8 Renter Secrets You Can Learn from Resourceful Military Families

published Dec 21, 2018
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(Image credit: Chinasa Cooper)

Imagine when you moved into your apartment, you knew you were going to be out of there in about a year, two at most. Same for the next place, and same for the place after that. For members of the military and their families, that’s often the reality. Moving around so frequently has its downfalls, but it also can serve as a kind of design bootcamp. When you love to decorate but: 1) know you’ll only be in your home long enough to catch a single season of “Game of Thrones”;2) must work with a tight budget; and 3) move to a place with strict renter guidelines, which a lot of base housing has, you have to be extra choosy about the changes you make. Many military families have it down to a science—and the lessons they’ve learned can help any kind of renter, no matter how long you plan to stay in your place. Here are some of our favorite tips:

1. Don’t be afraid to paint—and go beyond the walls. Every military family member I spoke to listed paint as their number-one way to personalize a home. As Ariel from PMQ for Two puts it, “There’s only so much art on the walls can do.” The only time she says she wouldn’t paint is if she knew she was living in a place less than six months. If you don’t want to commit to painting an entire room, consider adding a fresh coat of color to the front door, interior doors, or decorative trim.

2. Focus on task lighting. Many base houses don’t have much beyond builder-basic fixtures, so Christy from Eleven Magnolia Lane always BYOLs (bring your own lighting). Floor lamps, table lamps, and plug-in sconces are easy to install anywhere: the bathroom, the bedroom, even a large closet or pantry. If you’re replacing overhead fixtures, hire an electrician to do the wiring (unless you’re confident you know how), then label the old fixtures with the room they’re from so when it’s time to move on, you know what goes where.

3. Decals are like magic. If you can’t paint, consider temporary wallpaper—and if that seems like too much of a commitment to, try a decal. Christy has used temporary vinyl numbers on her front door, peel-and-stick decorations in her kids’ room, and chalkboard contact paper on the inside of pantry doors as a memo board.

4. You can personalize built-ins. Just because a built-in is, well, built in, it doesn’t mean you can’t tweak it to suit your needs. In a recent project, Ariel added DIY doors to a bookcase to convert it into hidden storage, which she needed more than open shelves. You can also add decorative trim to an existing piece to give it a little more style.

5. Even stair runners can be temporary. Another of Ariel’s clever projects: Adding a staircase runner to an old, dingy stairwell using store-bought runners. She cut them to fit her space, and because she adhered them using double-sided carpet tape and a heavy-duty staple gun, it could simply be pulled up when it was time to move. (The staples were so small, they didn’t leave visible holes.)

6. Sectionals aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. A sectional may seem like a great idea at first (all that cozy seating!), but if there’s a chance you’re going to be moving in a couple of years, you might want to rethink it. That setup with the right-hand chaise may work perfectly in your current space, but what if your next space can’t accommodate it? “Unless they’re modular and you can move the chaise, I always advise against sectionals,” says Ariel.

7. You can still customize your closet. Okay, so it’s probably not worth it to add fabulous built-ins to the closet in your rental, but you can kit it with storage pieces that maximize every inch. “Often, there is so much wasted space in closets,” says Leigh Fager. Her tip: Fit them with inexpensive freestanding metal shelves, and for added clothing storage, get a stylish clothes rack that you don’t mind leaving out in your bedroom.

8. Take your time setting up your space—but make sure you can undo everything in the span of a week. It’s okay to live in your space a while before you decide on a paint color or furniture layout, but avoid making any changes that will take significant time to dismantle, advises Ariel. That generally means no structural changes, major adjustments to the flooring, and impossible-to-revert paint choices. Keeping this guideline in mind will help you avoid potentially costly decisions that could leave you in hot water with your landlord and cost you your security deposit.