5 Must-have Items for Decorating a Rental Space (What I’ve learned from moving 7 times in 9 years)

9:17:00 AM


After we got married, my husband and I moved into a tiny apartment (half an attic to be precise) to keep costs down as we plugged away at finishing our degrees.

It was an interesting apartment to say the least. Our shower followed the slope of the roof and we often hit our head on the ceiling while we washed our hair. Ha, many things about that place make me laugh.

Since then, we have moved 6 more times in 9 years! Schooling, internships and a career with a rotational program have taken us into interesting, challenging and unique living spaces.

We obviously didn’t have high standards with our first place. With each new place we’ve lived in, be it smaller, larger, older, newer, clean, dirty, needing a lot of fix-up, to being wonderfully live-able, I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve learned what makes a place feel like home. I’ve learned what things are non-negotiable (ie: dishwasher!) and I’ve cleaned up after A LOT of people’s messes.

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There’s a lot that goes into making a rental space feel like home. Cleaning, painting, setting up storage solutions (more on that later) but I’m going to share with you 5 must-have items that will help you feel like you are in YOUR space. These items are all things you can take with you, so if you move as much as we do, set-up will be a whole lot easier.

1) At least one AWESOME large scale rug.

Your rug must be 8x10 at a minimum. Living areas need rugs to anchor the space. A large rug will do just that.

Rugs will also cut down on noise if you happen to have downstairs neighbors. Rugs are magical at covering up hideous and uncomfortable flooring and brightening up beautiful flooring.

Now, when I say your rug needs to be awesome, I mean awesome. Don’t just go to any old store and pick up a cheap decent-looking rug. If you do this, your rug may not move with you! You want a long-lasting rug that will give you familiarity in every place you live.

Choose a rug that speaks to you. Why? Most rental spaces are drab and boring. The floors are often very lackluster. Spend your money on a rug that says, “Welcome home! I love you!” Okay, not literally, but you get the drift? It’s an investment!

2) Small scale furniture

Trust me. I’ve learned from too many mistakes—“Oh, but this chair is so comfortable!” Yeah, because it’s a ginormous recliner that will get in the way, completely fill your room and make your space feel small.

Be careful when you buy furniture. Scale is very important. I thrift most of my furniture, but I keep some rules when I purchase. One general idea is that you want things low to the ground--Short, but still comfortable. It's also a good idea to buy furniture with the legs showing. It makes your space feel more open.

It may take a while to find just what works, but it’s worth it. 

3) Lamps

A lot. Really. I have NEVER lived in a rental with sufficient lighting. I still don’t.

Lighting has become more and more important to me as I’ve realized what a difference it makes in the general feeling of the room. Overhead lighting is never enough.

Have you ever had the experience of taking down your Christmas tree only to realize how dark that corner has always been? Yeah. It needs more light. Three or four lamps in the living room? Yes! Two in the bedroom? Yes!

Other lighting options to consider: motion sensing LED lights for closets, under cabinet lighting in kitchens, hallway night lights.

 4) Curtains

I know curtains tend to be kind of a taste thing. Let’s face it, some people don’t like them. But I have to have them on my list for two reasons- 1) rental blinds are ugly 2) most rentals don’t have beautifully trimmed and cased windows. They are plain, uninviting, boring… Does this sound like your rental?

Your goal with curtains is to have them drape from ceiling to floor. I hang the rod about 3 inches from the ceiling.

Another tip is to extend the curtain rod out about 12” on each side of the window. This way, when the curtains are open, precious light will not be blocked.

If you have ugly blinds or a bad view, hang sheers between the drapes. This masks the blinds/view a bit and adds more privacy when the blinds are open.

5) Large Scale Art

Any interior designer can attest to the importance of having a focal point in each room. Focal points give the eye a place to go.

Focal points come in forms of fireplaces, really cool architectural features, a huge TV and large scale art.

Let’s face it. You’d be lucky to consistently land a rental that has a fireplace. It’s even rarer for rentals to have other architectural features. I’ll be frank and say that it's hard to make a TV look pretty.

Art is the way to go. You can use old maps, a beautiful large scale textiles, a hand pieced quilt, a DIY painting, a poster or a real actual painting. It just needs to be something to give a place for your eye to land.

I’ve learned a lot over the years. I seem to learn more with each move. It takes a lot to get a place to feel like home, but when I set these items up in every new place, I feel at home.

But we all know, there is more. Sometimes it’s a struggle to decide what to fix and not fix. What to install and not install. What to invest in and not. What to paint, if you can paint, and what to leave alone. Organizing a new place is always a challenge. Sometimes there are smells to deal with. Often there are weird quirks or awkward spaces.

How can you make your rental work for YOU? Sign up for my free email course and I will share with you more tips and tricks that I’ve learned in the renting world.

SIGN UP FOR OUR FREE EMAIL COURSE for more tips on decorating your rental.

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  1. Very true. I love the graphics on this post! Did you create them yourself?

    1. Thank you! I did. I used other stock photos as a reference. I love drawing in Illustrator!

  2. Yet another masterpiece from Rachel. I need you in Houston this summer! Please make my home beautiful!

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