9 Design Mistakes We All Make in Our First Apartments

updated May 3, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Liz Calka)

Decorating can be hard, especially when you move into your first apartment. The cards are kind of stacked against you—it’s small, you likely don’t have much furniture of your own, you might have a roommate (or several!), and you’re probably not making bank yet, meaning the budget is tight. So you’re bound to make a mistake or two in setting up your space. We have all been there, and the good news is most of these decorating issues can be solved pretty easily. Lucky for you, if you’re just about to get your own place, we rounded up nine of the most common first apartment decorating mistakes—and had pro designers give us advice on how to fix them. And even if you think you have it all figured out, you could still take a trip with us down (a cringe-worthy) decorating memory lane. Let’s go!

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

Design Mistake #1: Too small of a rug.

“Don’t get caught with a rug island,” says designer Lauren Grant. What a visual! You know you’ve probably rocked a 4-foot by 6-foot rug when you really should have had at least a 6-foot by 9-foot rug, and this is a pretty big offense—only because it totally chops up your space. “Rugs have the capability of opening up or closing in a room,” says Grant. “Look to fill not only the central open area in the room with a carpet but to also ground the furniture you place along its perimeter.” Using a large carpet under your furniture helps to enlarge the room and give it a greater sense of importance. And on the contrary, “Using too small of a rug will not only close in the space but cheapen its look,” says Grant. If you can’t afford a big vintage Heriz stunner or a designer flat weave, try layering something smaller and bold over a large, lower priced sisal so you can get size without spending a small fortune.

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)

Design Mistake #2: Forgetting to factor in small entryways or unique floor plans when buying home decor and furniture.

Measure, measure, measure! “Apartment entryways tend to be small and open up to oddly sized rooms, especially in older buildings,” says Leslie Bowman, founder and design director of The Design Bar. “Be careful with planning out how you utilize the space, as nothing makes a room feel smaller than awkwardly-sized and positioned furniture—or worse, not being able to even bring your furniture through the doorway!” Best to go with smaller scale pieces just to be on the safe side.

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

Design Mistake #3: Not having enough lighting.

It can be tempting in a first apartment to rely on your ceiling fixtures alone for lighting. Why do you need lamps when you have those overhead lights and windows, right? Lamps cost money, yes, but adding nothing else to the lighting equation is a rookie mistake. If you can layer your lighting, you’ll make your apartment so much more atmospheric and comfortable for a wide variety of activities, from reading to entertaining. “Using a combination of multiple low wattage table lamps and floor lamps around the room will help achieve a cozy and elevated look,” says Grant. You can always buy lights secondhand if you’re looking to save, and stores like Target, IKEA , and The Home Depot stock affordable stylish options as well. While you’re at it, change out those builder-grade, generic ceiling fixtures. They’re another first apartment dead giveaway.

(Image credit: Hayley Kessner)

Design Mistake #4: Designing with too many themes in mind.

Your first apartment is most likely going to be a smaller space, and your style is ever evolving. You may be drawn to a bunch of different types of furnishings. But it’s better to pick one style instead of being all over the place from room to room. “Carry your style throughout your space and spread out your themed accessories,” says Bowman. “For example, my daughter wanted a ‘boho’ look for her apartment, so we carried this free-spirited theme throughout her place by spacing out accessories to tie the rooms together, from unique throw pillows in the bedroom to mix-matched glassware in the kitchen.”

(Image credit: Jacqueline DuBois)

Design Mistake #5: Not getting rid of old dorm stuff.

“Time to start investing in your future lifestyle by ridding yourself of that cheap dorm room throwaway furniture and looking for quality pieces that you will cherish for years ahead,” says Grant. If your budget doesn’t allow for new heirlooms, not to worry. Grant suggests hunting for timeless pieces at your local thrift and antique shops. “Older furniture tends to be made of solid wood that, with a little updating, can you give you that high end look without breaking the bank,” she says.

(Image credit: Hayley Kessner)

Design Mistake #6: Hanging generic art.

Not knocking on IKEA but I do feel like at one point, everyone had either their square Audrey Hepburn or cropped Gustav Klimt (guilty!) canvas hanging in their first apartment like 10 years ago. Not sure what’s the current version of this today, but Bowman is right about one thing—you are never too young to start collecting original artwork. Or, at the very least, seek out prints where you know a little bit about the artist’s backstory. “Buy pieces that speak to you or mean something rather than just fit the theme of your space, as art should stand alone and also should stand the test of time,” she advises. Again, Etsy, Minted, and any of the many artwork marketplace sites can help with this and carry pieces that don’t cost a fortune.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Design Mistake #7: Too many hand-me-downs.

You probably feel obligated to take family and friends’ donations—you know, the stuff taking up space in their garages or basements. But if grandma’s sofa isn’t speaking to you, just say no in as polite a way as possible. “Focusing on quality pieces that you love is how your new home will form a personality true to yourself,” says Grant. “Don’t give in to accepting that old 1980s dining set just because you need to fill a space.” Remember: less is more in the beginning.

(Image credit: Samara Vise)

Design Mistake #8: Filling your space with only big box pieces.

“Don’t buy everything from one retailer and avoid filling your entire space with mass-produced items,” says Bowman. Instead, try to do some shopping at local boutiques and browse upscale resale shops for one-of-a-kind pieces. I know we’ve said it before, but buying vintage is the quickest way to add some soul to your space. “I also recommend shopping in person rather than online when looking for personal pieces such as small accessories or art,” says Bowman.

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)

Design Mistake #9: Being too timid.

Bolder is better, says Grant, even in a small space. Focus on large bold pieces to accent walls versus lots of tiny things,” she says. “This will give the room a more confident point of view.” For a budget-friendly solution, try framing wallpaper or blowing up your favorite piece of art for above your sofa.