7 ways to create joy in a rental
A few weeks ago, I posed a question on Instagram: What’s your number one obstacle to creating more joy at home? The answers I received were diverse, ranging from lack of natural light to fear of making mistakes to clutter. But the number one response? Living in a rental.
I get this. I’ve lived most of my adult life in rental apartments, and I know that feeling of wanting to make a space exactly what you want it to be. Some of you expressed a desire to be able to hang a bold wallpaper or paint the walls a vibrant color. Boldness is often in short supply in rentals. Because landlords are trying to make their space palatable for a wide range of tastes, rental apartments (and offices) are often designed to be intentionally bland.
Others of you lamented features that can’t be changed, like kitchen cabinets, floors, or counters. Landlords don’t usually take kindly to renters taking a wrecking ball to their stuff, not to mention that you probably don’t want to invest in modernizing or transforming a space that you don’t own, since you won’t be able to recoup any of the costs in resale. Therefore, anything you do in a rental has to be either within the constraints of your lease or removable, protecting both your and your landlord’s interests.
The thing to remember, though, is that we’re trying to create joy, not perfection. If what you care about is a perfect-looking home, with every architectural detail exactly as you envision it, then nothing I say here will make much of a dent. But if you want to create a vibrant home that feels joyful and alive, one where you feel a spark of delight every time you put your key in the lock, then this is 100 percent doable in a rental.
Here are my favorite tips for both minimizing aspects you don’t love about your rental, while maximizing your moments of joy. These tips aren’t just for rentals, though. Low effort and high impact, they’re also ideal for any kind of temporary living situation, those who want a joy-boost on a budget, and those who simply don’t have much time to invest in their home.
Focus on what you can control
Life is always a balance between what you can control, and what you can’t. And one of the secrets to finding joy in any situation is focusing on the things that are in your control, because that’s where you have actual influence on the challenge at hand.
What can you control in a rental? Quite a lot, actually. The furniture, decorative objects, lighting, and art are all yours to play with, and these are things that can come with you to your next home.
So if the walls and floors feel a bit generic, invest in a sofa (or slipcovers) that have a strong pop of color. Find a fabric you absolutely love and make a headboard out of it. Choose rugs with strong, vibrant prints that bring the focus to the foreground, and let the basic rental fixtures recede into the background.
Get the right white
Are you bummed out that you can’t paint a bright color on the walls? While color can be fun, I have to say that I love a white canvas. White makes the most of the natural light you have, and it provides a clean backdrop that makes colors feel bright and fresh. Our house has white walls, and the apartment we’re currently renovating will too. The trick is finding the right white.
I used to be one of those people who couldn’t understand why the paint aisle had so many kinds of white paint. But after trying out a range of swatches in our house, I realized that the right white can make your walls glow with light, while the wrong one can make even a sunny day feel gloomy and grey. Just a few drops of yellow or blue or pink in a gallon of white paint, spread out over a whole wall, can dramatically influence the way a space feels. The same can be true of a gray or beige — more of one hue than another can interact with your light and create a more joyful, more harmonious effect. Brittany Jepson of The House that Lars Built has a great post on what she calls default colors, and how to bring more joy to your neutrals.
The reason this is key for rentals is that it’s a sneaky way to raise the joy in your space while staying within the constraints of your lease. If your landlord only cares that the apartment is painted white (or light grey or whatever), you can ask if they mind if you choose a different white paint. They might look at you as if you’re crazy (most people will not understand why you’d repaint a white apartment white!), but probably will say it’s fine. They might even love it after you’ve done it. And by choosing a white that’s better for your light, you can significantly improve the feeling of your space.
In some cities, landlords actually have to paint every few years (in New York City, for example, it’s every three years, by law). So if this is the case in your area, ask your landlord if they’d mind if you chose the white paint, as long as the cost is comparable (or you can cover the difference). Similarly, some cities require landlords to paint before the arrival of a new tenant, so if you’re renting, ask if you can work with them to choose a shade of white before your arrival.
How do you find the right white? Start by looking at your light. Some whites will turn a bluish or grayish tinge in certain lights, or feel softer or harsher. For example, our old apartment was painted with Benjamin Moore’s Decorator’s White, which is a cooler white that I never minded in our north-facing space. But when I looked at our new apartment in the same building, which faces west, the walls looked so stark white I was convinced it was Benjamin Moore Super White, a pure white that almost has an industrial look to it. Nope! It was Decorator’s White again, which under the direct afternoon light of the western sun looked as garish as a hospital wall.
Bring swatches home and see which ones look the most welcoming. Then paint larger samples to be sure!
Layer your lighting
One of the problems with rentals is that most rooms are illuminated by a single flush mount fixture in the center of the ceiling. This often creates a flat, uninviting light quality. It also rarely provides enough illumination, leaving corners that feel shadowy or dingy. But this is so easy to fix! Layer your light by bringing in several lamps that provide a mix of broad illumination and more intimate accent or task lighting. You want at least 3 to 5 light sources per room. That might sound like a lot, but it’s easy to find inexpensive lamps, and if you choose well, this is an investment you’ll be able to bring with you from space to space.
What if there are fixtures in your space that you absolutely hate? Leave them off and draw attention elsewhere with more eye-catching lamps. Or, talk to your landlord about temporarily switching out fixtures, as long as you replace the originals when you leave. You’ll have the pay the cost of an electrician, twice, to do the replacements. But you’ll be able to take the fixtures to your next home!
Get stuck in
This point could be an entire post on its own, I think. I started going down this route because I knew there had been a lot of innovation in removable wallpaper, which is now widely available in a huge variety of colors and patterns. (Those of you who wish you could wallpaper, this is totally doable in a rental!) But what I didn’t know about were the sheer variety of things you can change in a home with everything from wall decals to contact paper to washi tape.
If you hate your cabinets or fridge, you can cover them with a completely removable pattern (test first to be absolutely sure!). For example, check out this fridge (and tutorial) by Aunt Peaches. (It’s been so popular on Pinterest, she says, “It seems I am not the only person on the planet who thinks their fridge deserves a cute new outfit once in a while.”) You can also do this on your countertops, using marble contact paper to cover yellowed laminate, for example.
Pro tip: if you recover your cabinets with contact paper or removable wallpaper, swap out the hardware too for a completely new look. Put all the original knobs and pulls in a ziplock baggie and you can swap them back in when you leave!
If covering a large surface feels like too much effort, you can use wall decals like these from The Lovely Wall Co., to create a similar effect.
Another way to use stick-on surfaces to achieve a temporary transformation? Tile! I love these stairs that have been perked up with a peel-and-stick version by Tyles. You can also do a whole floor this way, a project easy enough to do in a weekend! Etsy is also a great place to look for these; they come in a wide array of styles and colors for any kind of decor you’re looking for.
I’ve also seen brilliant things done with simple washi tape, such as this ceiling fan transformation from Apartment Therapy.
The upshot? Pretty much anything can be covered or embellished with a self-adhesive material. All you need is a little imagination.
Offset the unsightly
This is one of the techniques I teach in my course, Design a Joyful Home. (Sign up here to be notified when enrollment opens! Pssst: early birds get a discount 😉 Offsetting is a strategy for directing the attention. It can be used to create balance when you have noticeable asymmetries that make a space feel unstable. And it can be used to divert attention away from what we don’t want the eye to dwell on.
I don’t know what the rest of Julieta Tello’s home looks like, but these closet doors, covered in removable wallpaper, would certainly keep me from noticing a myriad of eyesores.
Similarly, a large, brightly colored weaving, like this one by Natalie Miller, would be great way to distract from ugly moldings or a dull view. Bonus points for adding tactility or other multi-sensory elements, which are sometimes in short supply in a rental!
Offsetting is most successful when you aim for large, high-contrast gestures. Our attention naturally drifts towards what’s brightest and biggest in a space, so keep this in mind when offsetting something in your space.
On the other hand, sometimes small gestures can make a big impact. For example, this simple washi tape outline by Tretoen turns a plain door into a feature.
Or try painting your trim a bright color — you’ll have to paint it back, but the surface area is much smaller than having to paint an entire room. For more small, colorful ideas, check out the post “The Power of Color in Unexpected Places.”
Grow your decor
Lastly, we come to the unofficial motto of this blog: when in doubt, add plants! Plants soften everything. They make artificial environments feel more natural. They easily offset other features you don’t want the eye to focus on. And they have a range of benefits to your wellbeing, from reducing blood pressure and stress levels to restoring the ability to concentrate. Plus, like most of the techniques mentioned in this post, you can take them with you when you leave.
I’ve tried to focus here on ideas that anyone can easily achieve, without needing a lot of involvement from your landlord. But there are other steps you can take if you have a collaborative landlord who is open to updates that might end up improving the space’s value once you leave. Changes like this include reglazing tile to update it (see Athena Calderone’s incredible bathroom transformation), replacing fixtures, refacing or repainting cabinets, adding semi-built-in shelves, replacing radiator covers, or painting floors (like Kate Hamilton Gray did in her rental kitchen remodel). Point being: when you start focusing on options and not on limitations, you might find the possibilities are quite endless!
Have you transformed a rental or other temporary space in a joyful way? I’d love to hear about it! Share in the comments or find me on Instagram!
If you enjoyed this post, you might like to know I’m teaching a free online workshop called 5 Secrets to Designing a Joyful Home in Any Space, on Any Budget in February. Sign up for the waitlist here, and you’ll be the first to know when spots open up!
Images: 1. and 2. Marisa at Living a Good Story. 3. Johnny Miller. 4. Aunt Peaches. 5. The Lovely Wall Co. 6. @macfamhome. 7. Nicole Block for Tyles. 8. Ashley Poskin. 9. Brittany Ambridge. 10. Natalie Miller. 11. Tretoen. 12. Tina Hellberg. 13. Belathee for AoJ.