Whether you live in a tiny studio apartment or a four-bedroom condo, you likely want to decorate your temporary abode like it's your permanent one—after all, it is your home. Here's what you can and can't down to a property you don't actually own.
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Decorating a rental is no easy feat. Along with lease restrictions and landlords to worry about, you're also tasked with designing a space that you may not be living in for very long. "Unfortunately, landlords are unlikely to cover the cost of changing out kitchen cabinets or staining floors," says interior designer Louisa G. Roeder. "They might be willing to allow their tenants to make approved changes at the tenant's cost, but it probably is not worth the expense for a rental." So, what kinds of changes can you actually make in a rental? And, perhaps more importantly, which ones might cost you your deposit (and then some)? In general, interior designer Crystal Sinclair says that landlords will disapprove of any major updates. "Permanent wallpaper, changes to flooring, and replacing kitchen and bathroom tile, countertops, and cabinets are usually a no-go," she says. Ready to hear what modifications can be made in your rental? Roeder and Sinclair share the different fixes renters can make to upgrade a temporary home.

Stylish, neutral living area in a master suite.
Credit: Photo by Claire Esparros Courtesy of Louisa Roeder

Paint the Walls

A little paint can go a long way in elevating the ambience of your rental, but you'll often be stuck repainting your wall before you move out unless you want to sacrifice your deposit. "You can paint the walls in a rental so long as you are prepared to restore them to their original color upon moving out," Roeder explains. Another fun update? Temporary wallpaper. If you don't want to deal with a paint job or peeling off wallpaper, she suggests investing in artwork that you can take with you to liven up the walls. "If large, framed pieces are too expensive, try hanging tapestries or lots of smaller artworks together to make a gallery wall for a similar look," she says.

Change the Light Fixtures

Never underestimate the impact of new light fixtures in an outdated rental unit. "A dead giveaway for a rental apartment is the light fixtures; they tend to be pretty soulless," says Roeder. While you can change fixtures in a rental, you'll want to make an effort to keep the originals to swap back in when you move out. "Even if you don't have the electric wiring for sconces, mount [plug-in versions] instead," says the expert. And while you're at it, layer your lighting by adding table lamps and other task lights. Installing multiple sources of light instantly enhances a room.

Create Distinct Spaces in an Open Layout

Carving out unique zones in an open layout is tricky. That's why it helps to know what renter-friendly décor items can double as room dividers in a small space. One trick Sinclair likes is using drapes. "Whether behind a bed (to designate a sleeping zone) or as a makeshift wall between the dining and living area, drapes are a warm and cozy way to distinguish spaces," she says.

Add Rugs

While you can't replace your rental's worn out wood or tile floors, our experts say there's still one landlord-approved way to update your flooring in a pinch. "Add rugs galore," Roeder says. "They instantly cozy up a space—while stylishly concealing unsightly floors—and can come with you when you move!" A good tip: If you have a small vintage rug, layer it on top of an inexpensive jute or sisal rug.

Enhance the Ambience

When all else fails, you can always count on a few rental-savvy décor items to elevate the entire ambience of your rental. "Switch out your regular light bulbs with smart ones, like the Solana by Bulbrite ($13.99, homedepot.com) that can be set to different levels of brightness," Roeder says. "Good lighting makes a world of difference in a home's ambience." Once you've upgraded your light bulbs, Sinclair says to incorporate eye-catching art and mirrors throughout your rental, to bring depth and dimension to a room—no landlord approval necessary. "Swap out the bathroom mirror for something more decorative," she says. "Or simply hang oversized art or mirrors in a room to create a focal point and play with scale."

Swap Out Removable Items

Little personal touches will go a long way in making your rental feel like home. Replace things that can be easily reinstalled such as drawer pulls, plastic blinds, the shower head, and toilet seat. You can find affordable versions of these items—just make sure to label and carefully store in a box so you can reinstall when it's time to move out.

Add Greenery

There are so many health benefits to surrounding yourself with plants, but we especially love how they add warmth to a space. And even if your rental doesn't have the best light, there are plenty of low-maintenance varieties such as a snake plant and ZZ plant that can survive in low light.


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