How to Fix the Terrible Paint Job Your Landlord Left Behind

How to Fix the Terrible Paint Job Your Landlord Left Behind

You’re going to need a putty knife and an awful lot of patience.
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Welcome to Roommates Week, an exploration of the highs and lows of cohabitation.

Moving into an apartment almost always involves finding one or two little problems that you didn’t know about before you signed the lease. Sometimes you discover the shower has terrible water pressure, or that the people upstairs have an extremely heavy dog that enjoys sprinting around at 2 a.m. For Chelsea, it was a roach problem—of a very particular kind. In a now-iconic photo, Chelsea shared her roommate with the world: A painted-over cockroach, glued grimly to its final resting place, like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. 

This photo is perhaps the internet’s most well-known instance of what’s become known as the "landlord special": Rented apartments with thick layers of cheap white paint over everything, from covered-up door hinges and handles, to painted-shut fuse boxes and windows that you might have wanted to open in case of warm weather or fire.

Chelsea, who is an internet acquaintance of mine, told me that she and the roach shared an apartment in Austin for only nine months, and she didn’t discover her little cohabitant until the day before she left to move to Alaska. As you might expect, the rest of the apartment was "a disaster," and also featured many other common irritations, like "painted over light switch plates" and "paint splatters in the bathtub/on the tile floors." The problems went deeper: "the glass in my bedroom window was broken, I noted it the day I moved in, and they just never fixed it even though I filed a dozen work orders. I ended up breaking my lease because of it." (Chelsea now lives in a lovely house in Anchorage with her husband, dog, and cat.) Having to deal with these much more urgent issues meant that Chelsea never really got around to addressing the paint, since, after all, she "figured it just sort of comes with the apartment rental territory."

In a better world, landlords would either simply not paint like they’re being paid per gallon, or they’d fix their mistakes themselves. But this is not our world. Chelsea isn’t alone in the struggle to get landlords to fix urgent quality of life issues, like lack of heat; it’s an unfortunate reality that most of the time, you have to pick your battles, and sloppy paint ends up lower on the list.

Luckily, there are things you can do to fix many of the worst instances of the landlord special yourself.

Assess the damage

The sooner you can start attacking these problems, the better. Ideally, you’ll start before you’ve moved all your stuff in. (I mean, really ideally, you’ll find these problems before you sign the lease and still have a chance to ask the landlord about touching them up.) Anytime you’re sanding or chipping off bits of paint, it’s easiest to clean up when there’s no furniture or rugs nearby. If you’re doing this after moving in, you can throw down a drop cloth to make cleanup easier.

It’s always fun to make a little list, so walk around the apartment and figure out what you want to free from its painted tomb before you head to the store. Most of the talk online about the landlord special tends to focus on things like window pulls and door handles, but there’s a wide range of things that landlords can and will paint over with careless glee. In my apartment, these included: Things left in kitchen cabinets, like little bits of spaghetti; what looked like dog hair in a drawer in the kitchen (the kitchen!); endless hairs on the bathroom wall. Again, as offensive as these can be, it’s up to you how thoroughly you want to go after every instance of the landlord special. 

Brad Schwartz, a handyman in Brooklyn, told me he’s frequently seen "painted over tape" on the walls. Often, it’s best to "resist" the urge to peel the whole lot off in those cases: It might be under "several layers" of tape, leaving you with a "big, different-color gouge" in the wall. In my apartment, there’s a few big bumps on the wall where the landlord painted over a screw in an anchor left by previous tenants; it’s not worth trying to fix that, particularly since the walls are so lumpy anyway. I just popped another piece of art over it.

Prioritize and be safe!

This is a good opportunity to think about your priorities. What is most offensive to the eye? Hana Mattingly, an interior designer in San Francisco, said it’s always good to think about the "cost-benefit" analysis of fixing these issues. For example, is it worth draining your toilet to reach in and scrape out a little bit of paint in the bowl? This is a question I had to answer, and I decided it was not. One must draw the line somewhere. (It was in the second bathroom, anyway.) There’s still a lot of ugly and slightly insane-looking paint on the top edge of our second bathroom’s tiles, but since I’m not using that one often, I haven’t gotten around to it and might never. On the other hand, landlord specials that really impact the function of your apartment, like cabinets with painted-over hinges that prevent the doors from closing, are worth tackling before you get to fixing decorative touches.

Before you start scraping and cutting, you also need to think about safety. For older homes, there is a chance that lower layers of paint may contain lead. You can buy lead test kits from hardware stores; if your place was built before 1978, you should test the paint before you start scraping it all off. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Any time you’re sanding drywall or wood, or using strong chemicals, you’re also better off with a respirator mask. These are only about $20 and they prevent you from breathing in harmful particles, and they’re a broadly useful thing to have around in the future too. I used mine when I was sanding and painting some IKEA furniture and turning cheap wooden boards from Home Depot into bookshelves.

Get some tools

Just like exfoliating your face, there’s two main approaches to loosening or removing paint: Physical and chemical. Unlike exfoliating your face, it’s better to start off with the physical if you can.

Our first tools will be scrapers. For more delicate surfaces that scratch easily, look for a plastic putty knife. I used one of these to remove paint from my windows without damaging the glass, for example. They’re very cheap, so you can pick up a couple different sizes if you want to. You’ll also need a flexible metal putty knife for tougher jobs and areas that can take a bit more abuse. For really thick deposits of paint, like these stalactites of paint drips, you might want a chisel scraper. Just be aware that the stiffer the scraper, the more damage it can do, and the more you might have to repair afterwards.

Your other best friend on this journey will be a utility knife. I used a cheap Milwaukee utility knife, and picked up some replacement blades at the same time. It also has a button that you press down to flip it out, which is practical and makes you feel cool, like the cowboy of removing paint. (Of course, you should be careful: It is very sharp.) This will let you cut away paint with precision. The utility knife allowed me to cut away painted-over bumpers that had been stuck to the inside of our cabinet doors; unfortunately, this did reveal the lovely wood beneath in several spots, causing me to briefly consider removing the paint on every single cabinet in the kitchen. In the end, I just replaced the bumpers.

Finally, get some sandpaper. Sheets of sandpaper are cheap, but you might also benefit from getting a mini sanding tool for smaller and more intricate areas. This makes it much easier to get in between doors and hinges, the corners of cabinets, and so on. These tools come with small strips of different grits. Coarse sandpaper, like 80 grit, will remove more but cause more damage; fine sandpaper, like 180 or 220, will leave a smoother surface but might not be abrasive enough for some jobs. If you’re removing hairs from a bathroom wall, for example, you can either tweeze them out or sand it smooth. If you’re cleaning off detachable fixtures like door handles or window latches, a stiff grout brush or some steel wool can be helpful, too.

Now it's chemical time!

For some jobs, you’ll want the help of some chemicals. In my bathrooms, I wasn’t able to remove some of the paint splatters in the tub and on the tile walls with any of my tools, and I had already scratched my vinyl floors attempting to scrape off paint. (I wasn’t that worried, since they came pre-scratched.) I picked up some "green" paint stripper with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for spots like this, where I wasn’t concerned about accidentally stripping off other paint that I wanted to keep. This stripper is also easy to clean out of brushes, just with soap and water. You can also ask in your local hardware store for their favored brands.

For vertical spots like the side of the tub and the shower doors, I applied the stripper with a paintbrush and then put cling wrap on top to keep it in place, since it’s a little runny. I let it sit for about 20 minutes, and then scraped the paint off easily with my plastic scraper. As usual with these types of jobs, it’s better to apply a little bit at first and see if that gets the job done, and then go in again if it wasn’t enough. If you’re using it on plastic or synthetic surfaces, err on the side of removing it more quickly so you don’t leave any marks. The type of stripper you need will depend on the type of paint your landlord used, but one advantage you have here is that most landlords who deploy The Special are using the same type of paint: The cheapest, thickest white latex paint they can find.

Rescuing hardware

Some of the most baffling landlord specials are the painted-over fixtures, from door locks to soap holders in the shower. Often, particularly in older buildings, the hardware under the paint is beautiful and worth freeing. The best way to tackle this is to unscrew them entirely. You may have to cut or chip paint out of the screw head to do this—Brad said he uses "a flathead screwdriver" and "a safety razor." Be very careful when you’re cutting paint out of screws, because you can slip easily. Eventually, the screw will be clear enough that you can just unscrew the whole thing.

Nicholas Levesque, a designer in San Francisco, recently bought a house for the first time in Haight-Ashbury. It’s a Victorian house, with "stained glass, original molding and hardware," that had previously been rented and painted many times, so "one of the first things" Nicholas did when he moved in was to tackle some of the painted-over hardware. In a TikTok video, he demonstrated how he unscrewed and boiled a window pull just in plain water—making sure to use a pot he doesn’t use for cooking—and buffed the paint off with steel wool once it started to look loose. For other fixtures, he "ended up fully replacing them," since they weren’t as nice anyway, with some vintage ones he found on eBay.

Hana concurred: Sometimes it’s best to just buy new things, particularly those that are easy to take to your next place. If you invest in some new hardware for cabinet doors, it "won’t break the bank," and can "elevate the whole space," making it all look purposeful instead of slapped-together. In my apartment, the showerheads had some paint splatters, but we wanted to replace those with better ones anyway. We threw those in a drawer, bought new ones for $25 each, and never had to think about our painty showers.

Good as new

If anything you’re fixing or removing leaves a hole in the wall, you can repair most small areas with spackle. I used this delightful stuff that goes on pink and dries white, which was also recommended by Brad and Hana. You splodge it into the hole, smooth over the front with a putty knife, and wait for it to dry. Brad noted you don’t have to be super artful in application. You’re going to sand it smooth afterwards anyway, with fine sandpaper: "If you put it on as a mess and do a lot of sanding after, it’ll still look good." Often, your landlord or building’s handyman will have a tub of that cheap white paint lying around; if you ask to use a tiny bit for touchups, they may let you. You can also try color matching, or get a sample of paint from the hardware store for around $5 and paint it on an inconspicuous wall or other surface to see if it matches. (Make sure to let it dry fully before you check.)

Ultimately, how much work you want to put in to fix these issues just depends on how much they’re bothering you. If you’ve hardly noticed the drips of paint from your windowsill, keep on truckin’. But if you’re sick of seeing it, don’t hesitate to beautify your home. After all, as I kept reminding myself while I was sanding painted dog hair out of a broken drawer, you’re not likely to damage the place more trying to fix it than they already did by slapping an inch thick of paint all over it. Your landlord may own the place, but it’s your home, and you deserve to live somewhere you love.

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