Even those who don't own still invest in their apartments
Todd Merrill has pumped $50,000 into a floor-to-ceiling renovation of his West 11th Street apartment, from a complete paint and plaster job to totally revamped cabinetry and brand-new floors.
With a hefty investment like that, you'd think he was setting up his dream home where he planned to live until his final days on Earth. But the truth is, he could leave - or lose - the apartment at any time: His place is only a rental - and one that he only spends half of his time in.
It may seem counterintuitive to put a small fortune into upgrades for property that you don't even own, but some NYC renters are doing it anyway for a measure of control over their own quality of life - and, of all things, to actually save money in the long run.
Of course, whether that's the best use of your cash is debatable, experts say. It all depends on what price you would put on throwing money down a rabbit hole.
But for Merrill, his expensive rental renovation was partially a business decision. He sells vintage furniture and uses his apartment to showcase some of his pieces. He'll bring clients to the place to check out some of his offerings, so he needed to make sure that the pad was in tip-top shape.
"The apartment was very neglected when I got it," said Merrill, who is in his 40s. "I'm investing in my business, in my lifestyle, in my reputation."
The place - which was "designed in the '80s," Merrill said - has also been a second place of residence for him for four years. He spends half of his time there and the other half at a home that he owns with his family in the Hamptons.
Caroline Bass, an agent at realty firm Citi Habitats, has spent "a few thousand dollars" on upgrades to her own one-bedroom rental on West 72nd Street. She's added new light fixtures and a new vanity, had the floors redone, bought a new refrigerator and even built a deck for outdoor space.
Bass, 29, sees it as something that will save her money in the long-term, despite the fact that she won't ever see a financial return on her investment.
"What it comes down to for me is, I'm in an apartment that's well below market value," she said. Her building was once a hotel, so it "wasn't built for living."
"The cost would be more in rent for a place that's already had this stuff done," Bass said.
She justified her expenditures by saying that she has already lived in her apartment for five years - and her boyfriend recently moved in, so they plan on staying at least another five.
"You have to plan on staying long-term, otherwise it's not worth it," Bass said.
But even if it makes you happier with your apartment, it's not the renter who stands to gain the most from spending on renovations.
"You're doing your landlord a huge favor," said Farnoosh Torabi, personal finance expert and host of Yahoo's "Financially Fit." "I think the mistake is thinking that this is your financial burden."
The problem, she said, is that because renters don't own their property, they won't get the money they spend back in a sale. And besides, improvements to rentals should be the landlord's concern.
"You want to see a return on your investment," Torabi said. "If you're OK with just losing money, then OK."
Teri Rogers, founder and editor in chief of NYC real estate blog BrickUnderground.com, offered a big warning to renters thinking about renovations: "Remember that the landlord can require you to rip everything out - even if it's an improvement to the apartment - and pay to restore the apartment to its original condition."
She suggested that renters and landlords find common ground and work together to make upgrades.
"Maybe if you replace the vanity, he'll soundproof the windows," Rogers said.
And, finally, Rogers' parting piece of practical advice: "Try to make improvements that you can take with you to your next place."