Designers Agree—These 20 Upgrades Make a Rental Living Room Look Expensive

Rental living room with large-scale art

Design: Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Tramp

Decorating a rental living room can be a tricky task. We get it: With the ever-looming threat of losing your security deposit, giving your space a fresh coat of paint, swapping out light fixtures, or even hanging up artwork with nails is discouraging, to say the least. Though replacing laminate wood flooring with the real thing may be out of the question, it is possible to transform your standard leased living room into a space you love without sacrificing thousands of dollars in the process.

To demonstrate how it's done, we turned to the experts. We tapped interior designer Emily Henderson of Emily Henderson Design, Mandy Cheng of Mandy Cheng Design, Nathelie Macchioni of Hyphen & Co, San Fransico-based designer Nicole Newkirk, and Leanne Ford of Leanne Ford Interiors for their go-to rental living room hacks. Read on to find out 20 ways these pros make a leased living room look expensive.

01 of 20

Disguise Unsightly Areas

Living room with disguised radiator

Design: Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

One major downside of rentals is that there's almost always some sort of eyesore to deal with. Take care of problematic areas with some strategic decorating: Cover fuse boxes and old thermostats with hanging art that can be removed for quick access, drape curtains across doorways to keep less-than-ideal rooms hidden, and tuck chunky radiators and air conditioners out of sight using strategically placed decor.

02 of 20

Swap Out Existing Fixtures

Living room with custom ceiling pendant and wall lamps

Ashley Montgomery Design

"Often in a rental apartment, lighting is overlooked since there are standard fixtures already in place," designer Nathelie Macchioni tells MyDomaine. "Adding and changing light fixtures adds an element of uniqueness to a rental. Swapping out a ceiling fixture with a large pendant or installing plug-in sconces by a lounge chair or above the couch are all great ways to elevate the design of any living room."

03 of 20

Save the Old Fixtures

Living room with replaced light fixture

Cathie Hong Interiors

"When it comes to rentals, it's all about changing the lighting! It's a quick, easy, simple, and reversible improvement," agrees designer Leanne Ford. But before you rush off to pick a replacement, Ford has a reminder: "Make sure to keep the landlord's lights safely in the back of a closet so you can put them back before you move out," she advises.

04 of 20

Fill the Space

Small living room with optimal furniture layout

Tyler Karu Design + Interiors

This is a double-edged sword: You want to fill your living room just right, without too much open space for the eye to wander, but you don't want too much going on, either. The key is finding furniture that looks just right in your room. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there's enough space to freely walk around your furniture.

05 of 20

Carve Out an Entry

Apartment living room with informal entry space

Design: Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

If your front door opens right into your living room, we know your pain. Creating an entryway (even where there isn't one) is essential for form and function. Define the area with a pretty rug and look for pieces that fit near your door, whether that's a small cabinet, narrow bench, or even just a few hooks on the wall—anything that acts as a landing spot to throw your keys and kick off your shoes when you get home.

06 of 20

Plug Into Something New

Rental living room light fixtures

Design: Emily Henderson; Photo: Sara Tramp

If you didn't catch on yet, lighting your rental should be top priority. Designer Emily Henderson's number one tip? "Add plug-in fixtures like sconces and pendants," she informs us. "It's an instant, high-impact update with a totally customized, expensive feel," the interior designer explains.

07 of 20

Scour the Web

Living room with swapped out chandelier pendant

Tyler Karu Design + Interiors

Designer Nicole Newkirk gives a vote for lighting, too, but she has another tip. "You don't have to spend a ton of money on lighting to make your space look chic," she offers. "Shopping on sites like Etsy and Chairish or even going to big-box stores are good ways to upgrade your lights." And the same can be said of other staple decor items like curtains and rugs.

08 of 20

Get the Right Rug

Living room with a large rug

Bespoke Only

Speaking of rugs, a cozy, attractive rug will pretty up your space almost instantly. But make sure you're looking for the right size rug—one that's too small will make your living room feel cramped and unpolished. If you have to choose between a small decorative and a large solid, go with the larger. It's easy to introduce color and pattern through other elements like textiles and art.

Found a rug you love but it's too small? Try layering it over a larger neutral rug to reap the benefits of both.

09 of 20

Invest in Quality Furniture

Rental living room with high-quality furniture

Reena Sotropa

When it comes to furniture, you can usually tell when something's a budget piece, especially after a few months of use. Cheap mass-produced furniture tends to degrade pretty quickly thanks to low-quality materials and craftsmanship. We'd recommend investing in higher quality when it comes to big-ticket items that will be with you for a few years.

10 of 20

Mix and Match

Eclectic living room with new and vintage pieces

Amy Bartlam

You don't have to break the bank to get your living room looking luxe. Balance affordable pieces with one or two more high-end items to offset each other. Timeless vintage pieces are also a great way to make the most of your budget and balance out newer big-box pieces.

11 of 20

Hang Things

Apartment with open floor plan and hanging decor

Noelle Ryan Interiors

Don't be afraid to put a few small holes in the walls that can be patched later, especially if your lease doesn't forbid it. Shelves, art, mirrors, and curtains, to name a few, will make a major difference in taking your space from boxy apartment to chic home. When it's time to move out, pick up a putty knife and some spackle for just a few dollars to fill in those holes.

12 of 20

Supersize Artwork

Rental living room with large-scale art

Design: Emily Henderson Design; Photo: Sara Tramp

"Go big with your artwork," advises designer Mandy Cheng. "A large, beautifully framed piece can really elevate the level of design, regardless of whether you rent or own." As far as location, she suggests placing art over the sofa. "Try to find a framed piece that is over one half the width of your sofa so it feels substantial and eye-catching," Cheng advises. 

13 of 20

Address the Windows

Living room with curtains on the windows

Amy Bartlam

When it comes to rentals, you can pretty much guarantee the windows will be dressed poorly or not at all. Addressing the issue asap will have you feeling at home that much sooner. Opt for curtains and replace or remove ugly shades altogether for an instant boost in the style department.

14 of 20

Pile on Pillows

Living room with decorative throw pillows

Desiree Burns Interiors

As far as throw pillows are concerned, we're of the mindset that more is more. They're such an easy way to add color, texture, and personality to your living room. On top of that, they're easy (and affordable) to switch out seasonally, or as often as you like.

15 of 20

Bring in Blankets

Cozy rental living room with blankets

Black & Blooms

Along the same line as pillows, you can never have enough blankets and throws—they're a foolproof way to add an effortlessly chic vibe to your living room. Drape one elegantly over the sofa and keep a cute basket of blankets nearby for extra cozy snuggle sessions.

16 of 20

Layer Textures

Cozy living room with various textures

Arbor & Co.

Mixing up your textures creates a completely luxe feel that you just can't fake. Look for differing fabrics in your furniture, rugs, and accent textiles. For example, layering a wool rug, velvet sofa, cotton throw pillows, and chunky knit throw will result in a plush, totally luxurious living room.

17 of 20

Cute up the Coffee Table

Styled living room coffee table

Anne Sage

One common element you'll find across designer living rooms is an expertly styled coffee table. But don't let this intimidate you—get the look using a few key pieces that vary in size, shape, height, and texture. A common color scheme can help keep things looking neat.

18 of 20

Add an Organic Touch

Modern living room with plants and fresh flowers

Dan Rak Design

Another easy way to bring your apartment to life (literally) is with plants. Whether you're an indoor jungle or set and forget it kind of plant parent, a green touch can be just the breath of fresh air your rental needs.

Not the plant parent type? Treat yourself to fresh-cut flowers or greens regularly for similar benefits.

19 of 20

Create Height

Living room with tall plant to draw the eye up

Amy Bartlam

Whether your rental ceilings are standard or soaring, it's always a good idea to draw the eye upwards. Vertical decor is an easy way to do this—things like high bookshelves, large art, long curtains, even tall plants. This creates the illusion of higher ceilings and visually balances low-to-the-ground furniture like the sofa.

20 of 20

Be Picky

Curated living room with flowers, candles, and art

Anne Sage

To make your space its best self, be picky and don't settle. If you only bring things into your home that you love, you'll never be unhappy with your space, and that'll show. Channel your inner Marie Kondo—does it bring you joy? If not, then it probably doesn't belong in your home.

Related Stories