Food & dining

If you’re stuck with a bad rental kitchen, you can still renovate

Catherine Smart's renovated kitchen in Somerville.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Catherine Smart's renovated kitchen in Somerville.

For cooks, an important factor in an apartment hunt is the kitchen. In this tight rental market, there are a lot of folks stuck with a bad one.

I was one of them.

Last year on a dog walk in my Somerville neighborhood, I stumbled on a 3-bedroom, single-family home, with a yard and a working fireplace. It was the same price as the small, 2-bedroom apartment we were renting. This isn’t a fairy tale. The kitchen in the house had bright green walls, a yellowing fridge, and 1960s dark cabinets. My husband and I could not embrace the ugly charm. So we renovated the kitchen as if we owned the place.


Real estate agents agree that it’s an odd market right now. “People aren’t moving out, and no one wants to move because prices are going up,” says Jamie Iacoi of the Dorchester focused agency In Realty. Iacoi says landlords are selling off former rentals as condos. Closer to home, things aren’t much different. “You don’t usually see a high rental market and a high sales market,” says Thalia Tringo of Thalia Tringo & Associates Real Estate, in Somerville. “It’s usually one or the other.”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

We decided that our kitchen situation would involve sweat equity and a little cash to make it feel like our own. First things first: I checked with our landlord and convinced her to reduce the rent for the first six months to cover expenses. Make unapproved changes and you may forfeit your security deposit. Some landlords may be willing to pay for supplies.

One renter, who wants to remain anonymous because she’s in a touchy situation, e-mailed me: “Where I am now, there is a sink but no counter space. My boyfriend built a drying rack that sits on the wall above the sink and drains right into the sink.” She went on to say, it “makes the kitchen workable.” She and handy boyfriend also replaced a kitchen faucet, adding a sprayer, changed out a light switch, and repaired a broken cabinet, in addition to recaulking the sink a couple of times. “Some of it was paid for by the landlord,” she wrote.

A few simple changes vastly improved Meghan Corcoran’s Watertown apartment. “I added a little chop block/island on wheels, not really a home improvement, but a lifesaver when counter space is less than ideal,” she says. “I customize the shelving in the fridge and cabinets everywhere I go,” says Corcoran. Judith Rhines, of Charlestown, suggests decluttering with a magnetic knife strip on the wall.

Ryan Tirrell, of Ryan Tirrell Design in Rochester, N.H., works on major and minor kitchen overhauls. Look for a washable paint formula, he says; there are matte finishes available now. Tirrell also suggests a painted chalkboard wall, “great for dinner party menus, family schedules, love notes,” he says. “Go all the way to the floor so kids can contribute.”


We bought a freestanding wire rack for nested bowls and jars of pasta and legumes. “Think of your collection as an installation: a variety of colors, textures, or materials,” says Tirrell. The designer also suggests switching up your backsplash for a high impact visual upgrade. “Patterned tin sheets, mirrors, or decoupage art all make exciting wall coverings.” In a nod to my kitchen’s 1960s feel, I found self-adhesive brightly colored, almost psychedelic, wallpaper, just the pop of color needed to detract from tired aspects (drab beige tiles).

Finally, Tirrell says, accessorize. “Add simple visual interest by showcasing collectibles, photography, and beautiful kitchen tools.”

Remember, it’s not stainless steel appliances and granite countertops that make the kitchen. It’s the food that comes out of it.

More: The before and after pictures.

Catherine Smart can be reached at