Living in a rental property can have its perks — no property taxes, no responsibility for maintenance, flexibility to move when you want — but there are also frustrating downsides to not being the owner of your home, and the limited design changes you’re allowed to make is one of the biggest. Living in an apartment or rental house is a universal right of passage for young adults, which means so many of us are living among dreadful off-white walls, dated wood cabinets, and carpet we’d rather not have. But that doesn’t mean you can’t turn your rented space into one that’s thoughtfully designed and uniquely yours.
Your design options in a rental are certainly limited — you won’t be knocking down any walls or relocating your bathroom — but you might be surprised by what you can do that won’t keep you from getting your security deposit back. We’ve rounded up four easy design updates that will make a huge impact in your rental space, and best of all, they’re totally reversible. Of course, before you make any changes that are even semi-permanent, you should check your lease or consult with your landlord to make sure you aren’t violating any part of your rental agreement. But in most cases, as long as your apartment is back to the way it started when you move out, you shouldn’t have any issues.
These four totally reversible updates will make a temporary apartment feel more like your home.
Let’s start with one of the most obvious design updates you can make in your rental. Painting your walls can make a huge difference in the overall feel of the space, the way light is reflected, and even how big or small a room feels. Why all the landlords of the world got together and agreed that a yellowy off-white was the best color choice for wall paint is beyond us, but know you’re not alone if you got stuck with that or some other drab color scheme. A fresh coat of bright white paint can completely transform and brighten up a room, or opt for a more modern neutral like light gray or a pale blue to give some new life to your tired space.
Just know that most landlords and management companies require you to paint the walls back to the original color before you move out — yes, even if your choice is a much more attractive one. They’ll probably paint the entire apartment before the next tenant moves in anyway, but it’s still smart to do the painting yourself to avoid any steep fees they may charge you if you don’t.
If you’re interested in painting anything other than the walls (cabinets, trim, doors or windows, etc.), we’d suggest discussing it with your landlord directly, since that can be harder to undo. Go into the conversation prepared to discuss how it would be a lasting cosmetic improvement for his or her property, what color you’d like to use (we’d suggest something neutral), and the possibility of hiring a professional — it could push them from wavering into agreement territory.
If you haven’t yet discovered the world of removable or temporary wallpaper, let us be the first to say welcome. These rolls of colorfully patterned paper or fabric self-adhere to your walls (no messy glue required) and then peel off when you’re ready to move on — literally or just design-wise — without damaging your walls or leaving any sticky residue behind. If you aren’t up for painting your apartment, but feel like it needs some color or interest on the walls, temporary wallpaper is the perfect solution.
There are tons of companies selling temporary wallpaper, including mainstream home decor stores like Anthropologie, Target, and West Elm, so you have plenty of options when it comes to patterns, styles, and even textures to choose from. A few wallpaper-specific online shops worth checking out are Chasing Paper, Tempaper, and Graham & Brown.
A bold-patterned wallpaper packs a big punch in a small space or as an accent wall, adding personality and color to an otherwise plain room. Just look at how much of an impact bright, lively wallpaper had in this bathroom:
If dealing with whole sheets of wallpaper still sounds like a big undertaking to you, there are options to start even simpler. You can accent your walls with temporary decals, allowing you to essentially DIY your own pattern in as small or large of a space as you want. Add stripes, polka dots, or florals as you please with the same easy installation and removal process so there’s no fear of not getting your security deposit back.
Switching Out Light Fixtures
Along with paint, changing the sources of light in a room can have the biggest impact on the overall look and feel of the space — and it’s probably one of the elements least often changed and personalized in rental apartments and houses. In addition to adding lamps throughout your space (which we highly encourage), you can also alter the lighting in your rental by switching out the existing ceiling fixtures or add wall sconces without making any permanent changes.
We’re willing to bet any experienced renter reading this is familiar with the overused flush-mount ceiling lights we can affectionately — and accurately — call boob lights. (If not, lucky you, but click here). If you have any of these or other unattractive light fixtures in your rental, you don’t have to be stuck with them. Almost any light fixture can be swapped out for one that’s similar in size and weight (without making any changes to the existing electrical box in the ceiling) with a little know-how and maybe the help of a handy friend or relative.
There are much more attractive flush-mount fixtures out there if you still want one that’s unobtrusive and puts out a lot of light, or if you’re interested in emphasizing form over function, consider a modern chandelier or hanging pendant. A beautiful fixture will draw the eye up and instantly become a statement piece in your space. And most importantly, it will make your rental home feel uniquely yours, even if it’s just a temporary one.
Most apartments don’t have wall-mounted lights (other than bathroom vanities), but if you like the look of wall sconces, you can install them in your rental without hard-wiring them in. So many affordable wall sconces come with a cord, so you just have to mount it on the wall (no more intrusive than hanging a frame) and plug it into a wall outlet. You can even skip the cord and fake a hard-wired-in sconce by using a battery-powered light instead of a regular bulb. As with everything else, you’ll have to reverse those light changes when you move out, so keep the fixtures you take down in a safe spot until you do. But the good thing with lights is — unlike paint and wallpaper — you can take these with you to your next home.
Changing Cabinet Hardware
One of the easiest changes you can make in your rental is changing the hardware on the cabinets in your kitchen and bathroom. Most apartments and rental properties are built on the cheap, and sometimes the choices made on details like cabinet hardware show that the most. You might be surprised how big of an impact such a small change can make, but swapping the metal finish, size, or style of your knobs and pulls can totally transform your kitchen or bath. And if you do so in addition to painting those cabinets, you’ll feel like you just got a totally new kitchen.
When picking out new hardware, you do need to be mindful of what’s already installed. You can’t swap a single knob for a handle without drilling a second hole, and vice versa. If you do want to make a big change — or add hardware to currently bare cabinets (another cheap building decision) — you should discuss it with your landlord first. If they agree to the swap, just be prepared to leave whatever hardware you install when you move out since you can’t go back to where they started.