After three years of living in a $1,050-a-month one-bedroom with a shared kitchen in Ridgewood, Queens, Luiza and Ken Li were ready for an upgrade.
“Our incomes had gone up substantially, and we realized we could afford our own kitchen,” said Ms. Li, an editor at a test-prep company. But they didn’t want to pay more than $2,000 a month, a budget that wasn’t turning up much they really liked.
When they asked their landlord if he had any available apartments, he somewhat reluctantly told them about an apartment in Ridgewood that he would be willing to rent to them for $1,800 a month. It was a large, railroad-style unit with one bedroom and an adjoining room that could be used as an office, and its own kitchen and backyard.
The catch? They would have to take it as is.
“We like a fixer-upper, but it was in pretty decrepit shape,” Ms. Li said. “A middle-aged couple from the Balkans had been living there for the past 15 years. It seemed like they’d just given up on cleaning at some point. And some of it was just old.”
Undeterred, the couple asked only that the landlord fix a light switch that was throwing out sparks and repair a hole in the bathroom ceiling that exposed their upstairs’ neighbors tub, a problem they discovered when they pulled down the water-damaged dropped ceiling.
The rest, they would tackle themselves.
$2,000 | Ridgewood, Queens
Luiza Li, 34, and Ken Li, 48
Occupations: Ms. Li is an editor for a publishing company that specializes in test prep; Mr. Li is a voice-over IP engineer for a telecommunications company.
Cat friendly: Ridgewood has a large feral-cat population, so it turned out to be a great spot for cat lovers. Mr. Li built a winter shelter in the backyard, and like others in the neighborhood, the couple feed the cats. “Every morning when we wake up and make coffee, there’s a line outside,” Ms. Li said.
A plumber and a cleaner: Mail they have received indicates that the woman who lived there before them ran a cleaning service, which they find hard to believe given the state of the apartment. And the landlord told them a previous tenant was a plumber. “But I don’t see how that could be true,” Ms. Li said. “The sink drainpipe was not connected correctly, so it kept leaking.”
In 2017, they moved in and got to work. “We started working with scrapers to get the old paint and grime off the walls,” Ms. Li said. “The whole apartment was painted really weird colors: brown, salmon, super-bright orange. The wallpaper in the kitchen was painted a color Ken accurately described as dirty: a mix between gray and brown.”
In an older four-unit building like theirs, many of the repairs they made led to additional, unanticipated work. “You replace one thing, other things break,” Mr. Li said.
They discovered that early on, when Ms. Li scraped off the painted wallpaper in the kitchen. Underneath she found more wallpaper, so she scraped that off, too. But it took a lot of the plaster with it, which meant that Mr. Li needed to replaster sections of the wall before they could repaint.
A number of the fixes were cosmetic: They replaced all the light fixtures in the apartment. In the kitchen, they covered the deteriorating floor with stick-on linoleum, painted the counters with a textured paint that mimics marble and used peel-and-stick paper printed with subway tile to create a backsplash.
“I hate it and I love it at the same time,” said Mr. Li, of the faux subway tile. “It’s a stick-on, which makes me mad, but it looks so good, especially from a distance.”
Real subway tile was out of the question. They didn’t want to invest more than $100 in any one project, to avoid spending more than they would have on a broker’s fee.
Whenever possible, the couple tried to make improvements with the materials on hand. A narrow cabinet wedged between the stove and the wall was functionally useless until Mr. Li turned it into a slide-out spice rack (a project inspired when the cabinet door fell off). And after determining that the giant porcelain kitchen sink “was cool, but too raggedy to keep,” Ms. Li said, they rescued a stainless-steel sink from the debris in the backyard. The balky door to the backyard was easier to fix: It just needed to be rehung in order to swing open smoothly.
“It ended up being my hobby — finding cheap ways to make it livable,” said Mr. Li of the apartment.
Previously, the couple had lived in Ms. Li’s apartment in Astoria, Queens, and they wanted to remain there. But they had to find a new place in a rush not long after Mr. Li and his cat, Miri, moved in, as the building had a no-pet policy and the landlord discovered they were violating it.
Ms. Li, who moved to New York from Poland to attend the City University of New York, was hesitant to move to Ridgewood. “I told myself I’d never move to Ridgewood because it’s like little Poland,” she said. “But it was cheaper than Astoria and we were getting a lot of pressure from the landlord to move ASAP. I also wanted to quit my job at the time, so we went for the cheapest thing.”
Finding a cat-friendly apartment also complicated matters. But over the past six years, Ridgewood has grown on them, especially as the local restaurant offerings have expanded. “When we moved here, there was one cool restaurant,” Mr. Li said. “Now there are so many.”
Unfortunately, their landlord is also aware of the neighborhood’s increased amenities, and last year raised their rent to $2,000 a month. “We were like, ‘Thanks,’” Ms. Li said. “But we feel like, sadly, looking at the market, it’s still a fair price.”
Even after the rent hike, they plan to continue making improvements. The deck in back could use some beatification — although Mr. Li has already reinforced it, because it looked as if it might collapse (for a while, they had to enforce a five-person-at-a-time limit at barbecues).
“It still looks awful, but we didn’t feel like scraping and painting it right away,” Ms. Li said.
“We may still get to it,” Mr. Li added.
“One eyesore at a time,” Ms. Li said.