32 Practical Tips for Anyone Decorating Their First Apartment

published Feb 28, 2022
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Credit: Liz Calka

Are you moving into your first-ever apartment and wondering how to even begin to fill it with furniture and decor you love (and won’t regret a few months from now)? Make your way through our starter pack. This content was created independently by our editorial team and generously underwritten by the Toyota Corolla Cross.

Decorating can feel overwhelming — especially when it’s for your first apartment and likely your first time doing it from top to bottom in your own space. So, to make the process as easy and stress-free as possible, we consolidated 32 clever tips — from interior design and small-space experts, as well as the Apartment Therapy archives — to cover everything from how to make your new home work for you to how to make your new home look like you. And, hey, you might even use some of these tips in your next apartment, too!

For a Place That Feels Like Home

1. Think of this design as foundational. 

This is your very first apartment, so both your home’s physical space and your personal style may change. With that in mind, “The goal should be to create a space that reflects who you are and gives you a foundation for what your style may evolve into,” says Marie Cloud, owner of Indigo Pruitt Design Studio. “Be okay with curating the details over time and not impulsively designing only to change it within a year.”

2. Don’t wait to go bold. 

“My best piece of advice for your first apartment is to have fun with it and make it your own,” says Cloud. “Push design limits and get closer to defining your unique personal style. You have the rest of your life to commit!”

3. Paint!

“Paint is cheap, makes a huge impact, and is easy to change if you move or change your mind,” says Celia Williamson, a YouTuber and owner of decor shop Sticki Icki. (Of course, you need your landlord’s permission for this one!) 

4. Think creatively for wall art. 

“Don’t box yourself in with traditional framed art,” says Williamson. Alternatives she suggests include “stamps, necklaces, baskets, votive holders, masks, pieces of tile, postcards, magnets,” adding that “any and everything is fair game for wall art!”

5. Don’t settle.

No matter how long it takes, designer Jenelle Lovings encourages all first-time apartment shoppers to buy what you love, even if that takes quite a long time. “I understand that furniture can be expensive, but if it can be avoided, don’t just buy a table because you need a table,” she says. “At some point, you will ultimately end up replacing it.”

Credit: Kristan Lieb

For Style and Warmth

6. Toss some throw pillows on your couch — then add some more for good measure.

Textured pillows make all the difference, and come in a range of prices so they fit most budgets.

7. Consider removable wallpaper.

Wallpaper is a surefire way to warm up your space, but it’s not always something that fits into your budget or your rental agreement. Enter peel-and-stick wallpaper, which Cloud calls “an ingenious invention. What goes up must come down with rental apartments,” she says, “and removable wallpaper is the perfect solution to making a temporary space feel personal.”

8. Know that peel-and-stick isn’t just for walls.

You might write off your bathroom or kitchen as “it is what it is” in a rental. But fun fact: You can also consider peel-and-stick for backsplashes, counters, and flooring.

9. Enhance the window treatments.

Those vertical blinds that your super installed are practical, but not very pretty. Introduce some texture and some style with rental-friendly curtains or shades

10. Upgrade the light fixtures.

Not thrilled with your rental’s boob lamps? It’s easy to overlook light fixtures and stick with whatever came with the apartment, but a stylized or hanging fixture could make all the difference in a space, no matter how large or small. So (carefully, safely) replace your ceiling fixtures and sconces.

11. Then add some more light.

“Many apartments, especially in new construction, lack overhead lighting,” explains Lovings. Just because you only have one fixture in your entire living space doesn’t mean you need to stick with one fixture in your entire living space. Introduce more to improve both the function and design of your space. “Lamps, both table and floor, are a great way to not only add light to a space void of it,” says Lovings, “but it’s also a great way to create a calming ambiance.” 

12. For more affordable large art, frame posters.

A large wall can seem like a daunting spot to decorate. It’s true that big art can be costly, but a less expensive poster — perhaps a vintage one or one from your favorite concert upgraded with a frame — could fill the space easily, anchor the room, and serve as a cool conversation starter.

13. Add greenery.

Whether you place smaller planters along a mantel or style larger ones in empty corners of a room, using greens in your design will bring both warmth and life to your space.

14. Stack stylish coffee table books.

Beautiful coffee table books can instantly make a living room look chicer and more intentionally designed — and you can avoid paying full price for these by tracking down lovely options at thrift stores. 

Credit: Liz Calka

For More Efficient Space

15. Choose furniture that does double duty.

Multifunctional furniture is ideal for small apartments, says Melanie Gnau, small space expert and blogger at A Small Life. Think: an oversized ottoman that also functions as a coffee table, or a coffee table that also stores throw blankets. 

16. Incorporate storage into everything.

Similarly, if you’re deciding between furniture pieces, always opt for the one that offers storage, even if it feels a bit nontraditional. For example, a credenza can serve as a TV stand and “store everything from books to toolkits to less-frequently used kitchen appliances,” says Caroline Solomon, owner of organizing company Caroline Solomon Home. “No one will ever detect the chaos that lies behind it.”

17. Pick pieces that easily assemble and disassemble. 

Consider a kitchen table with a drop leaf or that folds down from the wall.

18. Open up bedroom square footage with in-closet drawers.

Solomon says a great way to open up living space is to consider a different approach to clothing storage. “Swap out your dresser for an in-closet drawer solution,” she suggests. “While it might be tempting to fill up your bedroom with a massive dresser, these can close in a space fast, especially in tiny rooms.” 

19. Don’t skimp on hangers.

Seriously! They can make a big difference, whether you’ve got a traditional doored-off closet or an exposed clothes rack. “The best thing you can do for your closet — especially if you are starting fresh in a new apartment — is to use a single high-quality hanger style throughout,” says Solomon. “This will instantly upgrade your closet and make your clothes look more uniform and tidy.” 

20. With curtains, think beyond windows. 

Privacy is often a hot commodity in your first apartment, whether it’s because you live with a roommate and want to separate living spaces in a single room, or you have a studio apartment and sleep, work, eat, and entertain in the same space. Curtains — in open doorways or from wall to wall — are a budget-friendly way to separate areas

21. Create a faux “wall” with a two-sided cube bookshelf. 

These pieces can distinguish zones in your home without actually closing off any spots to light — which is important when you have minimal windows. 

22. Get a freestanding kitchen island. 

Your first rental kitchen may be lacking in both style and counter space. A solution for both issues: “Consider a free-standing island,” suggests Cloud. “It can be a bar-height table or [a piece that is] literally marketed as an island. Want to be super eclectic? Shop vintage and it’ll provide you with an instant lived-in charm.”

23. Put a table in the entryway. 

Solomon is a big fan of placing a console table by the door. “A sleek console table not only grounds your entryway, but it also serves as excellent storage space for all your everyday essentials like your keys, wallet, and mail,” she says. 

24. Float your shelves.

Super tight on space? “If you don’t have enough floor space in your entryway for a table,” adds Solomon, “opt for a floating shelf instead. Super chic! Still functional.” You can of course add these shelves in other rooms, too. And with the right shelves, you can even do this without carving a bunch of holes into your walls! 

25. Don’t underestimate a woven basket. 

Baskets and bins can hide messier items when your only option is visible storage. “It’s okay to splurge a little on organizing products,” says Solomon. “Chic-looking bins can double as both decor and storage, particularly in your entryway and living room.” 

26. But be careful not to over-organize.

“Too often, we move into a place and race to buy every storage bin under the sun,” says Solomon. “We end up with too many bins and not enough space.” This can be especially true in the kitchen, she says. “Before buying too many storage products, let your kitchen speak for itself a bit. … Ultimately, you might find that you only needed a few three-tier organizers instead of a full-blown army of lazy Susans.”

27. If you’re buying a bed, choose one with storage.

Or hack this concept with bed risers, then cover up your not-so-cute boxes underneath with a chic bedskirt. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

For a Smarter Process

28. Make a plan.

From both a design and budget perspective, it’s ideal if you can give some thought to the whole picture before you start making purchases. “It helps to have a plan in place as to the style, itemized list, and approximate sizes of what it is you need, even if this changes as you go,” says Alexia Sheinman, director at Pembrooke & Ives. “Start with the big-ticket items. Once you have the larger, more substantial pieces in place (like a sofa, carpet, bed, etc.), it is simpler to layer in the rest (as in pillows, art, chairs, and more).”

29. Thrift patiently. 

“If you’re short on cash, checking out your local thrift stores, Facebook Marketplace, and your local Buy Nothing group is a great place to start,” says Gnau. That said, you’ll have to take your time with this approach. “When buying secondhand, patience is key,” says Gnau. “It may take longer to find what you need — but you’ll most likely get a better deal, and it’s more environmentally friendly.”

30. Don’t forget about the small stuff. 

You likely know that you have to spend a lot on big furniture items, but remember to also make a list and budget for the littler things, like dishware and hangers. “We tend to forget about the small necessities that we utilize regularly,” says Lovings. But those things add up!

31. Avoid a one-stop shop.

Williamson cautions against spending your whole budget on one big trip to a big-box store. “Yes, they have great stuff,” she says. But taking your time to curate your space means you won’t feel like you “wake up every day in the home section” of one of these places.

32. Take a beat to consider how you use your home.

Some people absolutely want separate eating and working areas, while others might be totally cool using a kitchen table as a desk. Before you purchase everything you’re “supposed” to get, meditate on your must-haves. “Live in the space for a little while to understand how you move through your home, your needs, and other important aspects, like which place in your home has the best lighting,” recommends Gnau. “By being a patient decorator, you’ll avoid buying unnecessary things, and you’ll also have a better idea of what works in your space for your exact needs.”