Whether you own it or not, you can still take action to make your living space healthier and homier.
Living in a rental house or apartment is fundamentally different from living in a home that you own, primarily because you don’t have as much freedom in working with your living space. During the many years I spent in rented apartments, however, I found a number of ways to make the temporary homes more healthy and natural.
Location, location, location
Rentals, especially apartment buildings, are often located in less desirable areas, such as on busy streets. Look around and be creative. Depending on where you live, you may have more options than you think. Consider, for example, seeking out “in-law” or “garden” apartments in residential neighborhoods, as well as backyard cottages or larger old houses that have been converted to rental apartments. Air quality will be better, in general, in a unit that is older and on an upper floor, farther away from traffic fumes.
If you have no other choice but to live in an area with poor air quality, you can always purchase an air filter. Factor in the cost of this before you sign a lease.
Shop for landlords
Landlords are not all alike. Seek out a landlord who will allow you some freedom to make changes, and recognize that the changes you make for your own pleasure and comfort may actually benefit him or her, too. Negotiate what you want, and point out the benefits—especially the financial ones.
I twice rented apartments where I was easily able to negotiate removal of the carpets, which harbor volatile organic compounds and mold, among other substances I didn’t want in my living space. In one apartment the carpet was in pretty bad shape. I said I would remove it and refinish the hardwood floor beneath, if necessary, giving the landlord a floor in better condition for the next tenant. As it turned out, the wood floor was in very good condition, having been covered with carpet for years.
In another apartment, the carpet was in good condition, and I asked the landlord to remove and store it, which would give it a few extra years of life. I said I would pay when I moved to have it reinstalled. But when I moved, this landlord left the hardwood floors bare and didn’t ask for the reinstallation money.
In general, buildings with only a few units have more flexible owner/landlords; buildings with many units have hired managers and rigid policies. Make sure any agreements that deviate from the norm are included in your signed lease and spelled out in detail.
Find the right floors
The right flooring is one of the top considerations in a rental. A toxic carpet is one of the worst things to live with, and it generally covers the entire house or apartment.
If the unit is carpeted, find out how old the carpet is. Don’t rent a unit that has been newly carpeted. If you can smell the carpet, don’t rent that place. Find out if the landlord plans to install new carpet before the move-in date.
If you find yourself stuck with synthetic carpet and don’t like the feel of it, you can always place natural fiber throw rugs on top of it. Although they won’t block the fumes, they will feel good underfoot and improve the general ambiance of the room.
Preview the pesticides
Unfortunately, many apartment owners hire pest control companies to spray toxic chemicals, whether they are needed or not. It is important to find out if this is the case in your building, and to make allowances for it.
I once lived in an apartment building where the pest control company came every month to spray each apartment for ants. I said I didn’t want my apartment sprayed and that I would take responsibility for the ants. They allowed me to do so, and after a few months, everyone else still had an ant problem that required monthly spraying, but my apartment was completely ant-free! I simply observed where the ants were coming in, filled the hole with nontoxic white glue, and wiped up the ants with a damp sponge. I would do the same when the ants found another hole and another hole, until all the holes were filled. No holes, no ants—no pesticides.
Purify your water
Municipal tap water generally isn’t the best thing to drink, but you can easily install filters that will do some good.
Check your local hardware or home improvement stores for carbon filters. They all work to some degree—the larger undersink models are better than those you attach to the tap simply because the carbon lasts longer. The trick is to stay ahead of the suggested filter cartridge changes, to keep your water clean.
You can also attach a filter to your showerhead.
Befriend your neighbors
Living in tight spaces, you are probably going to be affected at some point by your neighbors. By establishing good relations at the beginning, you can talk about your healthy environmental preferences.
You could, for example, educate your co-tenants (in a friendly way, of course) about nontoxic cleaning or pest controls or how to light their balcony barbecues without toxic lighter fluid.
You could also make joint purchases on products that are good for everyone, such as a huge box of unscented laundry compound. Once I had a neighbor who split a dairy delivery with me each week because the minimum order was too much for either of us single girls. With home delivery of organic food now available in so many areas, such a delivery could be split between neighbors.