9 Budget Design Ideas to Turn Your Rental Into a Mansion

Updated 02/07/19
a simple dining room
Courtesy of BHDM Design

After countless showings (and many Craigslist rental inquiries), you've finally found your dream apartment. It's in the perfect location with a non-street parking space, but even though the interior is clean, it's looking a little dated. We get it. Decorating a rental is tricky, but just because you didn't buy it doesn't mean you can't own it. Right? A rental is still your home, albeit a temporary one, and it deserves some interior love too.

Besides, if the stats are anything to go by, you'll most likely be renting for a while. Despite millennials associating homeownership with the American dream, USA Today reports only 9% plan to buy a home within a year, thanks in part to rising rent costs and student loans. And 70% of the ones who did buy regret that decision. Of course, there are pros and cons to both, but if you're renting, feel good about it and create a space you're proud of.

So what simple upgrades can you make to a rental that won't cost you—ones 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 liveable oasis. It's time to start turning your makeshift space into the place you love, so read on to learn all the simple changes for decorating a rental you can make on a dime.

To Freshen Things Up

a white living room
Courtesy of 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. Paint is so transformative and relatively cheap too.

"My favorite is Wimborne White by Farrow & Ball," said 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.

Farrow & Ball Wimborne White
Farrow & Ball Wimborne White $99
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To Upgrade the Kitchen

an sleek white kitchen
Courtesy of 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, Athena advises painting the cabinets if your landlord will allow it. "Paint the cabinetry a neutral color like white, gray, or charcoal," she said. 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," she said. "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 Butcherblock to replace cheap laminate countertops. You have to see the stunning results of Calderone's temporary kitchen face-lift for yourself. 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 $129
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To Cover Ugly Switches

an all white living room
Fantastic Frank

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 oddly placed light switches, plugs, and ugly radiators? Calderone says while there's no getting around radiators, you can paint them black or white.

"Honestly, paint can 100% transform a space," she said. "Make sure light switches and plugs are the same color as your wall so they disappear." If this doesn't work, then Gachot says art is the best solution or designing a chic cover. "Simple radiator enclosures can be quickly fabricated out of walnut," she adds. "A little wood goes a long way."

Behr Premium Plus Jet Black Zero Interior Paint
Behr Premium Plus Jet Black Zero Interior Paint $24
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To Fix Bad Lighting

interesting lighting in a kitchen
Courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts

One of the most common faux pas in a rental property is the lighting. They're 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. Calderone loves IKEA and Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co. for affordable, stylish options. Before you begin, Gachot says "establishing a hierarchy of lighting is key." She continues, "floor and table lamps bring the light levels down to a human scale."

If you're willing to part with a little more cash, Calderone says she's "obsessed" with Allied Maker lighting. "The brand is based in New York and has a great price point," she 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 $329
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To Transform the Bathroom

a bathroom with a large potted plant and clawfoot tub
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 says "Fresh, crisp linens, a ceramic case 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," she said. "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 she 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," she said. "Replacing the vanity is always a quick option, though if it's freestanding, IKEA has very cost-effective options."

CB2 Triangle Shower Curtain
CB2 Triangle Shower Curtain $50
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To Add Art (Even if You're Not Allowed)

a living room with a green pop of color
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 says "move. Art censorship is non-negotiable." But seriously, if you're really set on the place, then Calderone believes you should hang to your heart's content. "These days, the nail for art hangers is smaller than a pin," she 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 them at all. Layer them 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 Photographer by Marc Gabor
Marc Gabor Monte Alban #62 Photographer $290
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To Replace Old Blinds

a living room with upgraded blinds
Courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts

If there's one thing that can age a room, it's the blinds. The color, fabric, and style can upset your entire aesthetic, but Calderone has an easy fix. "Simply hang drapery in front of the blinds," she said. "I recently bought a roll of muslin linen to make curtains out of," she 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. Fabrics.com 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."

West Elm Sheer Belgian Flax Linen Curtain
West Elm Sheer Belgian Flax Linen Curtain $69
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To Divide Small Open-Plan Spaces

an open-plan space with defined living areas
Courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts

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," she 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 says a "bookshelf makes for a decorative and functional room divider." Because we all know having a well-constructed bookshelf gives your interior air of intelligence. Right?

CB2 V Bookcase-Room Divider
CB2 V Bookcase-Room Divider $799
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To Add the Finishing Touch

a living room with dimmers
Courtesy of Fantastic Frank

So now that you've made all the upgrades, it's time for the finishing touch. For Calderone, that means one thing: dimmers. "I can't express enough the importance of dimmers," she 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," she said. "It can really elevate your appreciation for the space too." Lastly, since this home 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.

Leviton 3-Way Universal Push On/Off Rotary Dimmer
Leviton 3-Way Universal Push On/Off Rotary Dimmer $10
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a living room with statement chairs
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Katie Hodges Design

This post was originally published on December 20, 2017, and has since been updated.

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