6 Easy Design Tips for Renters You Can Actually Afford

It's really possible to customize your rental space without a trust fund or lottery win. Here's how.

Living in a rental is convenient; you have an on-call maintenance staff, landscaping is handled, amenities are included and, if you’re lucky, water isn’t an additional expense. I currently rent a downtown loft, and since it’s in a historic building, my restrictions are a bit different. It’s difficult to make a “house” a home when you’re limited in what you can change. What if you despise the paint color but can’t paint? There are plenty of ways to make a temporary space, whether it’s an apartment or dorm room, feel settled.

Up-and-coming interior designers Allison Hennessy and Nick Olsen share their top tips for making a rental feel more homey, while still getting back your deposit in the end.

Add Bold Built-Ins

Overview of Multipurpose Room in Peacock Blue

Overview of Multipurpose Room in Peacock Blue

To give the open space just off the entry a purpose, yet keep the center of the area open for traffic flow in and out of this apartment, two pairs of ready-made bookshelves purchased from an office supply store were placed back-to-back to act as room dividers. On one side, a private office is separated from the formal dining space and family room on the other side. The apartment's walls were painted peacock blue, which helps the walls recede so that accents of white and apple green stand out.

Photo by: Photographer: Christina Wedge

Photographer: Christina Wedge

While some apartments come equipped with beautiful built-ins, others can be more lifeless. Olsen says: “To add intrigue and make the space feel like it was built just for you, add your own built-ins without damaging walls.” One way to do this, he advises, is by adding two tall bookshelves that reach to nearly the top of the ceiling on either side of a doorway. To make them pop, try painting them in a bold color, such as high-gloss black, burnt orange or Pantone’s 2013 Color of the Year, emerald green.

Make Over Your Walls

CI_WallPops-dorm-room-decor-globetrotter-decal_h

CI_WallPops-dorm-room-decor-globetrotter-decal_h

“The simplest and least expensive way to enhance your rental’s architecture (or lack of) is by revamping the walls,” says Hennesey. One way to make over rental walls is with peel-and-stick wall art.

“As the wall decor isn’t permanent, it provides an opportunity to go bold. I particularly like stripes, especially for a foyer or hallway." 

Update Light Fixtures

Navy Contemporary Dining Area With White Pedestal Table

Navy Contemporary Dining Area With White Pedestal Table

Since Kristen likes to watch TV during dinner, it was important she squeeze some dining space into the living room. "I only had about four feet of width to sneak in dining furniture," she explains. "Finding a table to fit the space perfectly was impossible. By purchasing two different flea market tables — one with the perfect top and another with the perfect base — it allowed me to combine the two and create something custom." To create a uniform look, Kristin spray-painted the newly assembled pieces with a high gloss white.

“Most rentals have dreadful, cheap ceiling lights and fans,” says Hennesey. She suggests updating these eyesores with inexpensive landlord-friendly fixes. “Swap out current fixtures with new pendants or lampshades that complement your decor. When it’s time to move you can easily put back the old fixture and take the new one with you.” Additionally, try hanging plug-in wall sconces in hallways or above sofas.

Choose Transitional Items

Gray Contemporary Living Room With Orange Leather Sofa

Gray Contemporary Living Room With Orange Leather Sofa

When Erin first moved into her loft, it was packed with clunky furniture and had orange walls that made the space feel busy. In order to make the space open, airy and serene, she came up with clever storage solutions that keep everything well organized and clutter free.

As apartments often provide little space to fill with all of your favorite items, make sure to be particular with the furnishings and accessories you do have in each room.  Hennessey says: “Chic Europeans live with less things but they are all very fine. I’ve adopted this approach in my own life. I live in a small apartment in my favorite neighborhood that doesn’t require a lot of furniture, but all the items I have, I love.”

To get this look, first get rid of any items that have lost their purpose or are no longer in style. Then, invest in pieces that can easily transition to the next apartment, such as neutral upholstery, chairs, end tables, beautiful bed linens, lamps and art. Olsen agrees: “Even if you’re not locked into your current apartment, invest in great items that finish off a room and make it feel cozy, such as area rugs and curtains. When you move you can always cut the rug down if it doesn’t fit in the next space. For the curtains, if your next rental’s ceilings are shorter you can let in the hem or if ceilings are higher, you can simply let it out. Don’t shy away from these details that make a place feel settled into and a real home.”

Double the Square Footage

Venetian Bedroom Mirror

Venetian Bedroom Mirror

To create architectural interest and to seemingly double the size of the room and welcome more light, add a large leaning mirror to one wall. Find a mirror that’s nearly half the size of the wall or place a few medium-size mirrors side by side to visually enlarge the space. Try positioning it or them across from a window that receives natural light so it can be reflected back into the room. If, like some apartments, you don’t have a window in a room, Olsen advises to, “add a large-scale oil painting, even in a small space. The painting will bring light and vibrancy into the room.” 

Contemporary Dining Room With Dark Wood Table and Blue Shag Carpet

Contemporary Dining Room With Dark Wood Table and Blue Shag Carpet

A dark wood dining room table with a 42-inch round top allows Matt and Jodi to seat four to six people for meals. Round tables in small spaces are the best solution since there are no hard corners to crowd space needed for chairs. To ground the area and delineate it from the family room and office zones, a shag rug in the same shade of peacock blue was centered in the space.

By incorporating these tips, you’ll find that you don’t need a mortgage to feel like you really have a home.

Looking for more temporary fixes and small-space inspiration?

Even More Rental Upgrades

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Renter-Friendly Wallpaper

For some people, the thought of being surrounded by four off-white walls is simply unbearable. And for others, it's just plain boring. As removable wallpaper becomes more popular, the designs become more stylish and more affordable. It might just be time to pick out your perfect pattern!

Decor Disguise

You're certainly not going to change the electrical work in your rental, so you may be forced to live with some oddly-placed lights, light switches or power outlets. Carmel from Our Fifth House solved this problem by camouflaging a light switch within a tasteful gallery wall.

Glitz and Glam

Washi tape is great, but it certainly isn't the only tape out there that can make a big impact in your home. It only took Dina from Honey & Fitz two rolls of gold duct tape to turn a basic white fridge into a glitzy showstopper.

Love Your Lighting

One of the worst things about rental units has got to be the outdated light fixtures. Luckily, this is also one of the easiest switches. Simply swap out that light fixture for something more your style. Just be sure to reattach the original fixture before moving out.

Camo and Custom Shelving

Radiators are not attractive; it's as simple as that. But covering a radiator is not always so simple. Luckily, Marian from Miss Mustard Seed shares her beautiful solution. Her custom radiator cover not only disguises the unit, but it even adds extra storage in an often tight space.

Not Your Daughter's Washi Tape

Did you think washi tape was just for the kiddos? Think again. With so many attractive styles to choose from, you're bound to find a roll that suits your taste. These washi tape frames add a colorful touch to any space. Opt for cool geometric shapes to give your home even more personality.

Washi Accent Wall

A washi tape wall can be as colorful or as subdued as you like. Emily from Everything Emily created this stunning accent wall with just two rolls of black washi tape. The best part? She completed the project for less than $10.

Sneaky Stainless Makeover

Older appliances might work just fine, but that doesn't mean you should have to live with a dated design in your cooking space. Julie Blanner found an ideal solution in the form of stainless steel contact paper. For around $5, this change has the power to totally transform your kitchen. In fact, the landlord may even ask you to leave it up.

Living Decor

If you're hoping to add a homey feel to your rented space, simply adding a few plants around the house might do the trick. This fiddle leaf fig tree adds life and texture to the living room. And for an added bonus, plants help purify indoor air. (No more mystery smell from renters past.)

Gallery Wall Paper

If you can't wallpaper your rental, then why not try framing your favorite wallpaper instead? Marianne Canada from HGTV Crafternoon recommends getting a sample of your favorite print and displaying it in a gorgeous frame. Now you can have your wallpaper and your rental deposit, too!

Photo By: Liz Gray ©© 2013 HGTV/Scripps Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Minimal Shelving

Do you secretly long for a wall of custom built-ins, knowing that your landlord would recoil at the thought? These industrial shelves from Fixer Upper offer plenty of shelf space and can be attached with just a few screws.

Shower in Luxury

One change that makes a huge difference, but is often overlooked, is the showerhead. This is one of those upgrades that is worth spending some extra dough. After all, when you're ready to move, simply reattach the old fixture and take yours to your new abode. Make barely-drizzling showerheads a thing of the past!

Photo By: Kohler

Boring Blinds Be Gone

Bland blinds have the power to make any room feel like a cheap motel. Even if you have to leave them up, patterned drapes layered on top can take your window treatments to a whole new level.

Photo By: Brian Patrick Flynn

Separate in Style

If you can't paint the walls, changing the basic structure of the room is obviously out of the question. That's where room dividers come in handy. Create a home office or give the kids their own play space in a single bedroom.

An Easy Switch

A great way to add some personality to your rented space is to simply switch out those basic door knobs with some that suit your taste. Just make sure you switch back to the originals before you move out.

Photo By: Andrew D Myers

Rugs on Rugs on Rugs

Let's talk floors. Scratched hardwood and stained carpet are just the beginning. Before moving in, it never hurts to have the floors professionally cleaned. But if they still look like a mess, area rugs will be your new best friend. Place them over hardwood and even over carpet for a clean, updated look that is all you.

Electric Style

If you like the duct tape idea, you'll love this stylish door by Stacie from Stars for Street Lights. Some quick measuring, a steady hand and a bit of electrical tape totally transformed these contractor-grade doors. The result is nothing short of fabulous!

Fabric Feature Wall

While you've probably heard of removable wallpaper, removable fabric wallpaper is another great option for renters. It peels right off, and has the potential to add a ton of color, pattern and even texture to your home. Learn how to install it here.

Practical Pantry Additions

Another excellent idea for extra space is an over-the-door pantry unit. You can maximize the space on the back of the pantry door with only a few screws. Warning: Some landlords are more than fine with storage additions like this one, but you may be asked to leave it behind when you move.

Magic Mirror

Want more space instantly? Add a large mirror to any room, and the visual effect is bound to make your space feel bigger and brighter, all without knocking down a single wall.

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