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News / Life / Lifestyles

Owning a space you don’t own: Rentals can be ‘renovated,’ too

By Michaelle Bond, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:04am
8 Photos
Kate Levy, 27, the renter behind the popular my.philly.home TikTok and Instagram accounts, in her Philadelphia-area apartment with her cat Tetris, 2.
Kate Levy, 27, the renter behind the popular my.philly.home TikTok and Instagram accounts, in her Philadelphia-area apartment with her cat Tetris, 2. (Photos by Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer) Photo Gallery

Kate Levy knew she wanted to transform her apartment into a beautiful, cozy home. She didn’t know that tens of thousands of strangers would be invested in how it turned out.

About 75,000 TikTok followers and more than 32,000 Instagram followers ooh and ahh and ask where she got her furniture (pretty much all secondhand) through her my.philly.home accounts.

She posts scenes from her bi-level apartment near Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, where she and her partner, Levi Dillon, moved in the summer of 2020. Video clips show breezes billowing delicate living room curtains, sunlight streaming onto vintage rugs and plants perched on stands spray-painted gold, and string lights brightening a balcony garden.

She has deep-cleaned, painted and thrifted — from Facebook Marketplace to Goodwill to the curb.

In the bathroom, Levy added a peel-and-stick pattern to the window that looks so much like stained glass that the property’s new owners thought that it was the real thing.

“You’re paying to live in this space every month, so you might as well make it feel like your home,” said Levy, 27, who works in marketing and design for a human resources technology company and runs its social media.

As buying a home continues to grow more expensive, the couple are among the many U.S. households renting while they save to become homeowners. Other renters either can’t afford to buy or enjoy the rental lifestyle.

Both renters-for-now and renters-for-life are looking to personalize and elevate their spaces.

A video tour of Levi’s roughly 1,700-square-foot apartment that she posted on TikTok on Feb. 23 has 1 million views. A video of short clips from around the space from last February titled “tuesday afternoon” has more than 2 million views.

“I think it’s inspiring to see how other renters have made their home feel like a home and not like a rental,” Levy said.

This month, Levy and Dillon, 28, are moving out of the apartment that attracted so much attention and into a rented rowhouse with more outdoor space, a garden, and parking in Philadelphia’s West Mount Airy. Levy is documenting how she’s transforming it.

Although there are some things that renters usually can’t do — like adding windows or knocking down walls — tenants don’t have to feel stuck when it comes to their rentals.

“There’s so many things you can do if you’re a renter,” said Monica Miraglilo, a designer and cofounder of the Philadelphia-based construction business Miraglilo Properties. “Think like you’re owning the space, because you are for whatever time you’re in there.”

Renovating apartment and growing a following

My.philly.home was born on Instagram in March 2019, when Levy was a Temple University senior taking a documentary photography class. She followed hundreds of home-design accounts, which she calls “house-tagrams.”

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“I just started posting pictures ’cause I would get real excited when I found stuff on Facebook or found stuff at the thrift store, got new plants, that I just wanted to take pictures of it,” she said.

After she moved into her North Philadelphia apartment, “I kind of ended up documenting pretty much all of the changes, all the new furniture, and how I decorated the space.”

Levy has always been interested in interior design and grew up redecorating her room. When she moved into the spacious two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, it was already charming, with its exposed brick walls and stained glass window in the living room, wood floors throughout, and the dining area’s large bay window, where she created an office nook. So she did a lot of restoration and decoration rather than drastic changes, she said.

For example, the counters in the kitchen look like white marble, but they’re not. Levy’s secret is contact paper that mimics marble, which she used to cover the original dark green linoleum.

The kitchen floor was peeling, so she repainted it. Shelf inserts in the kitchen cabinets were green and covered with turquoise contact paper, so she took off the paper and covered them with white paint.

Upstairs in the living room, she repainted window frames, switched out a wall sconce, and added a projector screen. Tiered steps lead to the balcony, where she zip-tied planter boxes to the railing to create a garden.

In one of the bedrooms, she installed peel-and-stick tracks on the ceiling to hang curtains.

Levy said it all comes down to “doing little things to make it feel like your space.”

Avoid landlord trouble and get deposit back

Before changing a space, renters should look through their lease to see what it allows them to do.

For example, leases generally allow renters to make small nail holes in walls to hang decor such as pictures, said Paul Cohen, general counsel for Hapco Philadelphia, the city’s largest association of rental property owners. Most landlords require tenants to patch holes when they leave.

Most don’t want tenants painting walls, Cohen said, but if tenants do paint, they should use light colors they can easily cover with the original wall color.

When it comes to repairs, most landlords want to use their own insured maintenance people, Cohen said. And as a rule, landlords don’t want tenants finding inspiration in the demolition parts of HGTV shows and changing structural components of a property.

Tenants usually don’t change fixtures, he said. If they do, they tend to take them when they leave.

Ultimately, if tenants want to make significant changes and don’t want their landlords to keep their security deposit or sue them, “communication is the key,” Cohen said. “Tell the landlord what you’d like to do and get approval.”

Nicole Lawrence, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Tenant Union Representative Network, said tenants should get that consent in writing before doing any renovations.

Typically, Cohen said, landlords feel that “if it improves the property, why not?”

That’s why Levy wasn’t worried about renovations.

“With this apartment, it was kind of easy to make changes because of the condition that we got it in,” she said. There were holes in the walls, and everything was dirty.

She and her partner took care of basics and had fun.

Levy isn’t sure how long she’ll be in her new rowhouse before she and her partner can afford a house, but that next step “would be my dream,” she said, “because I would totally go all in making changes.”