Updated: May 9, 2022
Tenants can't usually make big improvements to rentals themselves, but they can work with landlords to identify and implement upgrades. We've developed some pointers below.
First, be a good tenant - you'll have a hard time getting your landlord's attention if you never pay your rent on time, cause maintenance headaches or make repeated non-emergency service requests, or have a poor relationship with your landlord. Good landlords want to keep good tenants around; even landlords that aren't as good know the value of keeping good tenants since they don't incur the costs of turnover.
Do your research - if you have an idea about what could be improved, learn more about costs and what is involved. If there are local rebate or incentive programs to help offset costs (see here for info), gather information on those too.
Is the issue one that might be affecting your neighbors too? If so, consider talking to them as well, perhaps after a conversation with your landlord to let them know you want to explore others' interest in improvements. Don't start with a petition or a protest though! Start with a conversation.
If your community or utility offers low-cost energy audits, ask your landlord if they would be willing to cover the cost (usually $100-200), offer to split it with them, or consider splitting the cost with roommates or neighbors (ideally with landlord permission). Audits can help you prioritize what needs to be done.
Even without an audit, there are certain steps that can be identified as clear priorities in a single-family home, duplex, or low-rise complex: 1) ensuring that there are at least 12 inches of insulation in the attic and 2) ensuring that the crawlspace or basement (including the bandboard) is well insulated.
Start with a request for a conversation, not a complaint - e.g. "My apartment has been pretty drafty and that's been problematic since I'm working at home more. Would you be open to talking about some ideas to improve it?" rather than "This apartment is cold and in terrible condition and you need to fix it."
Consider offering to sign a longer lease as a condition of getting some improvements made.
Consider offering to pay a small premium on your rent each month to help share the cost of the improvement. By splitting it over many months, you'll pay your portion out of the savings you accrue due to lower energy bills. For example, if it costs $800 to blow insulation into the attic, you could agree to cover 1/2 the cost over a 2-year lease, and pay an extra $17/mo - or make an offer that makes sense to you.
Offer to help get quotes from contractors for the work that needs to be done.
Be flexible on timing, and consider the landlord's schedule when you make your request - if you approach them in the middle of turnover season, or the week they get back from vacation, it might not be the best time. Let them know you'd like to talk, and give them some time to follow through.
Be respectful. Almost always, in everything, the right way to go.
Document your communication - it can be helpful if your landlord isn't being responsive, particularly if it's a health and safety issue (in which case you may need to explore other approaches, like approaching your local code enforcement agency).
Once you come to an agreement, write down the details as you understand them, and ask your landlord to confirm, also in writing - either by responding to an email or signing off on your summary.
Have you had experience as a tenant or landlord in implementing energy or other sustainability upgrades? Share them with us! firstname.lastname@example.org.