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What to Do if You Can’t Customize: Four Common Rental Realities and How to Overcome Them

Renting an apartment is a necessary part of life for many people, especially those who live and work in the city. Unless you’re fortunate enough to find a newly-renovated place that’s tastefully painted and floored, has plenty of storage, and still falls within your budget, there are bound to be at least a few things you wished were different, but are powerless to change. Through my own and others’ experience dealing with rental limitations, I’ve learned a few tricks to help even the homeliest, drabbest rental exude style an warmth.

Rental Reality #1: You Can’t Paint

Apartment walls are notoriously drab white or taupe to keep things neutral and easy to paint over each time a new tenant moves in. Unless you rent from someone who trusts your good taste and painting ability, a firm ‘no’ will follow any requests for a color change. If you’re an optimist who chooses to look on the  bright side, rejoice in two of the benefits of white walls: the illusion of space, and an ideal pallet to create a minimal style. Pessimistically, the addition of equally neutral furniture could make your living area resemble an asylum, or at the very least, render it boring. There is one paramount solution for this: add color elsewhere. This might look like:

Painted furniture pieces. Sanding and and repainting smaller pieces of furniture in bright colors adds interest to a drab room. These make great weekend projects with the help of a few YouTube videos, Pinterest, or maybe a friend. If you’re not the crafty type, purchase new brightly-hued furniture pieces to supplement or replace what you have.

Colorful accessories. Interesting colors elsewhere in the room will draw attention away from drab walls. Add pops of color in the form of throw pillows, wall art, picture frames, vases, candle holders, drapes, or rugs.

Rental Reality #2: There’s No Storage

One of the greatest challenges of apartment living is dealing with limited storage options. Built-in storage is generally lacking in rentals, and  often coupled with the inability to renovate or even mount shelving. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to create your own. Here are a few:

Modularized shelving. You’ve seen them – the grid-pattern blocks and cube shelves you can arrange in multiple ways. These have a modern look, aren’t that expensive, and offer extreme versatility in small spaces with odd architecture. They also come in standard sizes, so it’s easy to find baskets that fit them. Investing in these units is never a waste, because you can use them virtually anywhere.

Embrace open storage. If you don’t mind keeping things out in the open, you might be able to pull off the growing trend of open storage. Are you lacking cupboards but have plenty of open shelves? Arrange your cookware and china in attractive (and pleasingly accessible) displays.

Double Duty. If you have limited closet rods, find specialized hangers and organizers that will multiple your vertical storage space. If you have wall space above single shelves, add cubes or racks to increase capacity. I also consider over-the-door racks a lifesaver for apartment living!

Rental Reality #3: Drab, Wall-to-Wall Carpet

Carpet is a necessary evil for rental property owners. It cuts down on noise between units, is cheap to install and replace, and when chosen in drab colors, hides wear and tear. For tenants, drab carpeting – especially in weird places like bathrooms and kitchens – is not attractive or practical. You may not be able to rip up carpeting, but you can spice it up and detract from it with bright, interesting rugs. Placing rugs on carpet might sound strange, but it’s an easy way to add color, depth, and warmth to a small apartment. You’ll also be doing yourself and your lease-holder a favor by protecting the carpet from spills and stains, since rugs can be easily washed or replaced.

You can also detract from carpet with bright drapes, a piece of your freshly painted furniture, or some colorful poufs and beanbags.

Rental Reality #4: Exposed Piping and Outdated Designs

Older buildings are unique, and convert well into apartments, but they’re also full of strange or unsightly features, such as exposed kitchen or bathroom plumbing, structural defects, and dated designs. If you can’t change these things, you’ll have to learn how to ‘cover up the ugly’ or work with it.

Conceal pipes and hardware with drapes or skirting under kitchen and bathroom sinks, behind pieces of furniture, or with art.

Offset outdated coloring of tile or ceramic fixtures by focusing on a contrasting but complementary color. For instance, if you have blue bathroom fixtures, decorate with colors like peach, orange, or yellow. You might not be crazy about dated colors or styles, but you can always give them an attractive modern makeover.

Renting: A Lesson in Creativity

Instead of feeling frustrated about realities you can’t change in your apartment, focus on what you can do. Use the opportunity to hone your creative, problem-solving skills, and make your ‘standard’ apartment into a unique, functional home that looks far from just another rental.

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