Calling a rental apartment home doesn't have to mean living with ugly light fixtures, hideous appliances and blah white walls.
Three years ago, newlywed Seattle designer Kerra Michele Huerta packed up her wedding dress and her two dogs and drove to Washington, D.C. to join her husband in a one-bedroom rental in the capital. She had no clients and no design network in Washington. Her budget for decorating her own digs was small. But she threw herself into space planning, flea market shopping, furniture repurposing, organizing and DIY projects, creating a personal, warm place. Friends were amazed (and, yes, envious) at what she'd done: lined a stairway with several dozen framed photos, maps and artworks; painted the kitchen in black chalkboard paint; turned a closet into a dressing room. Soon she was giving out advice. Eventually, she needed a bigger outlet for her creative energy and launched a blog, Apartment Envy, to chronicle her frustrations and successes in trying to personalize a soulless urban rental.
"I figured Washington is very transient and that lots of people in their 20s and 30s are renting rather than buying. They need budget-minded advice," Huerta says. "They want their place to look good now. But they also want to be able to take the stuff with them and use it wherever they go."
Huerta, 30, says being a longtime renter has forced her to be creative and has led her to discover lots of design sources. Her online community chimes in with more ideas, as well as yeas and nays on color choices and furniture placement. Today, she and husband David Reidmiller, a climate scientist, live in a 560-square-foot one-bedroom rental with a king-size bed and a homely refrigerator camouflaged under a layer of cool patterned contact paper. Huerta has filled her home with finds from Craigslist, Etsy, the Georgetown Flea Market and the District Flea in Washington and a bit of Dumpster diving. She hunts for used furniture on local online sites for secondhand stuff, bringing her buys home in a taxi or Zipcar.
Huerta and Reidmiller's apartment was featured on a recent house tour, the smallest property of the bunch. From the reaction, it was clear that Huerta's ideas are useful for almost anyone looking to create a happy space on a budget. Here are nine of them.
1. Dump the mini-blinds. Nothing says temporary rental like clacking blinds. Huerta removed them and tucked them away in a closet. Most apartment buildings have standard size windows, so it's easy to find ready-made fabric or woven shades, or even curtains. If you can't use them in your next home, you can often sell them to the next tenant because they probably don't want those mini-blinds, either.
2. Add depth to a narrow galley kitchen. Remove cabinet doors to create a custom look and add personality. Not only will it make your kitchen feel larger, but the space will feel cozy and inviting. Huerta removed the doors on one wall of cabinets, painted the back of the cabinets mint and artfully arranged her tableware, glassware and Mason jars of staples inside. (Other cabinets still have doors to hide less display-worthy items.)
3. Maximize empty spaces. Every inch counts in a rental, so that awkward foot of space between the top of your kitchen cabinets and the ceiling can be put to good use. Huerta arranged a row of chunky rectangular baskets from World Market on top of her cabinets to store household supplies such as paper towels and coffee filters.
4. Upgrade light fixtures. Rental spaces are notorious for having cheap, unattractive light fixtures. Check with your landlord first, explaining that you want to change them out and that you will put back the original ones when you leave. Replace builder-grade ceiling lights with something more modern, such as a pendant with IKEA's black Jara barrel shade ($29.99), which Huerta used in her dining area. She chose a blingy chandelier for the raspberry dressing room she created out of a closet.
5. Don't be afraid to paint. Understanding landlords will let you paint in your own color scheme if you agree to repaint back to the original color, usually builder white. Huerta says you could also make a deal that if the new tenant likes your color scheme, you don't have to repaint. To deal with the nine doors and three windows in her bedroom (there are lots of closets), she painted all the walls, doors and trim Benjamin Moore Taos Taupe. Now the room looks like a cozy cocoon.
6. Camouflage the unflattering. Is there something in your rental that you can't stand yet can't change? Adhesive paper can be your new best friend. It's inexpensive and easy to apply, plus it peels off when you're ready to move. Huerta covered the old and dented fridge with a gray-and-white geometric print to disguise a hulking eyesore.
7. Treat the bathroom like a real room. You can't renovate it or change the tile, but you can add some interest to your bathroom. Huerta bought a vintage wooden grape crate on Etsy and hung it on the wall for extra storage. Using a tiny Oriental rug instead of a pastel cotton bath rug classes up the place.
8. Create the illusion of architectural interest. Because there were no built-in shelves in her living room, Huerta bought IKEA's popular Billy bookcases with glass doors to put on either side of her fireplace. To personalize these very basic bookcases, she covered the back of the shelves with tan and white faux bois wrapping paper from Paper Source. She attached it using spray adhesive.
9. Speak up. Want to make changes to your rental space? Don't be afraid to ask, whether it's changing a doorknob or painting a room. The worst thing that could happen is your landlord says no. If you do get rebuffed, negotiate. You can offer to share the cost of an upgrade or pay a bit more in rent. Huerta split the cost of a new stove and microwave with her landlord because the old ones were dated and in poor condition.