From Drab to Fab – Episode 2

Mike O'Neal Landlords Leave a Comment

Drab to Fab Episode 2

OK, so you bought into the argument from my earlier post of ‘Drab to Fab’ that your urban rental unit may need a little improvement in order to meet the expectations of today’s renter.  Great! Let’s get started, but before we pull out the check book or sledge hammer, lets make sure we have a plan on where we want to go and how long it should take us to get there.  We need a road map.

My road map is based on three terms that I use when considering a project – We’ll call them the 3-C’s of renovations. They are:

Continual, Cohesive, Creative.


We all have different financial goals for our investment properties.  Many rely on the cash generated from rents collected for living expenses or to fund additional purchases.  Some save their profits for a rainy day. Others reinvest a large portion of their profits back into the properties for tax reasons and to build equity.  Regardless of your goal, I would recommend making regular, ongoing improvements to your property.

A Continual approach of property improvement offers several advantages.   First of all, it is easier to budget: one or two small projects per year is easier to swallow than one giant renovation every 10 years.  More importantly, if planned correctly, the home is less likely to ever look out of date.  It will show prospective tenants that you care about, and invest in the property, that it is well maintained, and that you expect them to keep it in top condition.

These enhancements should not only happen during times of vacancy, they can also happen while a property is occupied.   I once took advantage of a tenant’s extended absence to add a new bathroom sink to his unit (see images below).    Not only was he ecstatic with the much-needed improvement; he realized that we were interested in his use and enjoyment of the property, not just in collecting rent.


The downside of continually updating a property is that styles go in and out of fashion. If not careful, a landlord could find that their property, while in good condition, may be comprised of a variety of materials, finishes and colors, none of which tie into the rest.  This will cause the property to look less well maintained than it actually is, and less desirable compared to newer properties.

The notion of continual improvement should not be in conflict with a cohesive design.  It is critical that a “design roadmap” is developed and adhered to, as projects are undertaken.  This roadmap should define the basic design concept, color schemes and material pallets to be utilized for all upcoming improvements.  Avoid overly trendy design concepts – stick will well established themes and high quality materials.  An afternoon spent at a Home Depot or a Lowes home improvement store should provide you with great examples of the newest (but safe) design styles.  Use neutral colors and earth tones when in doubt.

The following images show the “before and after” condition of a small bathroom in a West Highlands bungalow.  My wife and I performed the work over a period of 2 ½ years (3 tenants).   The renovation started with the just a new Ikea vanity.  Over the next 2 years we added a new toilet, new flooring and baseboards, porcelain refinish for the tub and shower surround, towel and TP holders, mirror and light fixture, storage cabinet and finally, a new brushed nickel door knob. Since each repair was done independently, it never felt like we were doing a full bathroom renovation, but as you can see, the transformation was dramatic and resulted in a cohesive design that will remain current looking for years to come.



Today’s renters expect a clean and well-maintained property, something most responsible landlords now provide.  In order to get your property to stand out from the pack, look for opportunities to showcase your property in unique and creative ways.  The millennial generation is about “life style” and “experiences”, and you can differentiate your place by creating spaces that reinforce the styles and outlook of this demographic.

In the bathroom project shown above, I initially attempted to create a spa-like environment in a bathroom that was admittedly confining.  I had come across a photo of a bathroom with teal/aqua tile walls that evoked a tranquil, clean and modern feeling.  But attempting to recreate this scheme in my bathroom with paint was a disaster, as the teal was overpowering and made the room look even smaller.  More importantly, my choice of paint color limited the appeal of the entire unit…if you didn’t want a blue bathroom; you were not going to rent this place!

I realized that the room itself should be neutral, and that I could express my vision with accessories.   I don’t typically “stage” a rental property, but decided in this case to spend $75 at Ikea for a shower curtain, towels and a small glass candle-holder, items that would enforce my vision for the bathroom.   Prospective tenants loved the room, but were not turned off by the teal color scheme, realizing that the white walls and cabinets would work with their current possessions.  

I’ve learned that every property has deficiencies that can be overcome with some creative ideas.  Ikea is a great place to start, especially if modern design is foreign to you.   I also spend a lot of time using Google Image search to find inspiration.   Be specific with your search criteria: don’t just search for “bathroom remodel”, try “bright, spa-like bathroom”.  That’s the criteria I used to inspire my bathroom renovation, and here is the image served up by Google that drove the design.


Lets see what creative ideas you can come up with!

About the Author

Mike O'Neal

As a is a licensed Real Estate Broker and downtown Denver resident, Mike is an enthusiast of the urban lifestyle and desires to make high quality, downtown properties available to those who prefer to rent. He has always enjoyed finding, renovating and maintaining his own rental homes and is now offering his Property Management expertise to other owners and investors.Mike takes pride in making sure each tenant has a clean, comfortable and safe place to live…and works closely with his owner clients to ensure that their investment is marketed effectively and maintained to the highest standards.Mike has a Master in Architecture from NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego, CA recently joined Cliffdwellers Real Estate because of their expertise in the Denver urban core neighborhoods and demonstrated commitment to provide investors and tenants with exceptional service.

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