The 6 best decorating tricks for your rental (if you can’t paint)

Yesterday a friend asked me about another friend’s rental apartment. It’s a little sterile. She just moved in, doesn’t know how long she’ll be there.

Boring living room

From Beryl Lynn's blog. I'm not being mean; SHE said it was boring.

“Is she allowed to paint?” I asked innocently. Because, well, duh.

Paint samples“No.”



“Not even a little bit?”

“Not even a little bit.”

Well. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Currier & Ives engraving

But it occurred to me, there ARE things you can do besides paint to make your rental home lovely. Try adding…

1. A floor lamp. Soft, indirect lighting is the easiest way to make a room look terrific. And a tall lamp serves as a piece of sculpture, filling that yawning space between furniture and ceiling.

Floor lamp against art wall

Peter Pawlak in Elle Decor

2. A big, dramatic rug. Or rugs. You know my favorite places: Madeline Weinrib, Anthropologie, Rugman…if you can’t have drama on the walls, put some on the floor.

Graphic rug

Nate Berkus in Elle Decor

3. Straight drapes on metal rods. You can get drapery panels anywhere these days (Restoration Hardware, Country Curtains, JCPenney, for crying out loud), and as you can see in Nate Berkus’s picture above, they make a HUGE difference. Screw the rods into the window moulding and the holes will be easy to patch when you leave…and the large panels move easily from home to home.

4. Pillows and a throw to make your sofa the centerpiece of your living room. Think of your sofa as a work of art and make it look great.

White sofa with pillows

Jesse Carrier and Mara Miller in Elle Decor

5. An upholstered headboard. A splurge, admittedly, but it looks so built-in! So custom! It’s the same principle as the sofa: focus all the attention on the bed, and no one will notice that your walls are dingy rental-unit beige.

Brown upholstered headboard

Robert Couturier in Elle Decor

And finally, you can…

6. Be tidy. I know. Bummer of a suggestion, right? But ever since reading Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan’s “Apartment Therapy: 8-Step Home Cure,” I’ve realized that little things like hanging up your jacket and keeping the mail neatly stacked go a long way toward making your home look pulled together.

So there are your 6 best decorating tricks for a rental home. Anything more is just showing off.

Green drapery panels

Wendy Blount in Metropolitan Home

Annie Elliott – aka bossy color – is an interior decorator and design blogger in Washington, D.C. She’s also the creator of the “bossy basic,” a one-time service that jump-starts the interior design process in your home.


  1. says

    Just saw an interesting tip for rental spaces on the Nate Berkus show. (I watched just long enough to see this segment…)

    Apparently, you can temporarily upholster your walls using starch as an adhesive. Fabric goes up and stays up like wallpaper. I have not tried this before. SOOOOO curious if anyone else has?

    Why landlords won’t let painting happen in their rentals is beyond me. I think it’s worth begging a little. As a renter, you can even offer to paint it back before you move out. Sometimes this works. Or you don’t ask and you just do it. What’s the worst that happens? You have to pay for it to be repainted…or you paint it back yourself.

  2. Mustang says

    Another suggestion is to paint over an old painting. I have a large piece of artwork that was not expensive and I was really tired of it. I simply painted it my favorite color and hung it in my dining room. It’s like a huge color block and it looks fantastic. Many are probably more talented than I am and might even be able to paint something creative. Also, removable wall decals are pretty cool too.

  3. says

    Annie, totally great post, I just had a reader ask me to do this but you’ve done it better, I’m sending her a link to your post and posting it on my facebook page too!


  4. says

    EXACTLY, Kelly! And someone just mentioned a rental that was NOT painted off-white; it was painted a variety of icky colors. And still the landlord wouldn’t allow her to paint! It would have improved re-rental value! I of course would paint and suffer the consequences – I suppose you might lose your security deposit, but if you paint it back before you leave, I don’t see how they could keep it.

    Thanks for leaving the great comment, Kelly!

  5. says

    Thanks so much for your comments, Gentle Readers! Becca – I’ll try to spice it up more next time!

    Nichole – that’s a great question! I love Jonathan Adler’s guide to anti-depressive living…let me do a quick post about this! Thank you!

  6. says

    What great ideas. I see a lot of ways to throw color in that space. And, I do think the room is very boring! ;) I just had a ton of ideas for my house from that last picture. Thanks- great post!

  7. says

    Interesting to see my picture on this blog… found this post from my Site Meter.
    Our living room was quite dull when first moving into the house but it’s improved by 500% over the past year and a half! We’ve painted the walls and added different furniture and decor, so no more boring living room!

  8. says

    Beryl, we’d LOVE to see the room now! I’m so glad you commented – thank you for the picture. Again, I wouldn’t have used it had you yourself not considered it a “before!” Many thanks!

  9. says

    I totally agree. Paint is not all that expensive and if you have the time and you don’t mind the effort I say go ahead and paint your space to whatever you feel most comfortable with. Every rental I have been in has never suited my colour palette so I had to change it. Paint can also be purchased for very little if you don’t mind going through mistints and box a few colours together; if you have been in the business of painting or you know a lot about colour theory, you can save a ton of money.

  10. says

    I just did this with two paintings and frames ($4 each at rummage/Goodwill) and I used leftover paint from around the house (so I know it’s going to match). Best time ever. One gets rave reviews if I do say so myself, the other is still missing “something.” I never said I was an artist, I’m only out $4 and hey, it matches the couch!

    It’s wonderful fun – you might even have KIDS do it if you like a swirly modern art feel. I figure the world will not suffer from one less c. 1987 print or 1950’s National Art Studios mass market landscape painting.

  11. says

    As a Landlord I tend to agree. It’s not like the same boring beige YOU live with won’t have to be repainted AGAIN.

    That said, the “no paint” rule likely comes from the number of people who, unlike present blog company, are like gorillas set loose with a paintbrush, and a propensity to trip over the cans.

    Or, to paint walls black, use cheap paint, fail to prime, use TOOTHPASTE as spackle (I will hunt you down where you live I swear I will).

    You can kind of see the other side. However, if a tenant comes to me and talks the talk “I understand patching and sanding, I may need to prime, oil v. latex on trim, etc.” I’m probably going to say “yes.” I’ve had some tenants do such a great paint job that when they moved and we repainted for the next (who had viewed it previously) they were disappointed “where’d that gorgeous paint go?” Oops.

  12. rb says

    I did that too! I bought two canvases the size I needed to more or less fill the wall space above my sofa, bought three selected paint colors and some throw-away sponge brushes, and let each of my kids have a canvas to paint.

    They took the job quite seriously.

    I did have to tell them that they should not paint anything too literal (or else I would have ended up with a beautiful lady from my daughter and a ninja from my son) but what they did produce is quite pretty, the colors are perfect, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was “real” art. My son’s is obstensibly a mountain, but you can’t tell, and my daughter’s is just swirly paint colors.

  13. rb says

    Hey, Annie, I’m drawn to the color in that last photo, but tell me – how do you get onto the couch with that giant table blocking the way? Am I missing something?

  14. Marina says

    Hi, your blog is so inspiring, thanks.
    I have been searching for turquoise velvet drapes for the past week 3 now and am just exhausted. Pottery Barn used to have a great one but that was back in 2010, do you have any idea where I could try as I am on a budget?


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