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10 Apartment Renovations That Might Seem Legal but Aren’t

AndreyPopov / Getty Images/iStockphoto
AndreyPopov / Getty Images/iStockphoto

There's an old saying that it's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission. Considering that they shell out security deposits when they sign their leases, this is a terrible mindset for renters to adopt.

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Whether you rent an apartment or a house, your lease is a binding contract that dictates what you can and can't do. Sometimes, housing authority codes, municipal bylaws and other regulations add to the tally of do's and don'ts. It's easy enough for renters with the best intentions to make fairly innocuous modifications, only to wind up losing a chunk of their deposit for their troubles.

Different landlords have different rules, and renter protection laws vary from state to state, but the following is a list of things that are forbidden in most leases or are usually not OK to do without permission.

That last part is important. If you're not sure about these renovations, always run them by your landlord or building manager before you start making moves.

gilaxia / Getty Images
gilaxia / Getty Images

Painting

Every home improvement site worth its salt will advise you that a fresh coat of paint is one of the easiest and cheapest DIY ways to transform a room. Renters, however, don't always have that option. According to Apartment Therapy, the reason that painting is usually a no-no is simple -- ROI.

Repainting between tenants costs money and extends the time that the unit sits vacant until it's ready for a new renter to move in. Some leases allow only certain portions of a property to be painted, and/or only in certain colors. Others forbid it outright.

DjordjeDjurdjevic / Getty Images/iStockphoto
DjordjeDjurdjevic / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Hanging Things on Walls

You might see them as just a few teeny-tiny nail holes, but your landlord is likely to see the remnants of the pictures you hung as grounds to withhold part of your deposit. The reason, according to Apartment Therapy, is the same as it is with painting.

When you puncture walls -- even with tiny wire nails -- the landlord has to patch and paint those holes when you leave or pay someone else to do it. If you hang something too heavy, you could damage the wall, particularly if it's made of plaster instead of drywall, as is the case with so many historic properties.

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photovs / Getty Images/iStockphoto
photovs / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Changing the Locks

When tenants rent properties, they assume many of the rights that go with property ownership -- but not when it comes to changing the locks, according to RentPrep. As with so many renter renovations, the rules for this one vary from state to state, but in most cases -- California and New Jersey are rare examples to the contrary -- renters can't change locks without getting permission in advance. Even if the lease allows it, in most cases, they are required to give the landlord a copy of the key right away.

cbarnesphotography / Getty Images
cbarnesphotography / Getty Images

Displaying Political Signs

You might think that advertising your political beliefs for all to see on your rented property is your First Amendment right. It is a constitutional issue, according to MassLandlords, but one that lands in favor of the property owner, not the tenant, in most cases.

There's a whole lot of gray area, but the prevailing wisdom is that property owners cannot be compelled to utter speech that they do not wish to utter. There is plenty of conflicting case law -- and local bylaws might have the final say in whether your sign is legal or not depending on factors like its location, size and content -- but either way, it's a headache that can be avoided with an email to your landlord.

Shutterstock.com
Shutterstock.com

Adding New Lighting

If you rent a place with a light fixture that doesn't jive with your motif, you can typically swap it out for a new one, according to Little Upgrades. There is, however, a caveat -- you have to keep the old one and swap it back in on your way out.

While you can temporarily change the overhead fixtures that are common to so many rentals in most cases, you can almost never install new lighting that requires drilling, rewiring or the installation of hardware like switches.

FluxFactory / Getty Images/iStockphoto
FluxFactory / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Setting Up a Trampoline

Kids love trampolines because they're fun, but the older those kids get, the more they realize that thumbing your nose at gravity is an incredibly risky way to spend an afternoon. Because they bounce 100,000 people to the hospital every year, trampolines are a liability -- which is why they're almost always a dealbreaker for landlords.

According to Real Property Management, the property owner is usually on the hook for trampoline-related accidents and injuries, even if they weren't at fault. Landlords, therefore, take the figurative fall if someone takes a literal one on their renter's trampoline. Depending on the state, the landlord could face litigation even if the renter signs a waiver in advance.

DragonFly / Getty Images/iStockphoto
DragonFly / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Installing an Above-Ground Pool

Landlords say no to above-ground pools for the same reasons they say no to trampolines. People -- especially kids -- can get hurt or worse and when they do, the responsibility lies with the property owner, according to Real Property Management.

Like trampolines, above-ground pools have a ghastly record of child injuries and deaths, and here, too, owners are usually at fault even if they're not really at fault -- if a neighborhood kid wanders over when no one is home, for example.

But it's not just the danger/liability aspect.

Like trampolines -- as well as playhouses, sheds and all big, semi-permanent yard fixtures -- above-ground pools kill the grass below, make yard maintenance more difficult and become an eyesore if not maintained.

Csondy / Getty Images
Csondy / Getty Images

Adding or Removing Landscaping Features

According to RentPrep, the law supports landlords in almost all cases when it comes to altering the property's landscaping -- even if it's an alteration that improves curb appeal. That includes not just cutting down trees, but planting them, as well as adding or removing shrubs, or even digging a vegetable garden. A renter can plant those same vegetables in containers because it doesn't alter the property, but all modifications that can outlast the renter require the landlord's permission.

Shutterstock.com
Shutterstock.com

Installing a Security System

Renters looking for peace of mind might assume that it's their right to install a security system -- and they can, according to Security.org, as long as it doesn't alter the property or break the lease agreement. That includes things like non-hardwired doorbell cameras and motion sensors that don't need to be screwed into the walls.

According to ADT, however, that does not apply to fully integrated alarm systems that need to be professionally installed and that require work like hardwiring and drilling.

Shutterstock.com
Shutterstock.com

Installing a Washer/Dryer

If you rent a home or even an apartment long term, you might be ready to leave the days of lugging your clothes to the laundromat behind -- but that doesn't mean you can install a washing machine and dryer without your landlord's say-so.

If you don't have the connections in place, installing them requires a whole lot of plumbing work and other intrusive labor that the building owner will certainly want to know about. Even if you do, according to RentHop, the addition of major appliances could overwhelm the existing plumbing in older buildings.

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