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8 Easy Upgrades to Make Your Rental Your Own

Like countless New York renters eager to personalize their apartment, Upper East Side interior designer Joe Human faced a conundrum: how to make it feel like home when it technically belongs to someone else. “I’m grappling with what I can do to make it stylish without physically altering the space,” he says.

His solution? Priming one living room wall with dark purplish-gray paint and creating a wallpaper effect by looping yarn through furniture upholstery tacks in the wall (see below). It’s a visionary, albeit slightly-more-complicated-than-a-basic-paint-job answer, one you can channel as you remake your own space.

“The key is to focus on portable and/or removable design,” says Cathy Hobbs, an interior designer and owner of Cathy Hobbs Design Recipes in New York City, adding, “just because you’re a renter doesn’t mean you have to give up on style.”

First, you’ll need to check that what you want to do is allowed under the terms of your lease, and usually get permission in writing from your landlord. Anything big like demolition, plumbing, electrical work, changing room counts or projects that require a building permit will require a landlord’s sign off, says Manhattan real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow.   And when you leave, you’ll have to return the place to its original condition, unless your landlord has agreed to irreversible changes.

One example: if the landlord greenlights new kitchen cabinets, he or she can’t reasonably insist you restore the old cabinets. “However, anything that’s permanently affixed to the apartment is called a ‘fixture’ and, under typical leases, will become the landlord’s property when you vacate,” he explains. “Thus, it will be the landlord’s choice whether you have to remove the cabinets or leave them.”

But in the spirit of making a rental feel less like a roof over your head and more like home-sweet-home, here are eight not-too-difficult projects to spruce up your place:

1. Replace door handles

Vintage–or even ultra-modern–door handles can be a major improvement over the generic knobs that adorn the doors of rooms, closets and kitchen cabinets in most rentals.

“Just be sure you save the originals so you can reinstall them before you move,” Wagner says.

2. Paint your walls

“Painting is the easiest and most cost effective way to refresh a space and create your desired look,” says Sara Story, an interior designer and founder of Sara Story Design in Manhattan. “You can paint walls, ceilings, doors and millwork and incorporate different colors, patterns and finishes—glossy to matte.”

Depending on how much elbow grease you want to expend, you can do the painting yourself, hire a professional, or slip the super something cash to do it (just remember that since he’s not necessarily a professional, you may not get perfect results).

Before you move out, you’ll need to paint the walls white, unless the landlord loves what you’ve done, which does happen. Check the lease to be sure.

3. Try removable wallpaper 

Wallpaper creates vibrancy, texture and pattern in your home, but it can be expensive and time-consuming to put up. For a rental, look for removable decorative wall stickers, borders or any other wallpaper that can easily be taken down. Some places to get it include Swag PaperMurals Your Way and Etsy. Wall coverings can start as low as $40 per roll and go up to hundreds of dollars.

4. Light up a room

Since most overhead lighting in rentals is reminiscent of a hospital, opt for decorative floor or table lamps to retool a space–or swap out the fixture itself.

“Lighting provides personality, atmosphere and drama,” Story says. “It can really make a space feel unique and pull together the overall design. Investing in decorative lighting that you love is worthwhile, since it’s something you can take with you each time you move.”

You’ll need your landlord’s sign off if electrical work is required, but “if you’re putting the replacement fixtures in the same spot and using the same wiring, you probably won’t need your landlord’s permission,” Wagner says. Just remember to swap them back with the old fixtures when you leave.

And 4 more super quick fixes:

  • Rearrange your furniture to make more space, get a new perspective, shake things up
  • Install a pot rack over the stove
  • Switch out the shower curtain and bathroom towels to a color that pops, or try a clean and sophisticated white
  • Hang curtains over standard Venetian window blinds

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