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

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



“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

“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

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

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

See All Photos

Renter-Friendly Wallpaper

Decor Disguise

Glitz and Glam

Love Your Lighting

Camo and Custom Shelving

Not Your Daughter's Washi Tape

Washi Accent Wall

Sneaky Stainless Makeover

Living Decor

Gallery Wall Paper

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

Minimal Shelving

Shower in Luxury

Photo By: Kohler

Boring Blinds Be Gone

Photo By: Brian Patrick Flynn

Separate in Style

An Easy Switch

Photo By: Andrew D Myers

Rugs on Rugs on Rugs

Electric Style

Fabric Feature Wall

Practical Pantry Additions

Magic Mirror

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