A 425-Square-Foot Apartment Is Full of Renter-Friendly DIY Improvements

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Credit: Isobel Hawes
View from my bay windows, also featuring a $20 Craigslist dresser I repainted this teal-blue color.

Name: Isobel Hawes and the occasional foster animal
Location: Richmond District — San Francisco, California
Type of home: Apartment
Size: 425 square feet
Years lived in: 8 months, renting

Tell us a little (or a lot) about your home and the people who live there: I moved into this studio apartment in June of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. I had lived in San Francisco for three years but never thought I would be able to afford a place of my own on a PhD student’s salary. After a falling out with a roommate and with rent prices dropping as tech workers left the city in droves, it finally felt like a possibility to live on my own in the city. I found my place on Craigslist and fell in love with it immediately, and I signed the lease less than 24 hours later. The apartment is 100 years old (built in 1921 according to city records) and has a ton of quirky older features that are beautifully preserved and classic old-San Francisco, including an original brass bell buzzer (that still works!), a beautiful built-in cooling cabinet, real wood floors, high ceilings, and gorgeous bay windows.

Credit: Isobel Hawes
My television setup also doubles as storage, with redone hardware found in the sale bin at Anthropologie and a shelf I installed as well as a limited edition print from a local artist.

I loved the idea of combining these unique historical features with bright, quirky modern decor. Since most of the apartment was painted a beige-y white color; I had a lot of leeway to add my own pops of color. My first purchase specifically for this apartment was the velvet green couch, which is what I built the living space around. I added boho rugs with bright colors in both my office space in the kitchen as well as the living area to brighten the spaces. I also refinished several pieces of furniture, including the pink entryway table and the teal-blue and gold dresser in the living area in brighter colors to bring more modern flair to the space. I’m a big fan of mix and match gallery walls, which I’ve hung both above my couch and next to my desk. I’m a scientist, so experimenting and trying things out in my space came pretty naturally to me. Like everything, my home is a work in progress, and it probably won’t look the same six months or a year from now, and that’s okay.

Credit: Isobel Hawes
My velvet green couch that I purchased on sale for $300 as well as my gallery wall in my living space.

My identity as a young single woman plays a huge part in the styling of my home. One of my favorite art pieces in my home is the “Mom, I am a Rich Man” art print in the bathroom. The quote is from an old Cher interview where she tells the interviewer that her mother told her to marry a rich man, and she said, “Mom, I am a rich man.” The first few years I lived in the city, I dated several men who lived in apartments just like the one I live in now, and I thought, “Wow, I’ll never be able to live in a place like this.” I’m no longer dating any of those men, but I wake up every day and I look at that print and it reminds me that I’ve built a wonderful life for myself all on my own.

Credit: Isobel Hawes
My office space right off of my kitchen with a vintage banker's lamp and a gallery wall with pictures of places I've lived or traveled to.

Describe your home’s style in 5 words or less: Eclectic vintage meets boho modern.

Credit: Isobel Hawes
My walk-in closet, featuring my extensive shoe collection, a repainted set of lockers, and the "fish chair."

What is your favorite room and why? My walk-in closet. When you’re living in a small apartment, you have to utilize every inch of space. It is styled very differently than the rest of my bright boho apartment. It has a much more muted color palette of olive greens and browns, all built around the armchair, which is affectionately known in my group of friends as “the fish chair.” It was my first furniture purchase when I moved to the city, and I will keep it until the day I die, or until it falls apart, whichever comes first. I purchased an old set of lockers from one of my favorite stores in the neighborhood that was closing and painted them olive green to match the chair’s color palette, and added a record player on top. My favorite Saturday night alone-time activity is to take a glass of wine into my closet and sit in the fish chair and listen to old records and just tune out the world.

Credit: Isobel Hawes
My entryway cabinet that I repainted for a pop of color in a darker hallway.

What’s the last thing you bought (or found!) for your home? The pink shelf in my bathroom. I purchased it gently used for $18 and then refinished it with paint leftover from my entryway table. I styled it with plants from a shop three blocks from my apartment (Clement Nursery) and some books from my favorite local bookstore (Green Apple Books).

Credit: Isobel Hawes
My bathroom, featuring my repainted shelf and a vanity I refinished with peel-and-stick wallpaper and new hardware.

Any advice for creating a home you love? If you’re working on a tight budget (like I am), take it slow. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Start with a few quality larger pieces that you need to live in the space — a bed, a couch, a desk — and build around that. After you have the basics, you can slowly add smaller pieces so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming, financially or emotionally. It also allows you to shop sales when they come as opposed to buying everything “right now” and find pieces you really love, rather than just what’s available at the time. Don’t be afraid to try something bold and experiment. I always tell myself if it looks like crap, I can (usually) just return it.

Credit: Isobel Hawes
View of my kitchen with my historic "cooling cabinet" refinished with peel-and-stick black and white wallpaper.

This submission’s responses were edited for length and clarity.