Design Ideas

I Used These Almost-Free Ways to Make My Rental Feel Less Like A Rental, and You Can, Too

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Bookshelves in Dominique Gebru's rental

Homeowners aren’t the only folks who deserve to live in spaces they love. I realize that doesn’t sound like a revolutionary statement, but I’ll admit I’ve felt like it wasn’t worth it to invest energy (and money) in a space that I’m just renting. After years of reading Apartment Therapy though, I’ve (thankfully) reformed. There’s a seemingly endless stream of people sharing their incredible rental transformations on Instagram, and in a way, connecting with some of those creatives has helped me form a design support group of sorts. Now when faced with an apartment full of, um, quirks, I delight in the challenge! 

My main obstacle, which I’m sure many of you share, is that I am not rich. I live in Washington, D.C., a city where the average rent for an apartment hovers above $2,200. I have no delusions about some of the spaces I see in my Instagram feed; creating beautiful homes can be incredibly expensive—have you seen the price of peel-and-stick wallpaper? I grew up in a working class family, however, which taught me a lot about stretching my dollars. A fixed budget has a way of forcing creativity. 

If your financial goals include things like paying off student loans, saving up for a down payment, or anything other than buying a designer sofa, there are still plenty of ways to make your rental feel, well, less like a rental. Here are a few tricks that I pulled in my own rental. 

Take down the blinds

After I set up my bed and hang my shower curtain, taking down the blinds is next on my list of move-in tasks. Even though my blinds were usually pulled all the way up (as you can see in the image above), the first time I took them down I was surprised by how much brighter the whole space felt. I love this trick because you usually only need a screwdriver to remove the brackets, and blinds are easy to stash in a closet until it’s time to move out. 

Sure, you need some sort of window covering to shield you from your neighbors, but the cheap, hard-to-clean mini blinds that so often grace rental unit windows are not doing your aesthetic any favors. Instead, try hanging a set of curtains (my favorite curtains and hardware are from IKEA) or use a frosted window film to let the light in and keep wandering eyes out.  

Replace the lightbulbs

Swapping out the cheap fluorescent bulbs in my bathroom was quite possibly the best “design” decision I made. No longer blinded by the extremely yellow glow beaming out of my Hollywood-style bath bar light fixture, I instantly felt more relaxed. In fact, I replaced nearly every light bulb in my unit’s flush mount lights (aka boob lights). Along with the addition of floor lamps and task lighting, my home still feels cozy long after the sun goes down. Yes, you have to shell out some money for new bulbs, but the price of LEDs has gone way down recently, and many last for literally twenty years.

Work with the quirks

Rentals, especially those in older buildings like mine, tend to have cool-looking-but-annoying features like radiators that take up precious square footage. Again, I’m excited by the challenge that comes with decorating around quirks. I added a marble shelf to the top of my radiator and boom—now it’s a nightstand, bookshelf, and all-around useful area. A small quantity of tile from the hardware store is an even more affordable option for creating this kind of surface. A word of caution about radiators: Choose a material like stone that is a poor conductor of heat. If you have radiators that become hot to the touch during the winter months, this one is a summer-only remedy for you. 

Don’t skip the sentimental

Everyone has those pieces that feel like home, whether it’s a prized side table or a framed photo of your dog. This might seem obvious, but the fastest way to make any space look like “yours” is to incorporate things that you absolutely love. For me, that looks like a gallery wall full of pieces I’ve collected over time (including a custom illustration of my dog and a framed card from a friend). For my partner, it means his massive non-fiction collection (which you can see in the image at the top of this story) is both on display and easy to access. Consider those pieces you already have that bring you immense joy and make sure they’re in a spot where they can shine. 

Keep something alive around 

Nothing screams “I live here!” like signs of actual life, which is perhaps one of the many reasons people love plants. I’m not saying you have to turn your space into a mini jungle, but even a small pothos can bring much-needed color and light into even the most dingy apartment. I love to propagate my plants so that I can have little signs of life all over my house. When I want to bring a burst of different energy into a room, an inexpensive bundle of eucalyptus from Trader Joe’s usually does the trick.

Take time to set up the perfect corner 

It can be tough to know where to begin when designing a space, regardless of who owns the roof over your head. I think renters are more likely to wonder, however, if it’s worth it to put in much effort, given the temporary nature of renting. If you’re reading this, you’ve hopefully come to the conclusion that, yes, it is worth it. I say start with one small corner of your home, whether you’re just moving in or giving your space a refresh. Take my bar cabinet, for example. It’s one of those parts of my home that just makes me happy to look at and was relatively quick to set up, given how small the space is. Create that one little area or moment that speaks to you—an altar, a reading nook, a vignette on your nightstand, and so on—and I bet your home will feel just a touch more like yours. 

Swap out the light fixtures 

Okay, so this one is not free (you got me!), but it can be very affordable. The first time it occurred to me that I could swap those ugly flush mounts for a decorative fixture or a more practical ceiling fan, it was like the world opened up. The possibilities! I actually found most of my light fixtures in IKEA’s “as-is” section for 50 percent off (or something wild like that), but you can also check out local thrift stores or architectural salvage spots for other affordable options. I hired a Taskrabbit to do the electrical work and saved the old fixtures to replace when it was time to move out. Like lightbulbs, the fixtures that cast a glow around your home have a big impact on how it feels after sundown. 


This is probably the most high-impact item on this list. When we moved into our apartment, there were muddy boot tracks all over the kitchen. Sometimes the mess isn’t quite so obvious, but don’t underestimate the power of a good scrub. Cleaning your windows, for example, lets even more light flow in. I remember being shocked the first time I wiped down the inside and outside of my rental’s windows—it was like my natural light doubled. As we move closer towards winter and COVID-19 continues to rage on, I’ll take all of the light I can get.