The accidental landlord: renovation tips for buy-to-let properties

Follow Victoria Whitlock's top renovation tips and you could get a higher rent for your property and make big long-term savings
A friend has bought her first buy-to-let property — a tatty one-bedroom flat somewhere in Zone 2 — and she's wondering whether it's worth doing the place up before trying to find a tenant. I say yes, the estate agent says no. He reckons she won't get any more rent even if she replaces the minging kitchen and bathroom. I think he's talking rubbish.

I faced the same dilemma seven years ago when I bought my first rental property, a flat. I ignored the agent who told me to leave it as it was and instead put in a new kitchen and bathroom, chucked out the old carpet, fitted sturdy wardrobes, installed a modern boiler and had the place painted. It let for £200 a month more than the agent's highest estimate. So there.

The work cost me £10,000 and, admittedly, it took quite a few years to recoup what I had spent, but one of the most compelling reasons to tart up a property is that it makes it easy to let, and you'll have fewer voids — the landlord's nightmare. Plus, assuming you make a good job of it, it will be easier to manage and your tenants will appreciate your effort — most of the time. That said, it's important not to get carried away. Think about what sort of tenant it's going to attract and equip the place accordingly.

And be realistic. Don't think that because you've kitted out a property with the latest entertainment system you're going to attract top dollar if it's on a dual carriageway in Zone 6. Find out the asking prices for properties in your area and plan your renovation with this in mind.

In every case, you need to make the property as robust as possible. In kitchens, avoid wooden worktops as they're bound to go mouldy. The one in my house, from Ikea, was fine when I lived there and oiled it when I remembered, but when I let the place it quickly rotted. Laminate, while cheap, also deteriorates over time. Instead, I'd go for stainless steel or composite stone, which is cheaper than marble or granite but is stain- and heat-resistant.

Carpet is always a problem. It quickly gets grubby and costs a fortune to clean. Never put carpet in a bathroom. Lino is cheap and warm. Tiles are cold and more expensive but look better, and last longer. Hardwood or laminate floors will be noisy for the neighbours but are a better option than carpet, so lay rugs over them. They can look good as an interior decorating accessory and if they get too grubby you just replace them. Ikea does a good selection. Stripped wooden floorboards might look great but they're draughty — bad news if your property already has a poor energy rating.

But avoid laminate in hallways, kitchens and bathrooms because it rots when damp. Always put loose covers on furniture — in between lets you can take them off and wash them.

Bathrooms take a bashing. You need them to stay clean and fresh. Mould on tile grout and on sealant around baths and showers is a big problem in rental properties. I always have to re-do mine between lets so I recommend using large, dark tiles — trendy matt gray looks good against a white bath — with a dark grout. Cheap, flimsy taps are a false economy — they need to be sturdy. The extra cost will only be a fraction of what you'll have to pay a plumber when the cheap ones break.

The same goes for boilers — go for the best you can afford and you'll save on repairs later. So when you buy, renovate first to get a good let and save on repairs later.

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