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How We Painted Our Rental

I am very thankful for rental apartments. They have allowed us to live affordably in grad school, and have been perfect for living in cities in which we have temporary jobs that only last a few years. While rentals can be great for a number of reasons (including not being responsible for repairs, improvements, etc.), in most cases it's hard to make a rental feel truly yours. Typically they are temporary, and as renters we don't have much control over how the place looks, including hardware, lighting, kitchens and bathrooms, etc. One thing that is very doable for a renter that can make a huge difference in a living space, however, is painting. Painting may be the most affective, and affordable, way to make a home feel new, refreshed, and unique to your particular style.

We moved to a townhouse in Arlington, VA this past spring. Because we consider it to be our first "non-student" feeling rental, we decided it would be worth it to invest in a fresh coat of paint to make it feel more like ours. While it took a little research and preparation to make it happen, it was relatively low-cost and only took a few days to totally transform our townhouse into a light, bright, beautiful home.

Living & Dining: Before

Living & Dining: After

Bedroom: Before

Bedroom: After

The Plan

1. Ask For Permission

If you are renting, you will need to ask for permission to paint and to use the color you want. Our landlords were really accommodating and flexible so we had no issues there.

2. Estimate How Much Paint to Buy

This will depend on the number and size of rooms, number of windows and doors in those rooms, and number of coats. Calculators like this one and this one are really helpful. We did the living/dining room, stairwell/ upstairs hallway, master bedroom, office, and upstairs bathroom with around 11 gallons (we got two 5-gallon buckets (cheaper in bulk) plus one, 1-gallon bucket). We planned to just do two coats in each room but ended up doing three because we were painting over a darker color. Luckily we got a bit more than what we thought we would need originally so we had plenty of paint for a third coat. Our paint color was also a primer + paint in one, so we just did three coats of the paint without priming first.

3. Watch Tutorials

If you have never painted before, watch video tutorials (I like this one). It is especially helpful for learning how to properly cut in and use rollers. Your technique doesn't have to be perfect, but it can make a difference!

4. Purchase Paint and Supplies

We used Home Depot for just about everything. See the list of supplies we chose below. The up-front cost was fairly high (~$400 or so), but we basically started with nothing (we didn't have any of the supplies), and a lot of the supplies we got were one-time investments (basically everything except the paint!). I will say that paint can be expensive - we got the cheapest type of flat paint from Behr (link to it below), so that helped keep costs down. Even with the cost, it has been 100% worth it.

5. Come Up With a Painting Plan

Decide who will do what, how much time you'll need for prep, painting, drying, etc. We decided that I would be the primary person doing the cutting in (I'm very detail-oriented), and Cary would be the one to use the roller. That way once I finished cutting in a wall he could follow behind with the roller. We set aside a few days right when we moved in to get everything painted. We started with our bedroom - we slept on the floor in our guest room the first couple of nights so it would have plenty of time to dry. After that we moved on to the other rooms. While one room was drying we would start on the next room. I've heard mixed advice about when it's best to put on second coats - when the first is completely dry or when it's still a bit "tacky." We weren't too careful about this - as long as it felt pretty much dry we went ahead and put on more coats and didn't have any problems.


  1. Angled Brush: Angled brushes are key for cutting in. I ended going up with about a 2-2.5" wide brush - a little easier to control and hold while still being wide enough to cover a fairly large area. These from Wooster were great.

  2. Roller Frame: I wanted something that felt sturdy and durable, so I went with these wood-handled ones. **If you need an extension pole for high ceilings, make sure the roller frame has the ability to screw onto the end of the extension pole.

  3. Extension Pole: We got this specifically for painting our stairwell with really high ceilings. While you can use an extension pole to paint near the ceilings on most walls, we found that we preferred just using the ladder in most cases. Because the ladder wouldn't work on the stairs, the extension pole was great.

  4. Roller Cover: For a roller cover I went for one that was best for flat surfaces. It's nice that all of the roller covers specify what types of surfaces they are made for.

  5. Roller Tray: I like these metal trays, however if I could go back in time I would have also gotten disposable plastic liners for them so that they would last longer. But they worked great on their own. We also really liked that they clip into the step ladder we got.

  6. Ladder: An essential home item regardless of whether you are painting, in my opinion. Having a step ladder is great to have around, but is especially necessary for painting. I like this one because it has a little collapsable "project tray" at the top, perfect for holding screw drivers, tools, etc. as you work. You can also clip in paint trays which was super helpful.

  7. Canvas Dropcloths: The two most popular dropcloth materials are plastic and canvas. We went with two canvas ones, and while they are more expensive than plastic, they are probably my favorite purchase of the bunch. While they were great for protecting the floor during painting, they are washable and reusable. We've also used them for a number of other situations since, including picnic blankets, protecting furniture when there are contractors working on repairs, etc.

  8. Painters Tape: We decided not to use painters tape along ceilings and baseboards, because the color of the walls was super close to the ceiling and baseboard color. We did use it in the bathroom, though. More on this below.

  9. Paint: I've always dreamed of pure, white walls in my house. Ultra Pure White from Behr is their "base white," meaning that it's their purest white. It's the white they use for mixing other colors. We have loved it - it's really light and bright without feeling cold or hospital-like. We also keep warmer light bulbs in all of our lamps which helps it to feel more warm and cozy as well. We went with the flat texture (no shine)- while this is also the cheapest option, it tends to have more of a modern feel to it and doesn't reflect any light. It does scuff and scratch easier than, say, eggshell, however we've found that a magic eraser takes care of most issues.


  1. Paint can opener (Home Depot gave us one with the paint for free)

  2. Paint stirrers (Home Depot gave us a bunch with the paint)

  3. Paper towels

  4. Plastic cups or tall disposable Tupperware (for paint to use with the cutting-in brush)

  5. Trash bags

  6. Bluetooth speaker - music while painting is a must!


1. Prep

Since we didn't use tape in any of the rooms (except for the bathroom) to save time and money, all we had to do to prep was lay out the dropcloths, set up the ladder, open and stir the paint, and put on some music. Pour some paint in a plastic cup or Tupperware to use with the cutting-in brush, and pour some paint in the tray to use with the roller.

For the bathroom - I used painters tape where the wall met the shower tile, vanity, and wall cabinets. I didn't bother taping along the ceiling and baseboards because the color was so similar.

2. Cut in

Video tutorials are really helpful in understanding the proper technique for cutting in. There are lots on YouTube. It can feel slow when you first start, but once you get the hang of it you can move along pretty quickly.

3. Roll

It's helpful to watch video tutorials for rolling as well, to avoid lines in the paint and sufficient coverage. It's best to go in a "W" pattern with the roller, overlapping strokes. We tried to match the thickness of the paint put on with the cutting-in brush with the paint rolled on for consistency.

4. Let dry

It took a couple of hours for each coat to dry. Definitely doable to finish a room in a day!

5. Repeat

Repeat steps 2-4 depending on how many coats you need. We ended up doing 3 coats because we were putting white paint over darker colors.

6. Clean the Brushes and Roller Covers

In between coats during the same day, we didn't bother cleaning the brushes, trays, or roller covers. If we weren't going to paint again until the next day, we rinsed everything out as best we could in a reasonable time frame and let everything air dry. Another trick is to put everything in a plastic bag in the fridge if there is still some paint on them. After we were completely done, we did a really thorough clean of the brushes and trays, and just threw out the roller covers. After so many coats of so many rooms we figured that we would just buy new covers next time we painted.

7. Remove tape (if used)

If you use tape, make sure the paint has time to dry completely before removing. I let the tape in the bathroom sit for at least 24 hours before taking it off.

For Tall Ceilings & Stairwells

The most challenging part of painting our townhouse was the stairwell. The ceiling above the stairs goes all the way up to the ceiling on the second floor, and using the ladder on the stairs wasn't an option. They sell gadgets for painting on really high walls to avoid getting paint on the ceiling and to help get in tight corners, but because we were painting with a pure white that was close to the ceiling color, we decided it was OK if a little got on the ceiling.

How we did it: We just duct taped a paint brush to the end of the extension pole. It was a bit awkward to dip the brush in the paint, but we just had a tray with paint set up at the bottom of the stairs with plenty of drop cloths underfoot. Very sophisticated, we know. For rolling, it was the same as for the other walls we just screwed the roller frame onto the extension pole.


This post is not sponsored or in partnership with any of the aforementioned brands but the article contains affiliate links. When you shop via the links above I may make commission on a sale at no additional cost to you. All opinions are my own.



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