Design Challenge: Rental Living

A not-so-secret fact about me: I have lived in a LOT of rental apartments and homes in my life. Since graduating college in 2006, I’ve lived in 9 rental units in four states, and let me tell you… moving sucks! But as much as I hate moving, there’s something to be said for being able to start in a new space — a blank canvas — and really make it your home.

But when your space is a rental unit, there are often limitations to how much you can do to it. Don’t worry, this post isn’t going to be a lecture on reading your rental lease thoroughly before signing (but, also, do that) or how to ask your landlord for things that you know they’ll probably say no to (seriously, just ask, you’ll be surprised — and it’s better to ask and get a yes, than to just do it and get a chunk taken out of your deposit). However, it is going to give you some handy ideas of how to work with tricky spaces, strict rules, and gross rental “features” that you might wind up stuck with.

Trick #1: Easy to Change = Easy to Put Back

Usually my least favorite things in an apartment are the easiest things to swap out easily. And the glorious thing about that, is that those things are really easy to put back when you move out! Just, you know… remember to keep the old things.

Some of the easiest things to swap out by yourself (or with a handy friend’s help):

  1. Flush-mount ceiling lights. You know those totally terrible ceiling lights that definitely look like they came from a Home Depot clearance sale (they probably did)? They’re in literally EVERY apartment I’ve lived in. And guess what? They’re super easy to switch out! There are plenty of options out there for cute lighting fixtures that are easy on the wallet, and can travel with you to a new apartment when you leave. Try CB2, World Market, and even Or, if you can find a vintage option at Goodwill or a consignment store, that’s always a win! But ALWAYS have the wiring checked first. Remember: whenever you’re doing any sort of lighting swap out, turn off the circuit breaker first, and have a handy-friend help you if you’ve never done it before. Plenty of tutorials on YouTube, but seriously… CIRCUIT BREAKER OFF!

  2. Showerhead. Ok so this is less about aesthetic and more about just living well. But water pressure is so important, and switching out your shower head is one of the easiest ways to make sure you always FEEL as good as you and your apartment look! Invest in a roll of plumbers tape and a decent pipe wrench (so important to make sure you always use a layer or two of plumbers tape and tighten properly to prevent leakage) and go get that rain head of your dreams!

  3. Cabinet handles and pulls. Whether it’s those awful kitchen cabinet handles, or terrible plastic “gemstone” pulls on a hallway built in (I speak from experience here, people — I seriously had those in a place in Los Angeles), you can find great, chic replacements at any hardware store. But my favorite places for totally on trend pulls that won’t break the bank? World Market for pulls and Anthropologie for handles. Just remember that when shopping for handles make sure that the space between the two “screws” is the same as the existing, so that you don’t have to drill new holes. Some of my favorites from both sites below!

Trick #2: To Paint or Not to Paint?

Painting is a tricky subject when it comes to rentals. What’s the law of the lease? What’s the tenant law in your state? All of those things are good to know. Some apartments will veto any sort of painting, some are on a “must ask first” or “no weird colors” policy, and some are a free for all. Some states have tenant laws that specifically note that landlords must apply a fresh coat of paint every few years, and if they don’t, they can’t charge you for re-painting fees at the end of your lease (California residents, this one’s for you). It’s good to find your state’s “tenant handbook” online for this reason (actually, for many reasons — know your renter’s rights!!) if your landlord has put an ex-nay on the aint-pay.

Obviously if you can paint, I recommend going with a neutral color that will be either easy to re-paint over at the end of your lease (if required) and won’t cause you to want to re-paint a year down the road. In my favorite apartment in Los Angeles, I decided to paint my bedroom what I can only describe as Pumpkin Spice one year… BIG MISTAKE. The following year, I realized how sick of it I was and decided to repaint in a bright teal… clearly I didn’t learn my lesson in that apartment (also my taste has improved SO MUCH since then).

In those tricky situations where there’s no painting allowed, and no way around it, consider something like removable wallpaper as a work-around. You can get everything from neutral panels to ombre to amazing prints — something for everyone! There are tons of great sites out there — many that have wallpaper in stock. Consider an accent wall, or even a whole room!

Trick #3: Make “Weird” Work

We’ve all seen it… that weird angled wall for no reason, or the strange doorway that leads to nothing, or even the weird column that sits right in the middle of the room where you want to put your sofa. As an interior designer, apartment floorplans often leave me scratching my head, and as a renter… well, sometimes they’re just infuriating!

Figure out something cool to do with that weird angled nook, like make it your dining space for two! Build out those deep window nooks with custom cushions to give your tiny NYC apartment more seating space! Work with that column to give your room some separation and make it into two sitting areas for entertaining! Get creative with your weird space, and those strange things will melt away from view. You might even find yourself missing them when they’re gone…

Putting a small table in this oddly angled corner made the best use of the space, and gave me a dining area that I didn’t expect! (Also, how cool is that personalized calendar from Bali — burnt onto thin sheets of wood with the most INTRICATE illustrations!!)

Putting a small table in this oddly angled corner made the best use of the space, and gave me a dining area that I didn’t expect! (Also, how cool is that personalized calendar from Bali — burnt onto thin sheets of wood with the most INTRICATE illustrations!!)


Trick #4: Creative Storage

In my experience, one of the hardest parts of rental living is having enough storage space. Especially when you’re moving from a small unit to a big unit and back to a small one across multiple state lines (no, not bitter, not me…), storage can become everything.

A lot of times, your storage solutions can be found in exactly the things you’re worried about finding space for! My biggest space challenge was when I moved from a nice, roomy 430 sq ft studio in LA to a teeny tiny 260 sq ft one bedroom in Brooklyn (seriously, I think it was just a studio that they stuck a wall in). I got a small storage unit, but in the hopes of not spending all of my money on monthly storage, I had to find a place for things like my amazingly comfortable, pillow-top, queen-sized mattress (while still having any other space in the bedroom) and my favorite set of waterfall edge acrylic side, coffee, and console tables.

In the bedroom, I found a wood bed frame that was extra tall — like 18 inches extra tall. Even though the bed took up the entire width of the room, it allowed me a ton of open storage space underneath, without having to deal with drawers and dividers. Sure, I had to jump up to get into bed, but everyone makes sacrifices.

In the living room, I set up the console against the back wall, flanked with tall bookshelves, and then pushed the sofa ALL the way up against it. Sure, it might seem counter-intuitive — after all, I was hiding my favorite acrylic console! — but it allowed me a ton of hidden storage space behind the sofa, under the console (which wasn’t even visible with the shelves on either side) and still gave me a place to put two table lamps so that my living room always had plenty of storage.

So before you get rid of that furniture that you love, just to save space, see if you can use it in a creative way to actually increase your storage. You’ll be surprised by what you come up with!

Between the storage under that console on the left, and the extra seating on the window ledges, this tiny Brooklyn apartment was a master-class in Living in Small Spaces and working with what you’ve got!

Between the storage under that console on the left, and the extra seating on the window ledges, this tiny Brooklyn apartment was a master-class in Living in Small Spaces and working with what you’ve got!


Trick #5: (Window) Cover It

Apartment blinds. *SHUDDER* They seriously send a chill down my spin. From the long plastic ones that hang down, constantly get twisted, and never stay attached, to the standard pull down blinds that decades of renters before you have definitely bent, broken, and made a mess of.

I. Hate. Rental. Window. Treatments.

But ahoy! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel! And it’s call CURTAINS!! Ok, ok, so it’s not the most novel thing, but seriously… it doesn’t take a ton of money to get a good looking rod set and to find yourself some gorgeous linen curtains to finish off your space. And trust me… it will FINISH it. But there’s a very important rule… NO GROMMETS.

You know what I’m talking about — those ugly silver rings punched through the perfectly good curtain material. It makes the curtain go from chic window covering to awful dorm attire. Get yourself a great “pocket” style curtain, and thank me later.

(Confession: we currently have grommeted curtains in our bedroom right now, but they’re just temporary until I can get blackout curtains made in a gray fabric that I love!)

Ok, ok, so some of you are still looking at me funny. What about those apartments where the landlord will absolutely have your head — not mention your deposit — if you drill into the walls? Not a problem! Provided you have a decently deep window frame (or even a moderately deep one), you can find tension rods (think similar to shower curtain rods that aren’t drilled in) and fit those into your window opening. Voilá! Curtain rod problem solved! Just remember to put the curtains on first so you don’t have to do it all over again…