Can Renters Paint or Alter Their Rental Unit?

Benefits and Risks for Landlords

Couple choosing a paint color by holding up swatches to a wall

Image by Skynesher © Getty Images

Tenants want their rental unit to feel like home, and one way to accomplish this is to paint or otherwise alter the property to make it feel more personal. But as a landlord, should you let your tenant paint the unit? Learn the benefits and risks of allowing a tenant to make alterations to the rental.

What Does the Lease Say?

A good lease agreement includes the terms under which the tenant must use and occupy the unit during their tenancy. Specifically, this includes the condition the property must be left in at move-out. 

Security Deposit Clause

A security deposit is an amount of money that the landlord holds during the tenancy in case the tenant breaches the lease agreement. While regulations may vary state-to-state, a landlord has the right to make deductions from this deposit if the tenant damages the unit or makes unapproved alterations to the unit. 

Additional Paint, Improvements or Alterations Clause

Many lease agreements have a separate clause dedicated to alterations in the rental property. The exact terms of this clause will vary depending on the wishes of the specific landlord. For example:

  • No alterations: The tenant must return the rental property at move out, in the same condition it was in at move in, less normal wear and tear. The tenant is not allowed to paint, alter or otherwise modify the rental unit.
  • Alterations with approval: Any alterations or improvements to the rental unit can only be made with prior written approval from the landlord. The exact terms of the alteration or improvement will be negotiated between the landlord and tenant, including:
    • Specific alteration or improvement to be completed
    • Cost
    • When the work will be performed
    • Who will perform the work
  • Paint with nonrefundable eeposit: This clause allows the tenant to paint their rental as long as the landlord collects a nonrefundable paint deposit from the tenant. Not all states allow landlords to collect nonrefundable deposits, so check your state’s landlord tenant laws before making this request. 
  • Paint at tenant’s expense: Another option is to allow the tenant to paint, as long as they pay for all expenses out of their own pocket. Any damage that occurs during painting, such as stained carpets or painted woodwork, will be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit. It is up to the landlord to decide if the tenant has the additional responsibility of returning the apartment to the original paint color upon move out.

Should You Do It Yourself or Hire a Professional?

If the landlord does allow the tenant to make alterations to the rental unit, it is up to the landlord whether he or she will allow the tenant to perform the alteration or whether the work must be done by an approved, qualified professional. The nature of the work can also determine who the landlord will allow to do the work. For example, the landlord may feel comfortable allowing a tenant to paint the unit, but will only allow more complex work, like tiling a floor or installing a dishwasher, to be done by a certified professional.

Pre-Approved Colors

Another option which could help save you the cost of having to repaint the unit after the tenant moves out is allowing the tenant to paint the unit, but only allowing them to choose from a list of pre-approved paint colors.

Popular companies like Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams have a list of their most popular paint colors. These colors tend to be more neutral and appeal to the masses, especially to landlords who want to maintain a simple color scheme. 

Deductions From Security Deposit

If any damage occurs to the rental unit as the result of a tenant alteration or improvement, the landlord has the right to take deductions from the tenant’s security deposit. Generally, if the security deposit is not enough to cover the damage, the landlord has the right to send the tenant a separate bill to cover the damage. For example, Washington state allows landlords to recover sums in excess of the amount of the tenant's security deposit for damage caused, as well as reasonable attorneys' fees.

In addition, if the tenant has made any alteration or improvement to the rental without the landlord’s consent, the landlord also typically has the right to take deductions from the security deposit to restore the unit to the original condition. For example, Wisconsin indicates that tenants can make no physical changes to the nature of the premises—whether decorating, removing, or otherwise altering—without the landlord's consent. Look up the laws that apply to your state at LawAtlas.

Benefits and Risks of Allowing Your Tenant to Paint

  • If a rental feels like home, the tenant might stay longer

  • Saves landlord time and expense of painting the unit

  • New color may be appealing to other renters

  • Alterations, such as an appliance upgrade or custom built-in, could help increase rental value

  • Landlord will have to pay to fix sloppy work–paint on trim, windows, drips

  • Landlord may have to repaint the unit when the tenant moves out

  • Potential damage by getting paint on hardwood, carpets or cabinets

  • Major alterations done improperly could cause serious damage, such as plumbing leaks

Other Options

There are other ways a tenant can make their rental feel like a home that don’t involve making permanent alterations to the rental unit. These include: 

  • Temporary wallpaper: Instead of painting a unit, a tenant can install temporary wallpaper. This paper, from sites such as Tempaper, has a self-adhesive that can easily be removed, leaving the walls damage free, prior to moving out.
  • Home decor: Adding bold curtains, throw rugs, artwork and house plants can make an apartment feel more personal.
  • Temporarily changing out cabinet hardware: You may be able to easily change out the hardware on the kitchen and bathroom cabinets to suit your personal style, as long as you keep the original hardware to put back when you move out. You must use the pre-existing holes. Drilling new holes would be considered damage.

Article Sources

  1. Congress. "H. Rept. 112-565 - Consumer Rental Purchase Agreement Act," Section "Purpose and Summary," Accessed Oct. 1, 2019.

  2. National Association of Income Property Owners. "Rental Security Deposit Return Time by State," Accessed Oct. 1, 2019.

  3. Washington State Legislature. "Revised Code of Washington, Title 59, Chapter 18, Section 280, Subsection 3," Accessed Oct. 1, 2019.

  4. Wisconsin State Legislature. "Statutes, Chapter 704, Section 05, Subsection 3," Accessed Oct. 1, 2019.