My first apartment after college was a fully furnished sublet adjacent to a buffalo wing joint in Allston, Mass., and wreaked of hot sauce year round. The owner had a penchant for doilies and stopping by unannounced to pick up her mail. It was hardly a place I’d call my own.
Even when I signed a lease for a one bedroom a few months later, I still couldn’t escape the feeling that, though the place was mine, it was just “for now”—much like my horrible office temp job.
That was a real low point—I wouldn’t commit to a full-time job (I was afraid I’d pick the wrong one), and I didn’t know if this apartment was the right place either. Everything felt so uncertain; I didn’t so much as hang a picture. I honestly had no idea I was even allowed to change anything about the apartment.
Years later, I’m in New York City, happily renting on the upper west side; the difference is that I act like I own my place. I’ve painted, hung cabinets, bought furniture I love. For the first few years, I’d think, “Maybe I’ll move downtown or to Brooklyn, who knows?” But then I realized I had a perfectly great spot, and although I envisioned myself “upwardly mobile,” that didn’t mean I should act like a squatter in my own apartment.
“You need a place to come home to that provides a respite from chaos…no matter how long you intend to keep your lease,” says Eve Whitman, owner and principal of Eve Home Design. “This is your life we’re talking about. It’s critical.”
I know what you’re thinking: Should a renter really spend money personalizing a space they don’t own? But hear me out. When you invest time and money in your home, you instantly derive more value from it—and won’t spend your life wishing for something else. (And you might prefer to stay in more and invite people over, instead of going out all the time, which could make up for any money you spend on minor upgrades.) Ask any self-help expert, and they’ll tell you: Part of happiness is wanting what you have.
Plus, you actually don’t have to shell out a lot to turn a rented home into your own. Here are some well-worth-it upgrades that can cost as little as $20 and maybe a few hours of a handyman’s time.
Whitman says a lot of tenants don’t even realize they’re allowed to paint—so they don’t. But paint can totally transform a space, creating a sense of calm and quiet or one of fun, playful energy. I discovered this firsthand when I (finally) had my walls painted a gorgeous ashy tan. It feels quiet, cozy and chic all at once.
In some cases, you can score this upgrade for free by talking to your landlord before move-in, as most paint between tenants, anyway. Otherwise, you can find paint for as little as $20 a gallon (which covers up to around 400 square feet), and have your friends over for a painting party. Just remember you may be required to return the walls to their original color before move out, lest you forfeit part of your security deposit.
Swap out boring, standard-issue overhead lighting with chandeliers or funky drop pendants with dimmer switches, which allow you to customize the mood in your place.
“This, perhaps more than anything else, has the power to completely change a room,” Whitman says. “And you don’t need to hire a licensed electrician. Any handyman can match the wires.”
The best part? Unlike some other upgrades, if you leave your apartment, you can take your new fixtures with you.
Some inexpensive fixes can make a grungy bathroom feel like new, especially if you live in an older building. In certain cases—like if you’re after a new toilet seat, medicine cabinet or faucet—you might have some luck getting your landlord to foot the bill. If that doesn’t work, Whitman says can find adequate replacements for as little as $30.
Coming home starts before you enter your apartment, so find ways to beautify outdoor and shared areas, too. Whitman requested permission to hang art in her own building’s entryway, and the owners happily complied. She also added flower boxes to windows and plants along the walkway to brighten the “welcome appeal.”
Her landlord was thrilled with the idea and even paid for the plants, and the neighbors were happy and much friendlier afterwards, as it helped build a sense of community there. “It made a difference not only for me, but everyone!” Whitman says.
At the very least, a few plants, maybe a tulip in the spring or a wreath during the holidays, and a welcome mat may do the trick to make your place feel uniquely yours.