When Free Rent Costs $3,000

Renting a dump? Maybe you can make a deal with your landlord. According to The New York Times, that's what San Francisco designer, Grant K. Gibson, did when he offered to renovate his apartment in exchange for two months' worth of rent. But what The Times fails to ask is whether the trade is worth your time.

Gibson's one-bedroom rental was a catastrophe. "The sea-foam green and lavender walls were peeling and trimmed in a clashing fire-engine red. The hardwood floors were ringed in stains from houseplants left to sit in puddles," he told The Times. Even though Gibson wrinkled his nose at the interior, the apartment's bay view and lively Presidio Heights neighborhood drew him in. So he spent more than $6,000 redesigning and renovating his apartment, incurring a 100-percent loss since two months' rent only cost $3,000. And we're noteven including labor costs.

So is it worth it to renovate an apartment yourself in exchange for free rent?

Absolutely, if the cost of renovation is less than the cost of rent, says Daniel Mill, owner of New York City-based general contracting company, Daniel Mill Enterprise. Mill says that even if the cost of rent and the cost of renovation are the same, it still makes sense for the individual to take on the task of renovating. After all, breaking even is never bad.

However, if fixing up a place you haven't yet lived in exceeds the amount you'd be saving on rent, it's best to find a better deal elsewhere. "Ask yourself what the incentive is in overpaying," warns Mill.

Don't forget that your labor has a price tag. "Usually, labor is more expensive than materials," Mill notes. In Gibson's case, Mill says the cost of labor for the renovation equaled approximately $12,000. If he were to hire a contractor, however, it would cost the designer a lot more money, according to Mill.

Lech Kozubek, owner of San Francisco-based Kozubek Construction, suggests that prior to remodeling, renters should consult with contractors to get an idea of the degree of damage in the apartment and find out the approximate cost of repairs. There's no good way to tell if you are overspending on painting or sanding as the type and quality of materials necessary for each project depend on the size and the condition of the apartment.

"For example, is $3,000 worth of sanding and staining floors a good deal? Well, that depends on what kind of flooring you have," says Kozubek. "Sometimes, that much money is spent on floors in only two rooms."

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