How to Decorate Your Apartment to Feel Less Temporary and More Like Home


Photo by Fabio Bruna

I haven’t lived in a house since I left my parents’ home for college fifteen years ago. I’ve lived in a lot of apartments, and I’ve learned that you don’t need a mortgage to feel like you really have a home.

Apartments do tend to feel more temporary. You can’t do whatever you want to them. You have to put up with behemoth brass chandeliers and old kitchen cabinets. You’ve got space issues. You can’t always paint. You’re probably going to move soon.

Anyone moving into a new home, whether an apartment or a house, faces challenges: budget constraints, trying to get everything unpacked, and figuring out where things should go are tricky.

Apartment dwellers need to factor in time constraints and versatility too. If you’re going to move in a year, you don’t want it to take ten months to finally feel like you’ve settled down. You need your stuff to be versatile too, so that you don’t have to swap your stuff every time you move.

Here are a few tips to make your apartment feel like home and avoid that temporary feeling:

Oh wait, you did unpack first, right? That’s step one: unpack. If you must leave a few things in boxes, then stack them in a far corner behind a curtain or in a closet. Don’t leave boxes in the living room.

Put things on your walls, quick!

People tend to hang things on the walls last, after everything else has been put in place. Stuff hanging on the walls is the number one sign that someone lives there. I know you’ll want to wait to find just the right spot to hang something up, so you can avoid putting too many holes in the walls, but if you wait too long, you’ll move first. Spackle and touch-up paint are there if you need them.

Hang up an oversized painting, or group a collection of smaller things. I would rather hang small photos on a wall than leave them taking up space on a table top.

(I’m glad I didn’t follow the trend to paint all my picture frames the same matching color. I think the different warm tones add interest.)

Anything can go on the walls. If it’s pretty, hang it up; don’t let it take up your limited storage space.

Choose furniture that is comfortable, not space-saving.

I know that sounds obvious to say “choose comfortable furniture,” but so often people who live in apartments choose furniture by price or by size. It’s no use having a tiny dining table that is so small you can’t scoot your chair up because you’ll hit your knees. (Oh yes, trading that tiny table for a regular-size farmhouse table was first on my list.)

If you live in a small apartment, you don’t have to have tiny furniture. Choose comfortable furniture pieces, but fewer of them. For example, you might have a nice couch to take naps on, but forgo the coffee table. Add a soft quilt.

Do keep size in mind, not just for your current place but for future homes as well. A king-size canopy bed just won’t work. An upright dresser or small armoire is more versatile than a low, wide dresser that requires an entire wall. Couches with narrow armrests give more seating than couches with large rolled armrests.

When you’re choosing fewer pieces of furniture, you can afford to spend a little more to get the right one, and you’ll be able to take it with you when you move.

Avoid the Container Store “Back to School” August sales.

Look, we all love storage, but plastic storage containers are a slippery slope. Small apartments risk looking like dorm rooms when they have too many small plastic storage bins and organizers. Not everything needs to be “contained.”

Use bins if you need them (do what you’ve gotta do), but also look for more natural materials that bring texture and a sense of age to your home. Try baskets, linen bags, or wood crates. Shelves are easier to retrieve items from than stacked bins with lids.

Add green living plants.


Most people feel more like plant killers than green-thumb gardeners, but plants bring life to your home. Herbs in a pot or violets in a windowsill make your home feel lived-in.

It’s okay if your potted plants don’t live forever. You can use this gardening tip I learned from my mother: when your plant dies, you can get another one. A few dollars for a plant that lives a few months sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Love your decorative stuff, in all seasons.

Your decorative things should be your favorite things, not seasonal or trendy items. It’s frequent advice for house-owners to “shop the house,” rotate items, and change things out for something new, but I don’t have closet space to store decorative items I’m not using. That’s where my clothes go.

In an apartment, I’d rather use extra space for a kitchen pantry than for seasonal decorations (though I do own a box of Christmas decorations.) It’s so helpful when your things are attractive and useful. White cake pedestals, vases, and wooden bowls serve as a good backdrop for any season.

Thoughts to add?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. I love this. I think an apartment CAN feel like a home.

    Do you know, it took me forever to find out that sometimes an landlord will let you paint the walls, especially if you agree to paint them back to dull white?

    In fact, I lived in an apartment where we painted, and the landlord loved it so much, he asked us to keep it that way – made it easier for him to rent it out to the next person!

    Meredith from Penelope Loves Lists´s last post…Can Oat Bran Muffins Really Kick Hiney? Yes.

  2. These are such great tips!

    As a long-time apartment resident, I have struggled with making my home feel like…well, a home.

    You are so right about buying regular sized furniture, but simply less pieces of nice quality. I love that this will also keep your home simple and easy to maintain as well.

    I also agree that your mis-matching frames add depth and warmth, something that can be difficult to create in an apartment.

    Lately I’ve had the itch for a house, but these tips have given me renewed energy to make my apartment work for my family.

    Thank you.

    Boiling It Down´s last post…The Shampoo Test

  3. I love that photo of your table… just totally love it!!! We have rented furnished spots before, often folks don’t want the hassle of putting their own belongings in storage. The best thing to do to make it feel like home… Put as much of their stuff away… in one home we dedicated a room to “theirs” and stacked it with all their stuff. But space often means you can’t do that. We tossed their couches with our throws, rolled their carpets away, put our spice rack up. Somehow getting our herbs and spices sorted always makes it feel like home to us.

    se7en´s last post…The Week That Was – 2.40

    • I like it too, but that’s not my table. I found that photo on Flickr and decided to use it since I liked it so much.

      Good tips for furnished rentals!

  4. i have always been so impressed with your home. one would never think it was an apartment.

  5. I don’t live in an apartment and I really enjoyed this Rachel.

  6. This is fabulous! I envy renters right now because of the drop in our home’s value over the past three years. *sigh*

    Mrs. Money´s last post…What Would You Do?

  7. How wise you are Rachel. I went through a foreclosure and was glad to see the last of that house. My temporary diggs have felt more like home than that “first” house. I must confess, my lack of stress and the love in the rental I am in now is worth more than my name on any mortgage.

  8. I am a young woman, still living with my family and it isn’t every day that you hear someone saying they have “enough”. The world keeps saying “more, more, bigger, better”, and it’s hard to swim the other way! I am so glad I am dealing with this NOW, before I have my own family. Thank you so much for this series and the “simple” message you share with your blog. It is much needed today!!

    • Joy you have the right idea! Keep it simple! We have lived in our house for 15 years and for the last 3 years I’ve been getting rid of things, buying things, storing things- every mistake one can make! Now it’s time to move the 4 of us into a small apartment for a year I’m truly looking forward to what all we can do without while there wand hopefully not bring it into our next home! There’s a reason houses used to be small and have 1 closet- they were smarter!

  9. I cheer inwardly whenever I see a new post on Small Notebook. I loved this one, even if I still am at Step One at the moment: unpacking!

    The best piece of advice I’ve gotten about this stage comes from my mother: make a sanctuary / refuge in one room to which you can retreat when the “home-making” starts to get overwhelming. It’s definitely kept me sane for the past couple moves… and somehow the time I take unpacking helps me think through where everything should go (thus saving me untold future episodes of dissatisfied rearranging!).

    Amy´s last post…A Servant Girl’s Account, Part III

    • What room do you start with to unpack? I usually start with the kitchen or the bathroom, maybe the bathtub is my refuge.

      • My mom always recommended the master bedroom — a place for serenity AND for napping between the housework, she’d say!

        However, this time around my kitchen was the first room to be completely organized… and I’m loving it. It’s wonderful to find refreshment for/from any kind of work through homecooked meals and the sight of clean dishes.

        Amy´s last post…A Servant Girl’s Account, Part III

        • when literally moving in and unpacking for the very first time, my mom’s rule is always to set up the bed first, and MAKE the bed–clean sheets, pillows ready, blankets/spread/comforter on…

          that way, whatever else happens, whenever you need to collapse amid chaos, you have a soft, comfortable, familiar place to land. (this is nice before going on trips, as well…knowing crisp, clean sheets are waiting for you to fall into after travel is so much nicer than coming home to rumpled, used bedding–or a nakey bed (shudders).)

          • My mom and grandmother were kitchen organizers. I’m with the bedroom vote. You can always eat out if need be but we have to have a place to sleep after all that work. Then the bathroom….

  10. I think rugs help a place feel sooooooo much more like home, especially if you’re stuck with that scratchy “industrial” carpet. They don’t even need to be nice rugs, but a big $15 area rug from IKEA will still cozy up your room and make it feel more like a home (not to mention add color to a beige room).

    Anna´s last post…Happy Easter!

  11. Amanda G says:

    My husband, oldest son and I lived in an apartment for many years, and it felt more like home than our current home. I’ve always hung things on the walls before unpacking anything (besides the kitchen). Not only does it make it feel more like home, even when you are surrounded by boxes and your couch hasn’t made it in from outside yet, but it makes it easier to decorate/arrange the room. Things on the walls are the heart of your home: it’s where you showcase family moments, art from your seven year old, and the funky mirrors you find at garage sales that were a quarter.

  12. vermontmommy says:

    My parents have lived in the same apartment for 20 years. It is a home I grew up in and in all my years at home we lived in an apartment. We were lucky that we could paint, wallpaper and hang things on walls. I never thought any less of the apartments we were in. They always felt like home.

    While we have a home (and I feel lucky and happy to have one) every now and then my hubby and I think back to the simple life of living in an apartment when we were first married.

    Love your blog.

  13. Wonderful advice! I remember when we were first married, we lived in a two-bedroom upstairs apartment. I loved our little apartment, but wish I had known then your tips for making it feel more like home. :)

    Susan´s last post…I’m Blessed to Live Here!

  14. Our landlady was nice enough to let us paint when my husband and I moved in 6 years ago: “Make it your own!” So I’ve been able to experiment with a bright yellow kitchen, Caribbean-blue bathroom, chocolate living room, merlot office, and sapphire bedroom. I made some mistakes (see “bright yellow kitchen”), but only at the cost of a few gallons of paint and a few days to correct it with a new color! Now I’m ready for a little more consistency in our next place, but definitely NOT white walls!

  15. Thanks for the recent apartment-living posts, Rachel. My husband and I have lived in a lovely one-bedroom apartment for nearly two years. We are happy with our little home, but every so often, we become discontent when it seems all our friends are buying houses and we’re still “stuck” renting. The truth is, this one-bedroom apartment is all we need right now, and it’s a cozy, inviting place to live.

    I’m off to check out pain colors. This may be the year we add some color to our white walls. Thanks for the inspiration!

  16. We’re moving in a month or two – this place just isn’t big enough to have bedrooms and an office (either that or I’m going to have my bed in the living room, which really makes the place seem temporary). So – we have nothing on the walls (not allowed to put holes in it, actually, so we have to use those stick-on things).

    sarah´s last post…Etsy Finds {Pretty Camera Bags}

  17. I live in an apartment, and I could paint the walls but don’t want to deal with repainting them on move-out (though I’ve been there four years and have no departure in sight). So I’ve got PURPLE-RED curtains in my living room, which adds a great splash of color.

    bethh´s last post…Hiking the Mt Tam watershed

  18. Love this! We’re military and therefore long-term renters. It can be so hard to make a place feel like home with so many restrictions. I second your point on not buying a huge King-size bed or something, you never know how big your next place will be! Another idea, since you probably can’t paint most places you move, don’t be afraid to use pops of color (like your frames): decorative pillows, rugs, throws, etc. They’ll keep your rental from looking like solid beige! Another thing I do is try to keep things minimal. Less always looks better than clutter!

    • Don’t forget the new peel and stick wall art. I bought a little forrest of trees to add some ME to the very ugly flat sprayed on paint! We can paint but then we’ll be charged for how much effort it is to cover it. If they can’t give us a price then I don’t want to chance it but how does anyone with kids live with flat wall paint?

  19. I loved this post. We are renters and this really gave me some great ideas. I have been reading your blog for a while and very much so enjoy it.

    Elizabeth Sue´s last post…Clear Out the Clutter: Day One

  20. grat post from a lurker coming out into the sun =) we have rented more than we have owned in our 25 years of marriage and we are again at the renting stage while hubby is finishing college. we are in a small 2 bedroom apt on campus and tho good in alot of ways, i’m looking forward to renting a home after graduation. the things i miss are a balcony or patio where we can get a breath of fresh air and not feeling like we are living on top of others. our bedroom window is right off of one of the entrances so we hear everyone coming back on friday and sat nites after their evening of reverly!

    tho we haven’t been able to paint in this apt, i did hang curtains in the bedroom to add more of our own style. and since we owned for 10 years before renting again, we have a king size bed! yikes! a large kitchen table (that hubby refuses to get rid of since fil built it for us as a wedding gift) and other large furniture. but we have made do, and made it work.

    i agree with you about hanging pictures ASAP. and so true about not having space to decorate every season.

    great post and great comments from your readers too.

  21. Rachel, thank you so much for this post! It was totally timely as I’ve been in a major nesting mode in our little apt lately. For me, curtains makes a big difference and makes me feel less “temporary.” :)

    Nicole aka Gidget´s last post…Día de Pascua

  22. All of your mentions of plants in some previous posts has inspired me to get some this spring for indoors. I’ve never done it before – always worried I’ll kill it but you are right; if it dies I’ll just get another one!

    Nicole´s last post…going green…or blue?

    • well… I think if you’re sure you’ll end up killing the plant, then isn’t it better to get a synthetic plant? there are some pretty beautiful that you’ll swear are real, and that way you wont kill any living plant :)

  23. I wish we had thought of these things years ago when we were in an apartment. One thing we did do was buy an area rug for the living room. It covered up a little of the icky carpet, but also just made it feel more homey.

  24. Elisabeth says:

    This is wonderful advice, and not just for apartments! We are a military family, and wherever we live is temporary, be it a house or apartment. I’ve noticed that doing the things you mentioned make the difference between feeling settled or nomadic. Only one thing I would add; hanging some sort of soft window treatment in a living area or two and the master bedroom. The day I hang curtains, my husband comes home from work and comments that it finally feels like we’re settled in. He doesn’t notice the curtains, just the “atmosphere” they create!

  25. We owned our last home, but after a few months we somehow knew would move in a few years. So we didn’t hang up anything and kept our wedding presents in boxes. After 3 years we moved to a rental (last week, actually!) so we know we’re going to move again in a year or two. But this time we’re determined to make it more home. I’ll definitely be referring back to your post for encouragement, and I look forward to sharing it with my husband. Thanks so much!

    Steph´s last post…Way Back When-esday: Discovering So and Sa

  26. jacobsmom says:

    We’ve been living in a rental and it’s never felt like home. Probably because I’ve always assumed a short-term rental can’t feel homey. The biggest stuggle has to be making my furniture work in the new place. But you’re right- hanging pictures/prints up makes a big difference. Almost 2 years later and I wish I’d done more of that. I’ll def refer to your article when I move this summer.

  27. Good suggestions. I always assumed while renting we did not much choice of paint, curtains or color of a carpet. I made it home with my own paintings. Now owning a home (still owned by bank still), I have a lot more choices! but still your tips are useful no matter where one is living.

    Zengirl: Heart and Mind´s last post…Are you happy with your heart and mind?

  28. I love this post. Rentals can be so hard to invest in, but what a great reminder of the little things making a difference.
    first things first: unpack the bedroom. That way I know I’ll have clean clothes the next morning-when I’m so exhausted from carrying everything in and out and up and down, so I can fall asleep on a cozy, comfy bed. I can always order something for dinner, or take a break from the work and let someone make me a sandwich.
    Fresh flowers always make things feel more like home to me. Seeing something beautiful when I leave for work and first thing when I come home puts a smile on my face no matter how my day went.

    Jo´s last post…Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

  29. I was a renter for years going to three different universities for various degrees. A few ideas I picked up along the way: I always (carefully) take down the industrial style blinds that are invariably there and replace with nice soft drapes or curtains. I find it worth it to get someone in to change the light fixtures if they are really ugly, but I’ve always been picky about nice lighting. I found this great fixture from Ikea that has several small halogen lights on these flexible arms to replace the one tiny ceiling light in the kitchen; you can cast light wherever you need it. Another trick for places that you are not allowed to paint: get a huge sheet of MDF and paint it something fun and bold or pretty and serene, whatever you like. Hang it or prop it behind the sofa. You can use it as a backdrop for your artwork, or just enjoy the splash of color.

  30. I love this article, my family and I are living in a flat and we have space constraint. To make it more like a home, we have several plants including African Violet, orchid, etc. in our flat and I totally agree with you to add green living plants…

    Belinda Jong´s last post…How to motivate ourselves

  31. Love this list! Thanks so much Rachel…. I have been talking with someone who recently moved and is struggling to feel “home”, this is the perfect post for them!

    angelvalerie´s last post…dreaming your dreams…

  32. I love the ideas about making an apartment home! I will definitely take them to heart when I move into my new apartment in a few weeks! This is an awesome website!

  33. We are moving from a large old house in a small town to a smallish apartment in a big city soon, and I appreciate all of these tips. Apt living was one thing when I was single, newly married, or had a tiny baby. We have four kids under 8 now and are counting on being outside a lot… :)

  34. I have lived in apartments for my entire adult life. I have always made it a home. I do a lot of crafting so I use this skill to update secondhand stuff. One thing I like to do is artist canvas and staple fabric onto it. I have done small ones and a few really large ones. It’s a great way to fill up wall space. I don’t think I have spent more than $20 for something that is 3 ft x 4 ft.

    • I love this idea as well. I have used fabric to cover an entire wall. It acts like a “painted” wall. I simple hung it like it was a wall of curtains. Great ideas ladies!

  35. This is a great post. I’m a long-term apartment dweller. I spent four years at my last one, and I’ve been at my current one going on three years. I know of people who have bought homes and lived in them less time than I’ve been in one apartment. I’ve always tried to make it as much of a home as possible, but I don’t mess much with curtains (unless I already have some that happen to fit the windows), and I most definitely don’t paint.

    Rachel (not the author of this blog) :-)´s last post…Myth- You Should Always Look on the Bright Side

  36. By the way, I just recently discovered your blog through a link on another blog (can’t remember which one, though). Lots of great material here!

  37. We have lived in apartments for 5 years now since we were first married. Now we have children and I feel like we have made our apartment feel very homey and comfortable. To me it feels like a little ranch house (except for the neighbors above us and next door being so close).

    These are some of the things that I have done. Decorating themes. I love country decor and my husband and I wish we could live in the country, so I figured why not start my country decor collection, now in the city. I love it. My main theme is country baskets. I have purchased all my things second hand. But with a theme it helps to bring things together.

    My husband actually gave me this idea to help make our apartment more homey- but decorative switchplates. Something easy to remove when you move, but add to the homey feel. And I was able to find beautiful switchplates that match my country basket theme from http://www.switchplategallery.com. I even found some pictures from the thrift store and found a switchplate to match from this site. I was so excited to be able to coordinate my wall decor with switchplates. And this website has tons of different ones with many themes.

    I also like rugs. I think our dark industrial carpeting is the thing I dislike most about our apartment. I have rugs in most of my rooms (I still want an area rug for our living room, but have to save for that yet!)

    I am working on using fabrics to make our home more homey. Curtains definitely help make an apartment feel more like a home. I have also been sewing table cloths for our kitchen table. And my mom has made me some quilts with a country decor design with matching pillow covers for our couch pillows. I am hoping to make a table cloth to match this fabric. I love aprons and hanging them out in the open. I am hoping to make more things like potholders and try to coordinate the things I make with country designed fabric.

  38. So excited to have found you, Rachel, and your Small Notebook! Finally a blog coming from the States that we European apartment dwellers can identify with! Today I downloaded your e-book and read it back to back; I’m looking forward to working through it more slowly and taking steps toward simple blogging.

    I’m wading through the aftermath of 11 moves in the past seven years. On Tuesday my husband, our two preschoolers and I will have lived in our current apartment for one full year, a record length for us. We have NOT finished moving in and are still sorting through all of the boxes we had in storage for five years. And just when we thought things were getting more manageable, our parents (on both sides) decided to move this year and passed on even more photos, books and family belongings they didn’t want.

    Many times I long for a house, more space, a yard where the kids can play while I turn chaos into order. But not only do we not have that possibility – at heart, I know it’s not the solution. It’s not really an issue of where you live, is it, but of how you manage life. SIMPLE LIVING seems a mirage now as I look around, but somehow, step by step, we will arrive.

    Thank you for sharing your writing with the world.
    Nova´s last post…Cuando tu preescolar es diferente

  39. Here’s another easy, inexpensive apartment fix: change the cabinet/drawer handles in the kitchen if you don’t like them. Easy to change and change out when you move.

    I also agree with the hanging of photos. That really helped.

    Also, I like putting quotes on my walls. I used my cricuit (scrapbook die cut machine you can get at a craft store — or borrow someone’s) and cut letters out of black contact paper. Went up easily on my white apartment walls and came off just as easy.

  40. The previous tenant of my apartment had a flair for color…which matched my own taste! When I looked at it, the landlord said he could repaint…and I said “no way!”. It’s perfect. As far as the bed goes, I have had a full-sized frame for years. Being a renter, anything larger is impractical. I would rather have the room around the bed than in it!
    Peregrina´s last post…Thank You for Your Sacrifice

  41. Wow – this is a terrific article. We are in our third apartment in three years (we just keep moving and moving) and now I’m expecting our second kid, and this is exactly what we’re struggling with!

    I especially love the furniture tip – buy what’s comfy, not space-saving. We bought a slim, modern-looking fold-out couch, and guess what – we never sit on it because it’s not that inviting!

    So much for our space-saving.

  42. We have moved 5 times in 5 years. Minnesota to California to Texas back to Minnesota. I always set up the bed first, bathroom next and then off to the kitchen finding my coffee pot first.
    I never paint the walls in an apartment do not want to repaint. With my art work, colorful bedspread and accessories that is tons of color. Great article.

  43. Hmm… that’s a good point about the plants. I tend to feel guilty when my plants die (which is quite often). Then I avoid buying new ones because I don’t want to kill them again. You’re so right though that spending a few dollars for even a couple months of green is so worth it! Next time I kill a plant, I will go buy a new one! (And hopefully I will get better at keeping them alive, too).

    xoxo
    Jennifer
    The Art of Being You
    Jennifer M.´s last post…Keep Dreaming

  44. Im moving in a few weeks and i need to know how to make my new apt. feel like home again. It so much bigger then my old one so how can i Decorating it so it feels more like home. I have some newer fushger know. Should i make each room a diffent color or what?