9 Designer-Approved Tricks for Decorating a Rental on a Budget

dining nook in a rental property

BHDM Design

After countless showings (and many Craigslist rental inquiries), you've finally found your dream apartment. It's in the perfect location with its own dedicated parking space, but even though the interior is clean, it looks a little dated.

So what simple and affordable upgrades can you make to a rental that your landlord will also approve? We quizzed interior designers Athena Calderone of EyeSwoon and Christine Gachot of Gachot Studios about decorating a rental, so it feels like a well-curated and livable oasis. Here are their nine tips for decorating a rental that you will transform your space.

Meet the Expert

Athena Calderone is a home chef, design enthusiast, cookbook author, and the creative mind behind the blog, EyeSwoon. Christine Gachot is an interior designer and partner at the New York City-based design firm Gachot Studios.

01 of 09

Freshen up the Paint

sitting room with large artwork above the couch

BHDM Design

Think of your rental like an artist's blank canvas. You need a fresh foundation to build upon and layer around to create your magic castle. So before you move everything in, Calderone and Gachot agree there's one thing you need to do first: Paint it. Even if your landlord repainted before you moved in, sometimes the color just isn't quite right for you.

"My favorite is Wimborne White by Farrow & Ball," says Gachot. "Put your money in the paint and not in the painter, roll up your sleeves, and pick up a brush." Painting is tough work, but the gratification you feel at seeing the final result makes it worth it.

Whimborne White by Farrow and Ball
Farrow & Ball Wimborne White $110
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02 of 09

Update the Kitchen

Bright kitchen with dark countertops

BHDM Design

If there's one part of the house that requires your urgent attention, it's the kitchen. As the most frequented room in the house, it should be pretty and practical, but it also needs to be fresh. No one wants to cook in a dirty kitchen.

If you're short on cash but want to make it look expensive, Calderone advises painting the cabinets if your landlord will allow it. "Paint the cabinetry a neutral color like white, gray, or charcoal," Calderone says. If your cabinets are beyond painting, then Gachot says you should replace them altogether. "Most rental kitchens will have overlay panel doors set on European hinges," Gachot explains. "These are easy to remove and replace. A simple walnut panel can change the whole look." 

But if you're ready to take it one step further, then Calderone urges you to invest in IKEA's low-cost birch butcher block to replace cheap laminate countertops. In fact, Calderone turned to the Swedish retailer's affordable materials for her own temporary kitchen face-lift. If that's not possible, hang some pendant lighting. "This will act as the focal point to the space and pull your eye from less desirable areas," adds Calderone.

IKEA Karlby Birch Countertop
IKEA Karlby Birch Countertop $149
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03 of 09

Camouflage Eyesores

Stylish and scandinavian living room interior of modern apartment with gray sofa, design wooden commode, black table, lamp, abstrac paintings on the wall. Beautiful dog lying on the couch. Home decor.
FollowTheFlow / Getty Images

They are absolute necessities in any room (and we complain when there aren't enough), but the truth is that light switches, plugs, and radiators can be eyesores. So how do you camouflage them? Calderone says while there's no getting around radiators, you can paint them black or white.

"Honestly, paint can 100% transform a space," Calderone explains. "Make sure light switches and plugs are the same color as your wall, so they disappear."

If changing wall hues doesn't work, Gachot says art is the best solution or designing a chic cover. "Simple radiator enclosures can be quickly fabricated out of walnut," Gachot adds. "A little wood goes a long way."

Premium Plus Jet Black Zero Interior Paint by Behr
Behr Premium Plus Jet Black Zero Interior Paint $26
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04 of 09

Fix Bad Lighting

kitchen lighting ideas

 Design: sKout

Wondering how to update an apartment's ambiance easily? One of the most common faux pas in a rental property is lighting. It's usually old and mismatched (but not in a good way), which can make the whole space look dated and tired. Thankfully, lighting is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to upgrade your home and bring it into the 21st century.

But before you begin, "establishing a hierarchy of lighting is key," says Gachot. "Floor and table lamps bring the light levels down to a human scale."

Calderone swears by IKEA and Schoolhouse for affordable, stylish options. If you're willing to part with a little more cash, Calderone suggests shelling out for Allied Maker lighting. "The brand is based in New York and has a great price point," Calderone adds. "The best thing about a lighting investment is you can take it with you when you leave."

Schoolhouse Factory Light 6 Cable Pendant
Schoolhouse Factory Light 6 Cable Pendant $359
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05 of 09

Transform the Bathroom

clawfoot bathtub in a bright rental bathroom
Tessa Neustadt; DESIGN: Katherine Carter

Bathrooms can be tricky, especially if you have ugly tiles, but don't let that deter you from turning it into a restroom you love. After all, this is the place where we beautify, cleanse, and nurture our bodies every day, so it should look the part too. It's also another room, like the kitchen, that needs to be clean. For simple, low-cost upgrades, Calderone suggests "fresh, crisp linens, a ceramic vase with flowers, or something green will always bring life to an old space."

If you have a long-term lease, Calderone says consider investing in bathroom reglazing. "You can coat any old mildew or time-worn tile on the floor, on the walls, and even the bathtub with a fresh, crisp white glaze," Calderone explains. "It looks brand-new and likely costs around $500 to $800, but it's worth the investment if you plan to stay." If you're really serious, Calderone has even replaced a toilet using an affordable option from Home Depot, and the designer always replaces the showerhead.

When you are dealing with a displeasing tile palette, Gachot recommends you create a neutral background using a luxurious shower curtain and a sisal area rug. "Your money is better served by not touching the plumbing," Gachot notes. "Replacing the vanity is always a quick option though if it's freestanding, IKEA has very cost-effective options."

triangle shower curtain
CB2 Triangle Shower Curtain $50
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06 of 09

Add Art (Even if You're Not Allowed)

Art in a rental space

Alyssa Rosenheck

Some rental properties don't allow you to add as much artwork to the walls as you'd like. If that's the case, then Gachot recommends that you move. "Art censorship is non-negotiable." But seriously, if you're really set on the place, Calderone also believes you should hang to your heart's content. "These days, the nail for art hangers is smaller than a pin," Calderone says. "Sometimes, you just have to break the rules. It's easy enough to fill that hole."

If you don't want to upset your landlord, then you can be inventive with how you hang your artwork; in fact, you don't have to hang it at all. Layer the pieces up on the floor, or on a mantel or bookshelf if you have one—it's how the cool kids are doing it

Monte Alban #62
Marc Gabor Monte Alban #62 Photographer, 16X24 in. $290
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07 of 09

Replace Old Blinds

After shot of living room.

Amber Lewis

If there's one thing that can age a room, it's the blinds. The color, material, and style can upset your entire aesthetic, but Calderone has an easy fix. "Simply hang drapery in front of the blinds," Calderone recommends.

"I recently bought a roll of muslin linen to make curtains out of," Calderone adds. "It was super inexpensive, and I hired a seamstress from Task Rabbit to come by with her sewing machine, and within a few hours, I had natural linen custom curtains. Fabric.com [also] sells yards of fabric for reasonable pricing." If that isn't your taste, then Gachot says a simple linen Roman shade from Blinds.com is "cost-effective and lovely."

Sheer Belgian Flax Linen Curtain
West Elm Sheer Belgian Flax Linen Curtain $79 - $158
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08 of 09

Divide Small, Open-Plan Spaces

Open plan living dining contemporary

NelleG / Getty Images

If your rental is just a small open-plan space, it can be tricky to decorate, but Gachot has a solution. "Define spaces with furniture groupings," Gachot says. "It gives each area meaning and purpose. I'm also a fan of a cane screen, which offers semi-transparent privacy."

To break it up, Calderone recommends a "bookshelf makes for a decorative and functional room divider." Because we all know having a well-constructed bookshelf gives your interior an air of intelligence, right?

V - Shaped Bookcase
CB2 V Bookcase-Room Divider $999
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09 of 09

Add the Finishing Touch

bathroom counter with hanging pendant lights

 Design: Light Lab Interiors

After making all the upgrades, it's time for the finishing touch. For Calderone, that means one thing. "I can't express enough the importance of dimmers," Calderone said. "Lighting sets the mood in your home, and you can also take these with you." For the areas that you frequent the most, Gachot recommends hardware updates.

"You really want to spend in the areas that you touch and feel each day, especially on solid door hardware," Gachot says. "It can really elevate your appreciation for the space too."

Since this home likely won't be your last, Gachot says to invest in furniture that can move with you. Then when you move to the next rental, you already have the building blocks to decorate a chic home.

rotary dimmer switch
Leviton 3-Way Universal Push On/Off Rotary Dimmer $11
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tv room

Design: Arlyn Hernandez, Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

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