30 Decorating Mistakes Apartment Dwellers Make

Living in a small or rented space (or a small rented space) doesn’t have to mean cutting corners on style. Sidestep these common blunders, and you’re halfway to the good (and good-looking) life.

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June 29, 2020

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Buying Furniture Before You Move

Unless you’ve taken copious measurements and photos, you won’t know what you need in your new space until you’ve spent some time living in it. While it’s tempting to move in with a truckload of furniture, the perfect pieces (like this sofa and its accessories) are worth the wait — and it’s worth making a trip to see them in person instead of stocking up online.

Ignoring Window Treatments

Hanging a rod and curtains like these isn’t much more difficult than putting a picture on the wall. If you’re a renter, consider asking your landlord if he or she will assist you with an upgrade like this, as future tenants will enjoy the hardware, too. (Psst: Hang that curtain rod high, and make sure your curtains hit the floor.)

LEARN MORE: Do's + Don'ts of Designer-Worthy Window Treatments

Living With Ho-Hum White Walls

Though many tenants receive firm instructions to leave their spaces unpainted, reaching for a brush isn’t the only way to add color and character to a room. Removable wallpaper is a chic and stylish way to give your space a quick and easy design upgrade.

Leaving a Litter Box Out in the Open

Giving your furry friend a discreet place to go — whether it’s tucked in a cabinet or utility closet or enclosed in a customized piece of furniture — is a win-win-win (for him or her, you and visitors). No one wants to do their business in mixed company.

GET THE HOW-TO: How to Turn a Standard Cabinet into a Kitty Litter Station

Cluttering the Bathroom With Toiletries

High-end, color-coordinated supplies like these can hang out on the counter. Extremely personal hygiene items, on the other hand, should take a powder somewhere else when you’re expecting company. Dinner party guests don’t need to mingle with your shampoo and deodorant.

See More Photos: 50 (Almost) Free Bathroom Updates

Cheaping Out on a Shower Curtain

In standard apartment bathrooms, a drawn curtain often spans an entire wall. Would you cover a feature wall (or frame a window) with novelty vinyl? Spending, say, $50 on a beautiful fabric curtain (and a fabric curtain liner that you can take down and launder) sounds extravagant, but the resulting look is a thousand times lovelier than its toxic PVC-related equivalent.

LEARN MORE: Say No to Fumes in Your House

Choosing Furniture That's Too Big...

In a massive, open-plan space, a boho sectional like this one has the potential to be your home’s piece de résistance. In a smaller one ... just resist.

LEARN MORE: 10 Apartment-Sized Sofas for Every Style Under $1,000

...Or Too Small

If you’ve downsized so aggressively that your rooms look more like dioramas than adult humans’ living areas, it’s time to step away from the dollhouse catalogs. Two properly-proportioned chairs, for example, are preferable to a quartet of diminutive ones (unless you throw tea parties for stuffed animals on a regular basis).

Using Over-the-Door Hangers

Real talk: Few things torpedo a room’s pulled-together aesthetic faster than a storage solution that screams “makin’ the best of student housing.” If additional hanging storage is a must, use handsome self-adhesive hooks or DIY your own chic copper clothes rack.

See More Photos: Storage on Display: 16 Unexpected Items to Incorporate Into Your Decor

Skipping Front Door Decor

Who says apartments can’t have their own version of curb appeal? Multi-unit dwellings might not leave much room for personal expression, but everyone can display a welcoming doormat. Learn how to monogram your own at the link below.

GET THE HOW-TO: DIY Monogrammed Doormat

Overcrowding the Entryway

Speaking of personal expression (and first impressions), saying "here’s a spot for you to hang your coat, kick off your shoes and make yourself at home!" is just as important as — if not more important than — saying "feast your eyes on my stuff." Make room for useful items like the ones here, give your entry just a touch of personality, then leave it alone.

See More Photos: 30 Mudroom Storage and Decorating Ideas

Complicating the Kitchen

Itty-bitty kitchens like this one don’t offer much in the way of breathing room, and covering countertops with appliances and tchotchkes can smother them in no time. A quaint retro decal, contrasting backsplash and streamlined storage rack are just enough to make it feel functional and fresh.

See More Photos: 75+ Small Kitchens With Big Style

Suffering Under Standard-Issue Lights

Rentals are notorious for overhead eyesores that a bit of elbow grease can clear up in no time. Swap out institutional fixtures for prettier pendants, then reinstall them when it’s time to move.

Having Stuff for Stuff's Sake

What’s worse than bare walls? Walls filled with generic pieces that look like they once filled a framing store’s bargain bin. Resist the urge to fill spaces with items that aren’t meaningful to you and hold out for a one-of-a-kind space like this one; it’s well worth the wait.

Tending a Less-Than-Lovely Bar

If you don’t have the square footage or the spare cash to spend on a full-fledged bar cart and do wish to display adult beverages, find a pretty tray that will pull cocktail components together at a moment’s notice, add a few polished accessories and decant spirits into matching vessels. A random parade of bottles is best left on Fraternity Row.

See More Photos: How to Style the Perfect Bar Cart for Any Party

Choosing the Wrong Plants

If your place doesn’t get the right kind of exposure, that trendy fiddle-leaf fig you just brought home will soon be headed for the big greenhouse in the sky. A pretty purple waffle plant like this one, in turn, needs medium or high light to maintain its color. Spare yourself the heartbreak of herbicide by having a long talk with the pros at your local nursery about which plants will thrive in your apartment.

See More Photos: 21 Indoor Plants for Low Light

Sticking to Posters

This DIY washi tape treatment is lovely — and it is in a dorm room. Your wall art deserves a chance to graduate, and a few good frames will lend it an air of sophistication in no time. If brackets and nails are non-starters where you live, layer pieces on sideboards, mantels or even the floor.

See More Photos: 15 Totally Removable DIYs for Your Rental

Matching Everything

Design pros like Leanne Ford (who created this quirky-but-harmonious seating area) know that furnishings should relate to one another without looking like they leapt from the same catalog page. Your apartment is your apartment, not the spread on pages 17-18.

Neglecting Dirty Windows

If you live in an urban area, chances are good that your windows aren’t getting the TLC they deserve — and if you’re a renter without a washing clause in your lease, there’s little you can do to compel your landlord or superintendent to scrub them (or allow you or someone you hire to scrub them). Investigate your options by talking to your building manager, and be sure to keep your side of the glass extra-clean — which survey respondents have said is, believe it or not, one of the most satisfying household chores to complete.

Hanging on to One-Off Dishes

Edit your cupboards by sorting items into groups of complementary colors — and then, as Marie Kondo might suggest, thank the stragglers for their service and let them go. You’ll always have your memories of SPRING BREAK 2003 and your cousin Barbara’s wedding, and that’s what really matters.

Holding Back Hand Towels

Blotting your hands on your own bath towel is well and good when you’re flying solo, but visitors should be spared that, er, intimacy. Investing in just one piece that you fold up and perch on the edge of the sink (no hanging hardware? No problem!) when company calls will add instant polish and maintain separation of shower and sink.

Sitting in the Dark

“That was a great party, but their apartment was so overlit,” said no departing guest ever. Built-in overhead lighting in rental spaces is passable at best, and city apartments in particular often lack natural light. Therefore, it's virtually impossible to overdo it with floor and table lamps. Everyone (and everyone’s apartment) benefits from uplighting.

Lacking a Recycling Bin

Keeping metal, plastic and paper products out of landfills is wonderful. Keeping them in a haphazard pile beside your kitchen garbage is ... gross. Corral your recycling in repurposed stacking dog food bins like these, instead.

Going Overboard With String Lights

An artful strand like this one (which designer Brian Patrick Flynn customized with pingpong balls!) gives your place a quirky je ne sais quoi. Haphazard, standard-issue holiday lights, on the other hand, can take your apartment into "that one creepy house that still has an inflatable Santa on their lawn in March" territory. Fairy lights are like finishing salt, and should be used thoughtfully and sparingly.

8 Ways to Use Holiday String Lights All Year Long

Misusing Rugs

Large carpets and rugs get very expensive very quickly, and it’s easy to fall for smaller pieces with smaller price tags — particularly in smaller living spaces. That said, stranding them in the middle of the room with no connection to the rest of your furnishings does them (and you) no favors. A bit of creative layering — as with this cowhide atop a sisal piece — can make all the difference.

Forgetting the Ceiling

Without a landlord’s blessing or familiarity with a power drill, an apartment’s loftiest surfaces can feel like dead space. Enter easy-as-pie swag hooks (which can screw into wood or joists without anchors and tackle a load of up to 10 pounds) and adhesive hooks (which stick on in a snap and can hold up to half a pound, like a small hanging plant or a lantern).

Forgoing Key Furniture

Consider this arrangement proof positive that a small space has plenty of room for grown-up furnishings. Behold a dresser, a full (and handsome!) bedframe and a desk, arranged without feeling claustrophobic. Don’t settle for a foldout, a futon or a mattress-with-benefits. You’ve earned a big-kid bed.

Missing Mirrors

Mirrors make apartments feel lighter and more spacious, they’re available at every price point and in a dazzling array of styles, and they’re just plain sexy. Why don’t you own more of them?

BUY IT: PBTeen, $449.00

Lacking a Proper Hamper

Laundry is a sore subject for many an apartment-dweller sans washer and dryer, but it doesn’t have to be an eyesore — and it shouldn’t be consigned to a closet, where it will gobble valuable out-of-sight storage space. A tall, global-inspired basket with a lid, like the one seen here, tackles it beautifully.

Inviting Everyone to Bed

In super-small or studio spaces, the sleeping area is going to be rubbing shoulders (or even sharing shoulders) with the rest of the apartment. Bookcases, screens and even curtains can keep the “kitchen” from feeling like the “bedroom” (and vice versa). If you plan to be in your place for a long time and can handle an investment, consider a power move like this modern Murphy bed, which springs from a sleek blue cabinet to form a nighttime nook that’s just for you.

See More Photos: 23 Murphy Beds That Look Good While Working Hard

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