Easy DIY Decor: Redo a Rental

This apartment called for a new lease on life, but a strict rental agreement made redecorating and giving it personality a real challenge. We made it feel like home sweet home with color, camouflage, and collections.


Overall of living room to shelves

Despite white walls and industrial carpet, color makes a splash in this living room. Rich red and peacock blue combine with sandy beige on furnishings, artwork, and accents. The feathered headdress, centered amid the shelving, injects a burst of vivid red that immediately draws the eye.



Book jackets, organized on casework by hue, bring stretches of color up the walls.


Detail of shelf top

Add personal touches to storage elements with groupings of collectibles, plants, and objects between stacks of books and on top of shelf units.


Overall of living room to window

Can’t change the carpet or paint the walls in your rental? Invest in statuesque lamps, tall bookshelves, and graphic draperies that provide interest now, but that can also go with you when it’s time to move on. Think of lofty and uniquely-shaped plants as inexpensive sculptures that breathe new life into your space.


Detail of table and curtain

Inexpensive sheer curtains are a pretty and practical touch. Sheers soften windowpanes and filter sunlight, which protects drapery and upholstery fabrics from fading without darkening the room. Patterned panels bracket the window with color on either side. One of the nesting tables stands in as an entry piece at the door to hold a tray for keys. The red table and peacock blue drape encapsulate the high contrast color scheme.


Furniture before makeover

A sofa and chair found at a moving sale at $100 for the set were sturdy and well-tended but the fabric was dated and faded.


Vignette of sofa

So instead, we recovered the once lovely fabric with light-hued upholstery fabrics featuring touchable textures and a modern look. The neutral backgrounds allow the patterns and finishes to shine.


Vignette of chair and nesting tables

Then, we accented the set with ikat-pattern pillows and Chinese red nesting tables.


Detail of ikat pillow

When it comes to rental homes where structural bones (walls, woodwork, cabinetry, and flooring) must remain unchanged, details become more important; in essence, it’s details like these that really drive the design.


Detail of fabric panel

Dutch wax-resist fabric panels from Africa add pizzazz behind the sofa while camouflaging an unattractive thermostat. Craft similar artworks by covering frames created from canvas-stretcher bars with a too-cool textile.


Tray on storage ottoman

Large serving trays quickly convert an ottoman or footstool into a coffee table, a serving station, or display space. Look for unfinished wooden trays that you can paint or stain to match your scheme.

Nesting tables, storage ottomans, and suitcases stacked as a lamp table make the most of a small room’s limited floor space. Suitcases and ottomans provide convenient caches for throws, crafting or sewing supplies, and entertaining supplies; the smaller nesting table moves into play whenever an extra drink-setting surface is needed.


Storage ottoman

Build easily assembled ottomans that provide storage, seats, and footrests.

What you’ll need:

  • ½-inch 48 x 96-inch MDF sheet
  • Tape measure
  • Circular saw
  • Drill
  • Wood screws
  • Hinges
  • Staple gun and staples
  • Cotton batting or foam sheets
  • Knit fabric
  • Upholstery tacks
  • Casters


For each ottoman, cut 6 MDF squares to the same measurement. Place the ottoman’s side squares butted up against bottom square and attach with wood screws to create a box. Attach top to back of cube with hinges. Add casters to base.

Wrap sides and top with batting or foam and staple in place.
To upholster box: Measure out the amount of fabric needed to cover the box, allowing extra for wrapping over top edges and to the bottom of the ottoman. Finish or hem fabric edges as needed.

Staple one short end of the fabric to the side of the box and wrap the length of fabric around the box, pulling tightly before stapling in place. Fold top edges to fit over top edge of the box and staple in place. Place black upholstery tacks along the edge to cover staples. Wrap lower fabric edges to the bottom and staple in place.

Remove the lid from the box to make it easier to upholster. Cut a piece of fabric large enough to cover the lid. Wrap edges of fabric to the underside of the lid and staple in place.

Reattach the lid, set the ottoman near a chair, kick back, and relax.

How far should you go?

Know your landlord’s boundaries before you start decorating.

Negotiate upfront. Before you sign on the dotted line, point out changes you’d like to make to your prospective landlord. Landlords may allow you to paint walls a bright color in your rental if you promise to switch them back to neutral when your lease runs out.

Others might let you make permanent changes, like replacing faucets or light fixtures or adding a tile backsplash, at your own expense. Protect your security deposit by getting the agreed-upon alterations in writing.

Keep holes to a minimum. Display lightweight artworks that can be hung with removable adhesive strips or hooks or via small brads that will leave tiny easy-to-patch holes. Short on wall space? Use removable adhesives to mount exhibits on kitchen cabinet door fronts and flat-paneled interior doors.

Add freestanding bookcases. No mounting required! The shelves supply storage for books and media gear while also accommodating collections, family photos, and colorful accents that personalize and energize your rental home.

Distribute pattern. Introduce lively motifs via drapery panels, upholstery fabrics, throw pillows, and artwork. Wallpaper’s likely to be a no-go in a rental, but consider dressing up walls with removable and repositionable decals or murals.

Decorate wisely. Invest your money in focal-point furniture pieces that are good-looking and comfortable. Then, round out the look with tag-sale tables, frames, and dining chairs revived with paint, decoupage images, or mosaic-tile treatments.

Photography by Chris Hennessey

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  1. Hannah SK

    I lived in apartments for years! This is a great way to inject some color and personality into spaces that require white walls. I love all the plants and green. It makes it feel so homey.

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