint;
3) storage improvements such as, hanging racks in the kitchen to hold pans or even closet systems. Heck an open cube system that serves as storage and a subtle way of dividing spaces works too;
4) rugs or floor covering

Everything else is gravy. The main thing is to be clean and uncluttered.
posted by jadepearl at 7:45 AM on July 30, 2009

I guess I'm a geek, because the first thing I'd be thinking about is WiFi. The newish standard, 802.11n should penetrate the old construction just fine without having to run any new cabling. Of course, this is all assuming you have or care about broadband.

Also, if you just want something nice-looking to put on your walls, you can buy art on eBay super-cheap -- it'll cost you more to frame the paintings than to buy them.
posted by LordSludge at 7:47 AM on July 30, 2009

Look here, at under the Home Sweet Home and Reuse/Recycle/Recraft sections: There are all kinds of things like a wonderful large paper shade made from heavy paper shapes which fit together, beer bottle cap covered table tops, rugs/cushion covers made from old tshirts. You name it, they've done it. And most of it turns out fun, funky, cheap and not too trashy looking. Nthing the redoing cheap/free furniture, although, after reading the question on bed bugs, you might want to stick to metal or learn how to fumigate upholstered pieces outdoors before bringing them in. I think cleanliness and colour are the two best things you can add that don't cost much at all. Most rental houses never get a good cleaning and they're just plain drab.
posted by x46 at 1:33 PM on July 30, 2009

Hammocks are great fun!
posted by rigby51 at 6:33 PM on July 30, 2009

Thanks for the advice, everyone. We'll definitely try out some of these projects, and I'll let you know how they turn out!
posted by ecmendenhall at 4:10 PM on August 3, 2009

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