New rental? How to turn a bland space into a personal haven

Even though she was moving into a rental apartment, Alexa d’Argence was eager to put her personal stamp on it.

“Loving my space is more important to me than my security deposit. So I just went for it with paint, shelves, window treatments, and upgrading the medicine cabinet,” says d’Argence, who as a senior designer at BAR Architects in San Francisco knows something about creating a stylish space.

“My landlord actually appreciated the improvements. I’d say, consider changes that add value, and that wouldn’t be removed if you moved out,” she says.

Non-designers might not feel as comfortable doing that, since most rental agreements stipulate that you can’t permanently change anything. Another approach: Strike up a conversation with your landlord to talk about potential changes, and perhaps even offer to foot the bill.

Or, just make some temporary tweaks, little personal touches that can turn bland and basic into hip and homey with just a trip to the hardware store.

“Personalizing a rental is really easy these days; there are so many great accents that are designed to be temporary,” says Jessica Dodell-Feder, HGTV Magazine’s executive editor.


Jessica Shaw, interior design director of New York’s The Turett Collaborative, is a fan of removable wallpaper. “I’ve used it in my own home. Etsy, where I found mine, has prints, murals, and custom options. When your lease is up, you can gently remove it with no residue,” she says.

And don’t forget the ceiling. On one project, she created a wow factor by putting a colorful, removable geometric from Flavor Paper on a bedroom ceiling. Night sky patterns or photomurals of forests could be especially nice for city dwellers.

Denver designer Rachel Hoback put an eye-catching star-mosaic wallpaper on her stair risers. “This was a very quick and affordable project that made a huge difference in the look of our stairway,” she says.

Removable wallpapers also can add pizzazz to kitchen backsplashes, bathroom walls, and cabinetry. Tempaper, for one, offers a range of designs, including ones that look like painted ceramic tile, terrazzo, marble, or embossed metallics.

Liz Morrow of Tacoma, Washington, temporarily papered her refrigerator.

“A fridge can be ugly or boring, but removable wallpaper can transform it easily into the most interesting part of the whole kitchen,” she says.

Dodell-Feder agrees: “This is a no-commitment, fun solution to a blah kitchen.”


“We don’t tend to consider customizing our rental storage spaces,” Shaw says, “but there are ways to improve their aesthetics and functionality.”

Set up custom organizers in closets to stow wardrobe and household items efficiently. (You can even find some great stuff on Amazon) Coordinating bins and baskets are inexpensive and ubiquitous in home décor stores.

Or create a roomy closet against a wall. You can take a clothes rack with you when you move.

In a small kitchen, shelf risers and slide-in bins that pop onto cabinet shelves amp up your storage capacity. And adhesive hooks are good for hanging not just artwork but pans and utensils.

Metal utility carts come in a range of colors; if you can paint, then stencil or decoupage one yourself. They’re handy for frequently used cooking items, or for bar gear.


Gita Mirchandani, a public relations executive in New York City, has gradually added colorful and meaningful pieces from her favorite designers to her overall-white apartment. There are Eames chairs, a George Nelson bench, Jonathan Adler screens, and Philippe Starck dining chairs. “Each one serves as a significant landmark for moments in my life,” she says.

She’s also personalized her bedroom, and honored her heritage. “My headboard is a colorful, hand-painted Indian screen that reminds me every day of my fascinating background,” she says.

Convertible furniture lets you create defined spaces that weren’t there. Murphy-style beds fold up into a cabinet, with options like an attached sofa or table. Tables like those at Resource Furniture transform into dining, office or coffee tables, or consoles.

And a simple room screen can be a workhorse. There are rigid framed panels and folding screens in colored canvas, wovens, paper, metal and wood slats.


Curtains or blinds can bring texture, color and privacy.

If there are no rods already installed, spring-tension or twist-and-fit rods adjust to various window sizes and have protective rubber ends. Kwik-Hang’s brackets can be tapped into the window trim, without a drill. Or look for Redi-Shade’s peel-and-stick window treatments; some also provide enhanced light control.


Paint – especially spray paint – is an affordable way to upgrade a space. Some kinds can be used on rugs, and on decorative fabrics on furniture or curtains. (Glidden’s Max Flex is one brand.)

Buy some builder-basic cabinet hardware or switch plate covers from a hardware store and paint them in your favorite hues. Follow product instructions on preparing and testing surfaces before painting.

Changing knobs and handles is another easy way to change the feel of a room, and there are many creative options out there.

Jazz up your bathroom by changing out your showerhead to a colored one, or one that sprays like rain or in colors.


New York-based writer Kim Cook covers design and decor topics regularly for The AP. Follow her on Instagram at @kimcookhome.

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