Renter DIY: Making an apartment a home

I may have a slight addiction to HGTV. I can’t get enough of paint chips and how-to tips.

My first full-scale DIY project was staining a coffee table that I got for $20 to match a TV stand and end table I was gifted by my former managing editor.

I watch in awe as TV hosts transform bathrooms into spa-like retreats. I get super excited when an overgrown jungle is revealed as a backyard oasis. And I love the prospect of tiling and spackling and drywalling a house to make it a home.

I stare longingly at Pinterest photos of DIY projects that require way more tools than the small, hot-pink set from my dad. I vow to rig a ladder to the laundry room ceiling to hang clothes, turn old shutters into a headboard and paint every unused wall with chalkboard paint to write grocery and honey-do lists.

There’s only one problem: I rent. I can’t even put holes in the white walls, let alone personalize them with a coat of paint.

But living in a rented apartment or home doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your love of home decorating. Renters can make their space their own — for their lease term, anyway. Here are some tips for making a sterile rental feel like your own:

My former bathroom also lacked storage, but a metal bookshelf with some coordinating storage containers that I now use in a closet solved that problem.

  • Think double duty. Buying items to enhance storage for your lacking kitchen seems like a no brainer. But what if the place you move into next year has wall-to-wall cabinets and nowhere to put your baker’s rack? I opted to buy a cheap bookcase at Target to hold my toaster oven, microwave, coffee maker and a few other odds and ends in my last place — my dad drilled some holes in the back for wires to poke through. When I moved in with my boyfriend, we had ample counter space, so now I use the bookcase to store books and the few holes are covered up with my favorite titles.
  • Experiment with color. All of the four places I’ve lived in since college have had white walls. While most landlords won’t agree to letting you paint outside the neutral palette, you can get some color into your rental by making bold statements with your furniture. One of my favorite purchases was my couch, which is red and stands out against our off-white walls and carpets.
  • Expand to the great outdoors. For making your space outside a little more habitable, think small. I received a great housewarming gift for my last move from mom and dad: A fold-up patio set. The two metal chairs and table were a bright shade of green and easily folded up to store under our stairs now that I don’t have outdoor space. As far as landscaping goes, rethink that mulch and perennials that you’ll just leave to the next renter. Container gardens can move with you and still add a touch of color.

    Features Copy Editor Sarah Chain used scrapbook paper to make unique wall art in her apartment -- no holes required.

  • Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize. Knick knacks and picture frames can personalize your space. This is another area that pops of color can come in handy. Pick up large, colorful vases and use them to store unique items or get creative with wall art. I like to comb the clearance racks at places like T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods for items that I can paint to match the decor (maybe with chalkboard paint?). If your landlord is OK with pinholes, you can find a number of solutions to hold even heavy mirrors and framed prints. If you’re not so lucky, sticky hooks and Velcro can get the job done — just pay attention to the weight recommendations.
  • Take it with you. Think about mobility when purchasing items for your rental. Is this something you’ll be able to get back down the four flights of stairs when you move next? Do you really, really need to permanently install shelving, knowing that you’ll leave it behind? Think cheap, temporary solutions for projects. Our current bathroom’s under counter storage filled up quickly and we have a large mirror instead of a medicine cabinet. Rather than piling bottles on the counter top or installing over-the-toilet storage, I purchased a metal shower caddy with suction cups, which now hangs on the mirror to hold our most-used items.

What other tips do fellow renters have for those looking to personalize their place? Do you have any lessons you’ve learned while renting? Leave a note in the comments section.

April Trotter

Editor of Smart. NEPA transplant. Penn State and Shippensburg grad. Kickball and craft beer enthusiast. Collector of cardigans. "Bennie and the Jets" fanatic. Contact me at, at "Smart magazine" on Facebook, @SmartMagPA on Twitter or by phone at 717-771-2030.

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3 Responses

  1. Kara Eberle says:

    HGTV inspired me to turn old shutters into a headboard once, too. I even went to Re-Source York ( to buy them. I think I spent $2 on the pair. Alas, like so many good intentions I’ve had, those shutters only got as far as taking up space in our garage and were tossed when we moved.

  2. Andrea Albert Merovich says:

    FYI… I “repinned” the ladder in the laundry room idea!

  3. April Trotter says:

    Kara, that is too funny! They always make things look so easy to do on HGTV.

    And, Andrea, that ladder hanger looks like such a fun idea! Please send a photo my way if you end up trying it out.

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