Rookie Mistake – Decorating a Rental

Rookie Mistakes: a series of common decor mistakes made by a design rookie…me! And no, I’m not judging because I have made (and continue to make) these mistakes too!

Here are the top five Rookie Mistake posts from the series (you can catch the rest of them at the bottom of this post).

Remember, the Rookie Mistakes series is a NO JUDGEMENT ZONE. I’ve made ALL of these decorating mistakes in my home and  I simply want you to learn from me so you can make your home look amazing.

Rookie Mistake – Decorating a Rental

It’s been about four years since I was a renter, but I remember those years fondly. Finn and I lived in some pretty crappy apartments…from Wisconsin, to St. Louis, to Chicago…lots of bland and boring rentals that we had to make our own. And I’m not gonna lie, back in the day I was not the best home decorator and I made plenty of rental decorating mistakes.

Rental decorating mistakes

Even though we’re now homeowners, I still get asked for rental content all.the.time. In fact, this rental decorating post is one of our most popular! I figured it was time to tackle a rookie mistake centered around rental homes and apartments. But honestly, today’s mistakes (and fixes!) can apply to anyone looking to improve the look of their home.

Ten Common Rental Decorating Mistakes

First, let’s take a look at this rendering and point out the top ten rental decorating mistakes I see most often. Once I identify those eyesores, we can review how to best fix them.

Rookie Mistakes Decorating a Rental
  1. Overwhelming Entertainment Center
  2. Not Enough Lighting
  3. Cords…Everywhere!
  4. Holding Onto Hand Me Downs for Too Long
  5. Not Adding Curtains
  6. Living with Dingy White Walls
  7. Too Big Sofa
  8. Art…Too High & Too Small
  9. Too Small Rug
  10. All Wrong Coffee Table

I’m not gonna lie, I feel like I’ve seen the above apartment many times over the years! All of the individual pieces aren’t bad. The sofa is cool, the art is nice, and I love the rug. But it can be done so much better. Here’s how to combat these rental decorating mistakes.

Fixing Common Rental Decorating Mistakes

rookie mistakes rental fixed

So much better, right?! It’s the same blank room, yet this one is packed full of personality and style! Before we go into the specifics of this room, let’s point out the BIG changes in here that come with great lessons for decorating a rental.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make ChangesGallery wall over a console

First, just because you live in a rental doesn’t mean you can’t go a little bold with your decorating. I’ve painted all of our rentals (getting permission first, of course) and it made it feel more like me. While I’ve never used peel and stick wallpaper in a rental before, I did use it on my mom’s closet and it turned out awesome. How fun would that be as an accent wall in a rental? You could peel it off when it’s time to move out.Coastal bedroom retreat with simple home decor upgrades

Most of the time when people talk to me about decorating a rental, they complain about how they don’t want to hang anything because then there will be holes in the wall. Guys, filling nail holes is crazy easy (here’s how to do it!). Please don’t let thirty minutes of fixing nail holes deter you from living without art on your walls for a year (or more!). Also, command strips are the bomb and work like magic. I highly recommend them to hang a cute gallery wall.

Make it Personal Avoid these common rental decorating mistakes

Just because you don’t own your place doesn’t mean you can’t make it feel like you! Your home should tell your story, whether it’s a temporary home or a permanent one! Get inspired by this list of personalized decor ideas and incorporate art, photographs, and pieces that represent your interests.

Scale & Proportion MatterLeather chair

The BIGGEST mistake I see (pun intended), is when people use big furniture in a small apartment. I’m looking at you gargantuan sofa! I dive into the importance of scale in this blog post, but it bears repeating here. CB2 and Urban Outfitters have awesome smaller-scale furniture that works well in apartments and rentals (plus, they have good secret storage options.)

Why This Room Works

renter rookie mistakes rendering

Now, let’s take another look at that re-envisioned rendering and talk about why it works so much better than the first!

For one, all of the furniture is proportionate to each other. This creates balance and allows our eyes to rest while also allowing individual pieces to stand out. The large rug grounds the space while the curtains draw the eye up making the space feel larger. The sofa is still a sectional that provides ample seating, but without overwhelming the space.

The wallpaper and gallery wall both add personality, which is so important in rental spaces! The wallpaper also creates a focal point other than the TV (it doesn’t need to be a huge black box in the room!).  And speaking of the TV, there is not a cord in sight, making the space feel tidier and put together.

Now, let’s break down each area of the room again. This time, noticing what’s RIGHT about the space!

  1. Sleek Entertainment Center: I’m obsessed with the console (secret storage galore!) and it’s a great size paired with the television (ideally it should be two feet wider than the television).
  2. Large Lamp: Rentals have garbage lighting, so bring in your own! Floor lamps, table lamps, and even plug-in sconces are a great idea. This post explains my best rules for lighting.
  3. Hidden Cords: Sometimes rental rooms are cramped and we think it’s better to have a slender open console. But choose furniture that allows you to conceal cords. I have a post all about hiding cords here and these are lifesavers for cord management!
  4. Modern Furniture: You should absolutely keep family heirlooms and vintage pieces you love. However, if there’s a piece you don’t like…replace it! Life is too short to be surrounded by things that don’t spark joy, so if replacing it won’t break your budget, go for it!Curtains from Alva
  5. Curtains Add Warmth: Adding window treatments is one of the simplest ways to make your rental feel more pulled together. And if installed correctly, the holes should be easy to fill when you leave. Don’t be intimated by this one – you got this!This post shows you how to hang a curtain rod and even shares tips on selecting the right length for your space.
  6. The Walls Have Personality: More often than not, landlords will allow you to paint the walls if you agree to paint them back. Because you may not want to paint your entire apartment twice, I recommend assessing each room. Determine where a switch in paint color will have the biggest impact and get to work! And don’t forget that peel and stick wallpaper is another great option for refreshing a rental space.
  7. Correct-Sized Sofa: When choosing a sofa, my advice is to measure the area where the sofa will go and deduct room for accent pieces like lamps, side tables, and plants. Allowing space for these pieces will make your space feel intentional and balanced.Wood dresser in a gray bedroom
  8. Gallery Wall Over the Couch: One of the most common places art is hung too high is above a sofa. Aim for five to eight inches above the top of the sofa. When hanging a gallery wall, consider the collection as one piece of artwork to hang, with no one piece hung too high or low (here’s my hack to hang it like a pro!).Speaking of gallery walls, they are a great way to curate art that is proportionate to the room.  Oftentimes, gallery walls are an especially great option for a renter who has yet to invest in large scale art. If you do opt for a larger piece above a sofa, for example, make sure it is at least 2/3 to 3/4 of the size of the sofa (more details in this post!).
  9. Large Rug: I think a lot of us default to a smaller rug size in order to save money because let’s face it, rugs are expensive.  But having a rug that is too small will take away from an otherwise beautifully designed space. This post has more details on buying the best rug for your space.
  10. Airy Coffee Tables: In rental spaces, multi-functional furniture is key! That’s why I especially like coffee tables that serve more than one purpose, such as adding hidden storage or creating a work/dining space. I think it’s also important to consider the overall shape and structure of a coffee table. In a small space, a large coffee table that sits flush against the floor will make the room feel small, whereas a table with slender legs (like in the rendering) will open up an otherwise tight space.

Goodbye Bland Rentals!

So what do you guys think?! Have you made these rental decorating mistakes? I sure have.  But I hope you can learn from me and stop waiting for your dream home. The time to create a space you love is right now!


Catch up on More Rookie Mistakes

The Year of Casey

Hey there!

I’m Casey Finn, the voice behind The DIY Playbook. I’m a Chicago gal teaching you how to design, DIY, and maintain your home…by yourself! Learn more about me right here.

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