Renting: Adventures in Lighting

February 21 | Guest post by Joyce Underwood
lots of lamps © by allielovestea, used under Creative Commons license.
When looking at places to live, there are certain things that just don't cross your mind. I never realized how important lighting was until I started to rent. Apparently, I need a lot of light to function. Or, rather, I like having the option of a lot of light.

Growing up, my dad was legally blind, so to help him see better in the house, he installed an 8 foot ballast fluorescent light in the dining room of our 800-square-foot trailer. That was all the light anyone needed in the common living area. That thing was bright! There were also four different windows that let in natural light throughout the day if you didn't want to feel like you were living in a science lab. I got used to this. When I moved to college I lived in dorms that had huge windows and fluorescent lighting as well, so in that sense I was right at home.

Then I got my first apartment.

There was one light fixture in the kitchen and that was it. I have come to realize that this is normal. I guess most people use lamps in common areas. Up to that point, I was unaware of this commonality. There were no light fixtures in the bedrooms either. This was much more confusing. We got some lamps, but I still found it to be rather dim. I was also surprised by the lack of windows. There were three windows and a sliding glass door in the entirety of the 1000-square-foot floor plan. It's no wonder that I went through one of the worst cases of depression I can remember while living there. It was flipping dark.

Since moving on, I have yet to find a domicile that adequately meets my unique lighting needs. My current rental home is better than the previous one, but it doesn't get "OMG SCIENCE LAB!" bright. I hadn't even thought about the lighting issue until recently, when I was contemplating dragging a table into the yard to work on a project. I assure you, in future house hunting, checking the lighting situation will be near the top of my checklist. It's not that I can't see in here. I really think it's just a comfort thing. I don't like having to turn on the lights. I would rather let the sun do the work. However, if the lights are on, I want it to be, like, effective.

Here's what I've learned.

For those who like it bright

  • Are there windows in every room?
  • Are there windows on all sides of the domicile?
  • Are there (at least) windows on the east and west sides of the domicile?
  • Are any windows obstructed by buildings, trees, or otherwise immoveable objects?
  • How many light fixtures are in the domicile?
  • Are the light fixtures compatible with fluorescent lights?
  • Are the walls/floors a light reflective color? (White walls are the best.)
  • Are there enough outlets to add auxiliary lighting if needed?
  • If there are covered porches or decks, how do they effect the natural lighting?
  • Are candles allowed as per your lease?

If you prefer it dark

  • Do you want "work third shift" dark, or do you just prefer it to be dim?
  • How big are the windows?
  • How many windows are there?
  • Will you have to purchase window treatments?
  • Are there blinds on the windows?
  • How easily can you block out the light with curtains/paper/tin foil/all of the above?
  • Are the walls/floors color absorbent? (Wood paneling is good.)
  • Are there any rooms without windows? (Bathrooms usually.)
  • Are the light fixtures low-watt bulb compatible?
  • Is the light coming from doors (windows or sliding glass) easily obstructed without blocking the egress?

So, what do you look for, you light-finicky renters?

Psst: Need some lighting ideas? Offbeat Home has a whole board of 'em on Pinterest. Enjoy!

  1. Basement apartments are usually really dark (duh…) but I didn't think of that when I got my first one. There were two windows and by the time my lease was up I had SADD from the lack of light. Yeeeee.
    If you like light check for how many outlets are around for lamps.

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    • I can imagine how dark it would be in a basement apartment, I had a friend who lived in one. I hope your SADD went away when you moved.

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    • I have a basement condo. Actually it's "garden level" so it's not completely underground, but it's really bright with natural light. I think that it has to do with how the building is situated. It is above street level, faces South, and is on a hill. There are no buildings across the street to block light. I looked at a condo on the same floor in the back of the building, and it was dim and dark and sad…

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  2. Ooh, great questions. I love natural light. I think another aspect to consider is how well the rooms flow together vs. being boxed off. That can really affect how far the light from one window spreads.

    Also, if you'll need to buy window treatments are you allowed to put them up?

    Do you have the money to purchase lamps or window treatments you may need?

    Does your lease allow halogen lamps? Extension cords? Would you need extension cords, or are the outlets located near the places you'd actually put lamps and furniture?

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    • You know, funny thing, the darkest apartment was the one with the open floor plan. It was really weird – there was no brightening the place up. About having money for lamps and whatnot is important too – we did not have the money at the time, so it was dark for the whole winter.

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  3. I believe the dimmer switch is the greatest invention ever.
    The apartment light problem was a huge issue for me in college, when I moved into a small flat with small windows, with a friend (who already lived there), who did not like very much light. She only had one small lamp in the common area, and I found it was hard for me to work there, and I was also developing mild depression by midwinter.
    Our compromise was the addition of a large floor lamp with a dimmer switch. The adjustable light was cheaper on our energy bill than a full power- full time light, and it helped us keep the peace and get what we each wanted.
    Now, four years later, I have a large, beautiful flat, with big windows everywhere, and I STILL have a lamp on a dimmer switch in every room.

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    • You are living the dream! I want the apartment from "Friends" or "Rent" with those huge windows that are basically one wall. Some day.

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      • I'm "living the dream" in the suburbs of Detroit, MI. Yes, my flat is like those in Friends and Rent, but if I lived in Manhattan like those guys, I would barely be able to afford a hole in the wall.

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        • For me, the dream was the aparment, not NYC, but I guess I can't attest to what living in Detroit is like, having not been there in nearly 10 years. Still, it sounds like a wonderful apartment to have.

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  4. I found it soooo odd when I moved to America and some houses don't have light fittings, just light switches that operate a socket so you can have a lamp plugged in.
    In England EVERY room in EVERY house that I have ever been in has had a ceiling light fixture.
    definitely a cultural difference that took some getting used to, luckily the new house we just moved into has ceiling light fixtures in every room

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    • I think, and this is theory so if I'm wrong please correct, that the switch-that-operates-an-outlet is something that was developed during postwar construction. I don't think I've ever run into that in a house that was contructed pre-war.

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    • I didn't even know that was a thing until right now. Rooms just have light fittings, like they have doors and floors. weird!

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    • I have never been inside a room without a ceiling light fixture! Rooms just have lights, it's how the world works!

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  5. I moved out of my first studio apartment because of the lack of daylight. After 1.5 years I really had enough. My biggest requirement for my next apartment was light!!!! I got one that had a rather large south facing window, which meant lots of sun light. Now I am fortunate enough to live in a flat with a hugh west-facing window. It is so light in the living room, even in the dead end of winter. Still I struggle in December, when the days are shortest, but it definitely helps.

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    • The seasonal light thing doesn't seem to be as big an issue for me, as I live in the south and it's pretty sunny all year round. Strangely, I seem to get SADD between early spring and mid summer. I think the heat does it. I wonder if there's a place in the world that's both temperate and sunny? California perhaps . . .

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  6. Great article. Lighting is a super important issue to my husband and I when renting. My husband does work the third shift and every time we look at an apartment to rent he spends the longest time in the bedroom trying to figure out how dark he can get it.

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    • Glad to hear from someone for whom the darkness is preferable. I know there are lots of people out there who work third shift and this has got to be a struggle for them. I had an aunt who worked "swing shift" at a mill. So, she'd go a month at each shift on a rotation. I can't even imagine how she did it.

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      • I prefer darkness a lot of the time due to migraines- I've had to hang blankets over windows to get it dark enough for comfort before. When I'm not headachy, though, I love the sun, so I guess I look for light that's easy to switch up (good blinds, lamps I can choose myself, etc).

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  7. These are important things to think about! When my husband and I bought our home, we immediately had to buy several standing lights to put in the basement. We also switched out the carpet (the old one was gross anyway) to something lighter. It really helped to brighten up the place. It's still a fairly dark basement, but at least we don't trip every time we walk down there!

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  8. I am soooo lucky where I live. We've been living in our new rent house for about a week, and even though it doesn't have very many light fixtures, or plug-ins for that matter, there are big, old fashioned windows EVERYWHERE, even in the laundry room, and all the walls and ceilings are white. A lot of the time during the day, I don't even turn the lights on because there is so much natural light. It's awesome =D

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  9. My new apartment has ceiling lights in the hallway, kitchen, bathroom, vanity sink in my bedroom and dining area–all of which are in a straight line. The living room and bedrooms have none. It's really weird to me because they just installed this really long, really nice light fixture in the kitchen and the dining area (right beside it) is on a dimmer. There's recessed lighting in the bar that seperates the kitchen from the living room, and recessed lighting down the hall. These people did a LOT of work to install lights, then skipped the other rooms entirely. XD
    Somehow, when we were touring the apartment, we didn't notice this. It didn't even OCCUR to us that they might not have ceiling lights at this apartment–our previous apartment had ceiling lights in every room, and then some.
    In our living room, we've added a floor lamp like this, which allows us to point the light in different directions as we need. The walls are off-white, which helps bounce the light around in there.

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    • You just described the first apartment I lived in. And it was really weird. Why go through all that trouble with the lighting and then just not go ahead and finish off the rooms people live in, you know? I would really love to know the logic behind it. It boggles the mind.

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      • The light in my previous apartment's bedroom was actually sort of annoying–far too bright in the evenings. So maybe there IS some thought there that you probably want lamp light in the bedroom. I'll never understand not having it in the living room. Someone once said that they don't often install lighting in living rooms in order to keep the layout fluid. My answer to that, of course, would be to center the light in the room and be done with it.
        Incidentally, the house I used to live in didn't have a ceiling light in the living room. We nosed around in the attic and discovered that the only available junction boxes were really oddly placed and pretty well loaded. So that might be a factor, too.

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  10. When we moved into our apartment two years ago, there were NO light fixtures in the living room, but there was a ceiling fan and two small windows. We had a couple of lamps that helped, but since we are night owls we never had enough light. Six months ago we were hanging a large piece of artwork and forgot to turn the ceiling fan off (I KNOW><) and completely broke it to pieces. Miraculously it was the only thing that broke. SO we bought a NEW ceiling fan (same model!) but WITH a light attached and had our electrician friend install it for us. Voila! We didn't have to tell the landlords anything because a new company just bought the building and they have no idea what our apartment really looked like before we moved in, so no trouble there. And now we have nice light allll the time!!! WIN!

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  11. At one point I thought I was living in a cave in the first apartment we had with our son. :O At first it seemed nice and bright. Then we realized that the two giant windows in the abnormally long living room really made it feel like a cave. Crawl towards the light! It was very depressing after a time. We were also super broke so buying lighting wasn't really a great option. Our living room was super dark. :/ The good thing about that place was the bedrooms had light fixtures in both bedrooms and the dining room thankfully. Our current apartment is great, double windows in every room and french doors off the living room. Yay light! I always get depressed in the winter because of the lack of 'good' sunshine.

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  12. Any tips on living with a light-hater when you're a light-lover? About all my husband and I have in common, light preference-wise, is our hatred of fluorescent lights (although mine is more of a, "well, at least I can see, but I'm turning it off as soon as I'm done", whereas they make my husband physically ill).

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    • Sunglasses? Just kidding. I really don't know. I guess the best solution would be for each of you to have your own spaces where you can have the light to your preference. As for common areas – I guess you should discuss what you want out of the area to begin with. For example, if you are talking about an entertainment room with TV, DVDs, and games systems, light wouldn't be so important as in a kitchen/dining/gaming area. Comprimise is key.

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    • I have this problem too. The mister wants the house as dark and dim as possible, whereas I like having lots of light so I can see what I'm doing.
      We compromised- the front room and the bedroom are kept dark for him, with blankets over the bedroom windows, and thick curtains and dim (yet awesome) lamps in the front room, but the kitchen and my "making stuff" room are brightly lit (both rooms have overhead lighting and bright windows).

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  13. I've lived in a lot of old houses, and the characteristic they all had in common was lack of decent lighting by the shower. They all had sconces by the sink and no lighting anywhere else. Showering was like bathing yourself in a cave…forget about trying to shave anything. One place was so bad that I had to bring in a lamp just so that I could shower at night. Our current house is a little better, but I definitely plan on installing a ceiling fixture near the shower as soon as we have some extra cash.

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  14. Our first apartment had HUGE floresent industrial set ups (like you would see in an office or a school) in the living/dining/kitchen area, plus huge windows on three walls. It was always bright. The bedroom was darker, but also had huge windows (no industrial ballasts, though). Then we moved, and there is NO ROOM BRIGHT ENOUGH HERE. Despite huge windows in the living and dining rooms, it's still like a cave. The ceiling fixture in the dining room doesn't work, and we haven't been able to get it replaced yet- so we resorted to lamps. Unfortunately, the lamps are very yellow and do not cast much light- making the place feel even bleaker. Ugh. I want LOTS of natural light in the living spaces, but with the ability to darken if I need to. Haven't figured out the best solution yet. =(

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  15. CHECK OUT THE ELECTRICAL BOX! The house we're renting now has plenty of natural light, but I like it bright in the evening as well. Our fuse box can't handle the lamps, space heaters, and wii on at the same time. :( We blow a fuse at least once a night. If you're planning on plugging in light sources and other things make sure your house can handle it.

    that is all.

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