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Decorator turns rental house into a home

ST. PETERSBURG — Niki Smith has followed a typical residential arc as an adult: marriage and a small house; children and a larger house; affluence and a yet larger house. Even after widowhood and grown children who had flown the nest, she still inhabited a space of 3,000 square feet with four bedrooms (grandchildren, after all). But the time came, sooner than she expected, to downsize. And with it came a decision to rent instead of buy.

Mrs. Smith, 50, and her husband Allan, who have been married for four years, lived until recently in half of a duplex on Snell Isle that she owned with her parents. They had an opportunity to sell and Niki Smith, alerted that new owners might want her space for their own tenants, decided to rent, at least for a year.

They realized they would have to accept less space since they didn't want to pay in rent what they could have afforded as a mortgage. She trolled St. Petersburg and then extended the search to the gulf beaches, but finally returned close to home. A two-bedroom, two-bath house across the street from their duplex came on the rental market. The good news: It was affordable. The okay news: It was half the size of their former digs. The heartening news: She saw a lot of charming, cottage-style potential in it.

Potential is a hopeful word, laden with the possibility but not the promise of results. It also carries for many the parenthetical association with major cash outlay. Potential is Mrs. Smith's stock in trade. She's an interior decorator who works part time at the Bronze Lady, a design and furniture store in Madeira Beach, and has her own business, Niki Designs. She has access to a legion of crafts people and workmen but chose, with help from her husband, to realize most of the little house's potential herself.

It helped that she had the luxury of a month's time before she had to transfer her life from the old place to the new.

The house was built in the 1970s on a narrow lot, so its design is horizontal and essentially one room deep. It has no distinguishing architectural details. The ceilings are the standard 10 feet high from that era. The appliances and fixtures are serviceable, the wall-to-wall carpet a bland beige. Windows are aluminum-frame crankouts. Upgrading any of those elements would be expensive and foolish in a rental.

So she began with those as non-negotiables.

Her biggest suggestion for improvement: "If possible, before you move anything in, clean, clean, clean," she says.

"I scrubbed years of grime off the kitchen cabinets, washed down the baseboards and uncarpeted areas. I scrubbed the bathroom tile and grout with a strong cleaner, and the difference was amazing."

She developed a good relationship with her future landlord, discussed what she wanted to do and he paid for professional cleaning of the carpet and windows.

He was also supportive of the cosmetic changes she wanted to make. She agreed to paint walls, so he bought the paint she chose. She installed new blinds herself, and he gave her a credit toward the monthly rent.

Though she spends her days interpreting other people's styles, Mrs. Smith is clear about her own.

"I would call it updated country," she says. "Clean, straight lines in furniture and vibrant, mostly primary, colors. I'm not a pastel person."

She painted living, dining and kitchen areas a warm, buttery yellow. She furnished them with upholstered pieces in deep blue, a mix of antiques and reproductions, and tropes of red in accessories. The bedrooms have a tropical feel. The blue in the master bedroom is vibrant but soothing, a color Mrs. Smith calls swimming pool blue, mixed with furniture in a variety of cream and white.

The guest bedroom is lime green, a choice that flouts conventional wisdom. The lesson is that any wall color can work if it's part of a well-planned coordination of colors in furnishings.

In all, Mrs. Smith spent about $1,000 on the makeover, most of it in the master bedroom, because she bought new bedding from Pottery Barn (on sale). It's also the only room with curtains, but she saved big on those.

"They're four king-size sheets from Target, $14.99 each, because you can get the right length and all the fullness you want from sheets and they're much less expensive than drapery panels. I only had to hem the bottom. The rods were $20 from Lowe's," she says.

The biggest splurge and most expensive purchase was the set of brushed stainless steel knobs she bought for the kitchen cabinets, $75 total. The valance over the window is made from a toile panel she found on sale at Wal-Mart for $5, plus $3 for ribbons to use as ties and a $2 tension rod.

The process of culling her large household was not the painful experience she anticipated. Only a few things made the cut based on sentiment: her great-grandmother's round oak table and an upright piano acquired when she was a child and refinished by her mother decades ago, for example.

She let her three daughters have their pick of possessions, but they have their own brimming homes so didn't need much from her. She consigned the most valuable pieces, had an estate sale that cleared out more things, and the rest was given to charity.

"It's a cleansing thing," Mrs. Smith says. "I haven't missed anything. I had all of that stuff long enough. This is like a fresh start."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

. fast facts

Niki Smith's tips

• Negotiate with your landlord, who should be willing to pay for professional carpet cleaning, for example.

• Discuss painting in advance. Some rentals require that you return walls to the move-in color or forfeit a deposit.

• Ask to share expenses of improvements that will stay with the residence when you leave — blinds, for example. Mrs. Smith suggests buying the best blinds you can afford to give a more polished look.

• Clean everything before moving in.

• Edit your possessions with equal parts practicality and sentimentality. If you think you can't bear to part with a treasure but can't fit it into your new life, consider giving it to a family member or close friend rather than selling it, perhaps with the understanding that if they someday no longer want it, you have right of first refusal.

• Little touches make a big difference. Mrs. Smith bought new cabinet knobs and a new faucet that perked up the kitchen.

• Do a room at a time if possible. You'll be better able to assess what you can use and what you can't.

• Spend time organizing the closets. You'll feel at home right away.

• Bring all storage boxes inside and set a deadline for unpacking them. They tend to stay in a garage longer since they're out of sight.

• Freshen up the landscaping even if a service is provided.

• Have the place sprayed by a pest control service before moving in. Consider a monthly service if one isn't provided.

Decorator turns rental house into a home 12/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 12:21pm]

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