How To Decorate A Rental Home

A growing trend amongst frequent travelers is to pack a few staple items that help to personalize any hotel room. These might include their favorite soaps and slippers, a few small photos, or their usual end-of-day tunes. These modern day nomads spend so much time in hotel rooms that they have cleverly figured out how to personalize a space without being permanent. I think this trend is a great cue for renters who want to make their homes more personal but without making permanent changes to the property — flooring, walls, doors, etc. There are increasing numbers of people these days who prefer to rent rather than to buy a home. In fact, rental properties could make up half of all new households in the next decade — more than seven million renter households. So, here are my sMARt tips for those of you who want to make your rental space look and feel like you’ve put down roots — without breaking the bank — and, with one exception, they are all things you modern nomads can take with you.

First and foremost, your relationship with your landlord is just as important as finding a great place to live. Although I have had many wonderful landlords that even today remain, friends, I have had a couple of nightmare ones, too. Here is what I learned: Just the same way they ask us references, you too should ask for references. Why did the last tenant leave, may I call the others that live in the building, and so on. Always ask about what you can do and what you can’t do before you sign any lease. I was told once that I could not paint or put anything on the walls — even if I promised to return it to the way I found it. It turned out that although it took more searching time, I found that another amazing place was awaiting me. To this day the Fink Family is not only one of my former landlords but family too.


Okay, I’m starting with the “can’t take it with you” exception. Because paint is the easiest and most inexpensive way to transform a space — and painting it yourself saves you even more. Most rental spaces are painted white, off-white, creamy white or beige to make the rooms appear larger and clean. As a renter for many years, my first priority was always to paint to give the space my own personal style. I always asked for my landlord’s approval and once they got the big picture, they agreed with my choice.

When personalizing your space, find colors that are not trendy but complimentary to your home dÌ©cor. Always offer to return the room to its original color when the lease is up. That said, choose wisely and perhaps you won’t need to. (No landlord has ever asked me to do so.) Keep it simple, keep it tasteful and keep it cohesive to your overall color palette and style. Stay away from colors that require multiple coats. One or two coats are best.

So what if you really are forbidden to paint? No problem–today there are so many choices of decorative decals in a myriad of designs and style. The best thing is that they apply and remove with equal ease. Another way to live with “mandatory white” walls is to embrace the color in another decor so that it appears that the white matches your decor anyway. A few well-placed objects, pieces of artwork, or an occasional chair or table can help. Get inspired!

Throw carpets

Carpet runners, area rugs, mats, etc. all offer numerous options to incorporate and express your personal style. If the floors are bad the best way to distract the eye from the undesirable surface is to cover it with an area rug or carpet, not to be confused with wall-to-wall. In fact, if you hate the wall-to-wall, it’s perfectly acceptable to throw an area rug over it. You have lots of options here on many levels. You can choose something that you love and cherish and will take with you always or you can choose something bold, elaborate or unique that’s trendy without a big commitment — just don’t invest the same money on it as you would on something you want to keep long-term. Throw rugs are easily found at off-price and big-box stores. Carpet stores often have remnants from expensive carpeting that can be sized for your needs and bound, all for a fraction of its original cost.


Pillows are becoming disposable accessories, and it’s a decorating trend. With many stores currently dedicating aisles and aisles to trendy seasonal pillows, there is no easier way to hone and infuse your personal style without a big investment. With the wide range of prices, it’s easy to incorporate the warmth, texture, and color of throw pillows on sofas and chairs, creating an inviting and cozy environment. (Design note: Please, keep your pillows poofed!)


My belief is that your personal style is reflected in the art you have hanging on your walls. It could be paintings, drawings, prints, personal photography, posters, maps, mirrors or even pages from historical books or antique architectural drawings. If you have something that you love and it doesn’t fit with your current design objectives, you can always have it reframed so that it does. (Or store it until the next location, where you can “discover” it again.) Cluster pictures on a wall, lean them on a mantle, desk or sideboard or place them on an easel for a more modern display. Use Command damage-free clear hanging hooks as they hold strongly and remove cleanly.


Every rental property I’ve ever rented had what I felt were atrocious light fixtures and even more atrocious switches. Yes, swapping them out did require an initial outlay on my part, but save your receipts: I did and got reimbursed by selling the fixtures back to the landlord when I left. He loved what I had done to the place so much that I was also able to sell most of the furnishings as well. Good style always pays off sooner or later.

With so many do-it-yourselfers out there these days, you may easily find someone who is capable of switching out a light fixture. Personally, I prefer to take the safer route and hire a professional.

Not ready to commit to replacing an installed fixture? Here’s my favorite trick: shop for decorative light bulbs instead. There are so many designer styles available now that are meant to be seen–and enable you to light with style.

Fabulous bedding

We spend a great deal of time in bed sleeping, lounging or being otherwise engaged, do we not? What’s better than slipping into fabulous 100% cotton sheets with a high thread count and layers upon layers of covers? Nothing! Depending on the season, use matelasse bedding or colorful quilts. Placing a duvet at the end of the bed is so inviting in cold weather. And don’t forget pillows, lots of pillows. When you see a beautifully made bed it defines the room. Everything else is secondary.

Multipurpose furniture

Using a piece of furniture for something other than its intended purpose is thinking outside the box. Here are some examples: you can have a dining room table that can act as a desk; how about a night stand that can act as a side table or an ottoman that can become a coffee table? The more ways your furniture can be used, the more likely you will be able to repurpose it in a new space.


Decorative throws are a great tool for adding color and texture to any room. Whether it’s a sofa or a chair, in a living room or bedroom, the options are endless. You can choose wool, hand knit or even cashmere. Throws are available in all price points and easily found in most home and gift stores. Just like your bed, a good throw can add an interesting layer or design and personality to a room.

Shower curtain

The right shower curtain can make or break a bathroom design. In addition to being the focal point, you can hide old tile or even unsightly shower doors (a great trick!) Simply hang a tension rod above the doors with the curtain on the outside and the liner on the inside. To give your bathroom a really luxurious feel, put two curtains on the rod instead of one, doubling the amount of fabric from side to side. It looks beautiful and you won’t find any tile peeking out from the sides of the curtain. To make the bathroom ceiling appear higher than it is, hang floor-to-ceiling curtain panels as your shower curtain. Curtain panels are easily found, often on sale, and give you so many more options in colors and styles. You may want them washable, and they will last longer if you hang a vinyl clear curtain inside as well.


Talk about multipurpose! A great bench will give you years of service and is a great investment. You can sit on it and change your shoes. You can stack books on it, put it at the end of your bed, on a porch or in a mudroom. If it’s something like teak you can use it on a balcony or deck year-round. Weathered wood adds an organic feel and keeps you close to nature. And, the more weathered the better. It’s much more interesting that way.

It may sound clichÌ© but home really is where the heart is. For me, having a home that represents who you are and reflects your personal style — whether you own or rent — energizes you to be your best self when you meet and greet the world. There are no excuses to say “Well, it’s a rental” because I’ll say “Well, it’s your space, your home; so where is your style?”

And there you have it.

In 1995 this was my Westport apartment just after painting but before adding some final touches.