How to give your rental-home decor personality | Home/Garden

“Ugg,” came the text from my daughter, “I’m not used to having a landlord.” I could sense the steam coming through the phone, so I called her.

She unleashed a litany of frustrations: a towel bar falling off the wall, a ceiling fan not working, windows that won’t open, and unsightly nail holes from the prior tenant. She moved in a month ago, and these issues still hadn’t been addressed. 

“I’m just used to handling everything myself,” she said, which was true.

From owner to renter

My 27-year-old daughter had just moved from a condo in Nashville that my husband and I owned to a rental townhome in Boston. Her prior place was in a 70-year-old building, so it often needed repairs. If she couldn’t fix something, she handily found the appropriate repair person. 

She also could make interior improvements, such as new wall color, new light fixtures and new window coverings, without getting approval . 

“Welcome to the world of renting,” I said.

Most of us have been there. Over one-third of the U.S. population (35%) lives in a rental property, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the under-35 age group, that number jumps to nearly 65%. 

Changing what you can

While the repairs are slowly being addressed, my daughter, being my daughter, is forging ahead doing what she can to decorate and improve the place without risking her deposit or her relationship with the new landlord.

Those who have been in her shoes know the hardest part of switching from owner to renter is not being able to change the permanent finishes. You have to work with existing tiles, counters, cabinets, flooring, fixtures, appliances, and, usually, wall color.

Though some landlords are more flexible than others, most don’t want you to make changes without their approval. Even if they do approve, you may not want to sink money into a home you don’t own, or into an improvement you can’t take with you.

Adding some personality

That said, renters can — within limits — make a handful of decorating moves that can shift the focus away from what they don’t like and direct attention where they want it, all while making a semi-permanent home look pulled together and feel like theirs. 

For others adjusting to rental life, here are a few tricks we used to create a pulled-together look: 

UNIFY THE FLOORS: One way she quickly made the place hers was by putting sisal and vintage area rugs over the existing wood floors in the three main rooms — living room, eating area and bedroom. The rugs don’t match, but they go together, unify the small apartment and create a base to work from.

FIND A LEAD FABRIC: Because the cool gray walls and dark gray kitchen counters were a given, she switched out her warmer-colored accessories (yellow throw pillows, tangerine seat covers on the kitchen chairs) with fabrics that worked in the new space.

We found a pretty botanical print fabric that tied the wall color and the gray-blue sofas together. I sewed three large sofa pillows out of this lead fabric, which introduced accents of navy and emerald that we could build on.

She recovered the orange kitchen chairs in a textured navy canvas and filled areas near the ample windows with deep green plants. Weaving the navy and green into the space helped the whole place click.

ORGANIZE THE CLOSET: While most renters don’t want to invest in custom closet built-ins, they can maximize the often-limited closet space with clever use of over-the-door organizers, hanging shelves and shoe racks. Trading bulky plastic hangers for thin, space-saving, velvet ones instantly provides more breathing room and looks nicer.

GET THE LIGHT RIGHT: Most landlords (or prior tenants) don’t pay attention to whether their lightbulbs match in color temperature. As a result, some rooms skew blue, others yellow. Ick.

Having lights that match in color temperature matters and gives homes a sure hand. If lights are different colors, replace outliers with LED bulbs, which will outlive your lease, of the same temperature. I like warmer white lighting in the 2,700-3,000 range.

LAYER IN YOUR TASTE: Accessorize by putting a well-edited selection of hardcover books, photos, art objects and artwork on display. To avoid putting holes in walls, which your landlord might forbid, prop art on mantles or built-in ledges, or use Command Strips.

GET PERMISSION: My daughter learned this lesson the hard way. The landlord suggested she call a local repairman to provide an estimate for two repairs. The repairs were so easy, the repairman said he could fix them on the spot.

Because his minimum fee, even to just give an estimate, was $150, she told him to go ahead. She thought the landlord would be pleased with her efficient and economical handling of two problems.

Instead, he asked her to please not have any more “unauthorized” repairs done going forward. Renting. It’s a learning experience.

Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books. She can be reached at