New lease on life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 October, 2005, 12:00am

JUST BECAUSE YOU rent doesn't mean you have to put up with a tacky 'you can tell I don't own this' interior. How far you decide to go in renovating will probably depend on how long you intend to stay. If you can commit to a long lease, investing in home improvement will enhance your quality of life, especially if the place is run down to begin with.

It's a sound strategy. A property in inferior condition is usually harder to rent and cheaper, putting the prospective tenant in the best bargaining position. So, if you like the basics of a certain home, it might be worth considering. Even if your rental plans are short term, there are still many improvements you can make - especially with things you can take with you.

Architect Frank Chiu says the best investment is engaging a designer. This will avoid the sort of disconnected look that can result from impromptu improvements. 'The danger with ad hoc is that there's no cohesion to it,' he says. 'A professional architect or designer can help you pick out things that aren't consistent and re-work them.'

Chiu, of Hong Kong-based architecture firm One:China, took his own advice when renovating his walk-up, rented home/office in Happy Valley. With permission from the landlord, he removed a wall between the third bedroom and living-dining room, and replaced it with three-panel sliding doors made of mild steel. The steel creates an industrial aesthetic, adding a contemporary element that contrasts with the timber floors and high ceilings. The panels are also functional, doubling as a presentation wall on which he displays plans for clients.

In the bathroom, Chiu replaced the vanity with a removable metal basin. He also replaced the flat's lighting, keeping all the original fixtures so they can be reinstalled when he moves.

'We had to spend some money on things we can't take away - such as demolishing the wall, replastering the edges, repairing the floor and electrical work - a total cost of about $30,000,' Chiu says. 'The steel work cost $20,000 to $30,000, and we had to buy lights and furniture, but we didn't spend more than $80,000 to get the look we wanted - and half of that will be coming with us.'

Chiu's advice is that 'just because it's concrete and plaster doesn't mean it can't be moved'. But check with the landlord first. Things that are permanent will dictate the materials used in the new layer - so ask a professional for advice.

Designer Candida Drew-Prior says good lighting can really help the atmosphere of a home and the fixtures can be moved to a new place if necessary.

For her own rented home, Drew-Prior chose spotlights on a long metal rail that can be shaped to fit the space and direction of light needed. To create mood in rooms where electric wall lights weren't fitted, she used candelabras from Georg Jensen. These hang on the wall with a hook, and are easily removed for cleaning or packing.

A contemporary look was achieved on the balcony by covering old, chipped tiles with removable timber decking. The timber is cut into square tiles that slot together, and can be laid over existing surfaces - even lawn. The product is available in various timbers. Drew-Prior opted for Vietnamese kwila (a timber used to build boats and jetties) from Resource Asia, for about $200 a tile. It's as waterproof as teak, but is a darker colour, and considered more stable for Hong Kong's climate. 'It enhanced my balcony by replacing horrible grey tiles with natural wood,' she says. 'It feels nice in bare feet, too.'

Drew-Prior says greenery is one of the best things you can do for your home - even a temporary one. Well cared-for plants can always be re-sold. She also knows of people who've brightened shabby interiors by pasting dried flowers from the Mongkok market on to bathroom tiles.

If you're after a more upmarket look, artwork and mirrors can help add sophistication. But who wants to be left having to repair damaged walls or risk having the bond withheld? Ip Interiors of Queen's Road East has the answer. It sells the Arakawa picture rail mounting system, used in museums throughout the world, including the Smithsonian in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It lets you accommodate more artwork without making holes in the wall. It also enables pieces to be hung and repositioned easily. Even the height of the display can be easily adjusted by pressing a button. The Arakawa comes in matte off-white, and is sold by the length, with prices starting from $120/600mm.

Even the most expensive elements of the home - the kitchen and bathroom - can now be given a facelift at a fraction of replacement cost. Dulux makes a water-based, epoxy paint that can be sprayed, rollered or brushed on to just about any hard surface, for about $35 per square foot, including labour. According to Wolfgang Derler of WP Engineering, the paint can cover tiles, metal, wood or laminate - even the toilet (but not the inside of the bowl). Its estimated life is at least five years if care instructions are followed. There's an unlimited colour choice because the paint can be mixed to requirement.

The same product can be used to waterproof the exterior of a tiled house, or to revamp a kitchen. Derler says that, with heavy use in the kitchen, the lifespan is reduced to three or four years. A cheap makeover for a kitchen would involve painting the bench tops, and replacing the cupboard doors with new laminate doors, retaining the inner frame. The cost for a small kitchen can be as low as $5,000. Derler doesn't recommend painting chipped tiles or marble floor.

If you're lucky enough to have solid wood flooring, it can be sanded back and restained a contemporary colour for $15 to $20 per sqft.

There might be a degree of smoke and mirrors involved in renovating your rental, but even the professionals are doing it. It's merely a matter of looking beyond face value and imagining what you can do with what lies beneath.