8 Ways To Make An Apartment Feel Like Home

My home is 987 square feet and comes with a 12-month lease. It has worn carpeting I can’t replace and walls I can’t paint. Since my college dorm, it’s the tenth place I’ve lived and the seventh apartment. When my husband and I got married and moved into our current apartment nearly six years ago, I thought we’d be here for a year. Maybe two.

Home ownership has always been the goal but with student debt and an overpriced housing market—we live in an ever-expanding university town—it’s been a moving target. I grew up in a sprawling suburb where home ownership was the norm. It was a natural milestone people reached sometime after high school graduation and before they had kids. Apartment buildings came with some stigma.

I know it’s different in other countries and large American cities, but sometimes around here, apartments still have that stigma. I’m often the only renter in a room full of homeowners. I nod politely when people tell me, “I could never live in an apartment,” as if it’s a type of hardship.

But in my experience, living in an apartment is not a hardship, and I know we’re not alone. The number of people who rent in the U.S. is on the rise. I’m an old Millennial and 60% of us are renters, not homeowners. (We’re also more likely than other generations to prefer renting.)

I’m not sure if I would go that far. There are days I would love to own a home. I dream about a kitchen that has more than two drawers. I dream about a living room that doesn’t do double-duty as a dining room. More than anything else, I dream about a yard.

There are benefits to home ownership. And there are benefits to renting. (Not having to shovel our 40 inches of snow this winter is one.) Regardless, my past nine addresses have taught me a few things about how to make a home wherever I am. After all, home isn’t something you buy. Home is something you create. In addition to a mindset shift, there are also a few practical things I’ve done to turn an otherwise generic apartment into a place we like to be.

When we first moved in, our unfurnished apartment had all the charm of a chain hotel: beige everything, utilitarian window blinds, dim overhead lighting. Despite this first impression, I knew the place had potential. It was one of the reasons we chose it. If possible, before you choose an apartment, I’d recommend deciding which features are most important to you. Based on our past rental experiences, these were ours:

1. Natural light

Sunlight goes a long way in making an apartment feel less like a hotel room. For our current home, we prioritized finding an apartment that was a corner unit so we’d get windows (and lots of light) on two sides of our main living space.

All that’s missing is a cat.

2. Storage

Our apartment complex has at least a half-dozen possible floor plans. When deciding between a few different units at the same price point, we chose one that offered an extra closet in the bathroom and a separate storage unit (a glorified closet) down the hall. When you live in a small space, you become a minimalist by necessity, but it’s nice to have some extra storage space for items like camping gear and Grandma’s china.

3. Outdoor Space

I once lived in a flat that didn’t have a yard or patio so my roommates and I would sit on the roof for fresh air and sunlight. It wasn’t ideal. Our current apartment has a balcony. It overlooks the parking lot but it provides us with a space to grow flowers and hang bird feeders.

4. A View

In addition to outdoor space, the view from your windows is also worth considering. While our living room does overlook the parking lot and surrounding apartment buildings, beyond the parking lot is a grassy park lined with big oak trees. This daily glimpse of nature has given us more joy than we expected. (Plus we can watch sunsets and approaching thunderstorms.)

The nearby city park.

Once we signed a lease for an apartment that met some of our bigger priorities, it was time to move in and furnish it. Here are four practical decor decisions that have made our apartment feel even more like home:

5. Curtains

All of my apartments have come with cheap plastic blinds. They’re functional but not much to look at. This time around, I decided to cover up the blinds with curtains. Window treatments are expensive though. For our large patio door, I bought some discounted fabric in a bright pattern and sewed my own. For the rest of our windows, I bought cheap sheer panels similar to these. Or you can go the DIY route with one of these ideas.

6. Color

Our walls, carpeting, tile floors, and countertops are all varying shades of beige and we can’t do a thing about it. We can, however, add color and pattern in small ways. Our curtains and bedspread are bright mustard yellow. And in the living room I’ve used coral, blue, and gold as accent colors wherever I can.

7. Plants

My husband and I love plants. We have so many of them that we’ve reached a point where we can’t fit another one in our apartment without removing furniture. I’ve never had a good reputation with plants. I’ve somehow managed to kill even the most un-killable of them: a cactus.

Since my husband took over our plant care, our indoor nursery has thrived. Three of our favorite low-light, low-maintenance plants are our rubber tree (we have a full size and a mini), our Madagascar dragon tree, and our ZZ plant. The latter is by far my favorite. It looks shiny and green year-round. (Though if you have pets or young kids, its leaves are toxic when eaten.)

It’s also worth mentioning that I once successfully grew a Meyer lemon tree in our apartment. It never looked entirely healthy but before it died, it did produce two harvests. (For a grand total of six lemons.)

Our invincible ZZ plant in its early days.

8. Semi-Permanent Decor

When you live in an apartment, it’s tempting to forgo semi-permanent design decisions. Whether it’s a painted wall or custom shelving, the effort doesn’t seem worth it. But I’ve learned that these types of changes can go a long way in personalizing a space.

In our apartment, my husband built and installed a set of custom picture rails that fill the wall next to our dining table. It’s become our favorite feature in our home.

Then after three years in a dim kitchen, he installed under-cabinet lighting using a few inexpensive strips of LED lights. I’ve been surprised by how much joy this simple change has brought me. (It turns out cooking is a lot more fun when you can see what you’re doing.)

Someday we’ll leave our apartment. Or not. We never really know where life will take us despite our best-laid plans. Either way, making a home right where we are is something I’ll never regret.

• Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

Are you a renter? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

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23 Comments

  1. Kristin Heider

    I love this post! I am not a renter currently, but my husband and I lived in two apartments before buying our home after we had our first baby. I loved figuring out how to hijack those spaces into a homey environment. Now 3 kids in, we’re actually planning to sell this house-and possibly rent again for a while! I love the idea of making a home out of wherever we dwell, even if it’s not ideal. Great advice here!

    • Andrea Debbink

      Thanks, Kristin! I like the creative challenge that apartments provide too 🙂

  2. Tara

    We are renters… But we can paint our walls providing we return it to white when we leave. We can’t change the flooring which is unfortunate… A great love for rugs and interesting patterns has emerged because of that. They make great visional shifts and you kinda don’t notice the flooring underneath! Command strips provide a lots of art hanging potential without ruining a wall with a million holes.

    • Andrea Debbink

      I LOVE command strips! I used them to hang all of the art in our apartment. It makes creating a gallery wall so much easier.

  3. Christine Bailey

    This is all so true! I loved this, Andrea, especially the use of color, window treatments, and plants :). The places where I’ve rented in the past have held some of the homiest, sweetest memories. When Steven and I first got married, we lived for 1.5 years in a rented condo with bright red, worn carpet, and floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls in the living room! The red carpet went all the way up the stairs to a second floor loft area, and some of our absolute best memories were sitting on the stoop of those carpeted stairs eating breakfast every morning. And I used that red color to add other pops of color all over the apartment. We hosted so many gatherings there too. Home is truly what you make of it.

    • Andrea Debbink

      Thanks, Christine! I love how you worked with what you had in that apartment with the red carpet. I’ve learned that some living situations just call for more creative solutions than others 😉

  4. Linda Sand

    We’re at the other end of the age spectrum having been retired a dozen years. My tip is to make the decor personal. My husband’s college photography class project hangs on one wall. A huge blueprint of the railroad tracks in our hometown done a year after we graduated high school hangs on another wall. A Lego model of the type of motorhome we lived and traveled in for three years after retirement sits on an end table. A picture done in all browns painted by my mother hangs in the bathroom. A vase that was a thank you gift for being there in a time of need rests on our kitchen table.

    And yes light and a view. We have a wall full of nearly floor to ceiling windows in our living room and they overlook a wildlife refuge. We love this apartment after years of homeownership.

    • Andrea Debbink

      That’s a great tip, Linda! I love all the meaningful artwork you’ve incorporated into your home. Overlooking a wildlife refuge sounds beautiful!

  5. Maurie

    So good! My husband and I have rented for most of our married life. I have realized that unpacking completely and putting artwork on walls are so important to feeling at home in a rented space. Those times that we thought we’d be in such and such apartment for only half a year or so, it invariably turned into a couple years. It’s worth it to not feel like you’re in transition for such a long time!

    • Andrea Debbink

      Thank you! And I agree, Maurie! I’ve had apartments where I’ve hesitated to make the space truly “mine” and not surprisingly, they never really felt like home!

  6. clare

    I love this, when I was renting I made tried to make use of houseplants and lighting to give it that extra homely feel. We love to be cosy in our house so blankets are a big thing too.

    • Andrea Debbink

      Lighting can make such a difference, can’t it? I’m a big fan of blankets too because I’m pretty much always cold 🙂

  7. Emily

    I’m not currently a renter, but I loved reading your ideas about how you’ve learned to thrive in a small space and in a place you may not see yourself in long-term. Thanks for the ideas!

    • Andrea Debbink

      Thanks, Emily! I appreciate it!

  8. Caroline

    We too are renters – and I also used to envision us buying before we found ourselves stuck in a college town with inflated prices. We currently rent a 900 square-foot house, and while it is small for a family of four, there are lots of windows and a small yard to enlarge the space. Since we have 2 children, one feature that made us choose this place was a bedroom that had two decent-sized closets. Each kid has hung art all over their own closet walls and created a little desk area with a stool so they can have their own private hideaway.

    • Andrea Debbink

      It sounds like we have a few things in common! I love the idea of using closets to house desks. I’ve seen a lot of cool examples of that on Pinterest.

  9. Chrissie Webb

    Andrea – yet another of your posts that resonated strongly with me! I also grew up in a suburban neighborhood, with the goal of home ownership. Apartment life was only meant to be temporary, but plans got derailed and my husband and I have been renting for years now. We’ve still been saving for a house, but I’m only recently starting to second guess that idea – is it what’s really best for us right now? Time will tell, but in the meantime I agree with all your points above: making a home wherever you are is what matters.

    One question for you: how do you deal with apartment noise? I’m an HSP and it’s my biggest issue with living in an apartment building. For me, it’s especially frustrating when the thing I want most in my home is peace and quiet. I’ve tried all the things (earplugs, noise machines), but it’s still a struggle. Do you deal with this as well, and if so, any tips?

    • Andrea Debbink

      Thank you, Chrissie! Glad to hear it resonated with you 🙂 Good question about the apartment noise! I can be pretty sensitive to noise myself and I’m not quite sure I’ve solved that problem in my current situation. We also accidentally chose an apartment in one of our complex’s dog-friendly buildings! (And nearly everyone besides us has a dog.) I think noise machines help and when our apartment’s heat or A/C is on, the fan is pretty loud (in a good way) and drowns out some of the noise. This might sound strange, but I’ve also done some “sound” meditation where you practice being curious about sounds in your environment and open to them rather than irritated by them. Back when I was doing it, it actually seemed to help!

  10. Amanda Waters

    Reading this and listening to your podcast episode were so encouraging! I’m turning 40 this year and my family currently rents – we traded buying a house sooner for paying off debt. When I think about it logically, I am fully happy with our choice, but I can get caught up in comparison and expectations. It’s good to remember that even living situations are not one size fits all. Thank you for the tips as well on how to feel fully at home in a rental.

    • Andrea Debbink

      I’m so glad to hear it was encouraging to you, Amanda! I’m like you, fully happy with where we’re at until I get caught up in comparison. It’s nice to hear from other people who are in similar situations. 🙂

  11. Cheryl Lemily

    Our family of 4 is currently renting a 945 sq. ft. apartment…by choice. It’s saving grace is definitely all of its natural light! Somehow, they managed to squeeze 3 bedrooms into the apartment, which is also a bonus. We’ve managed to sleep 8 people (kinda-sorta) comfortably in our little home! Would like another bathroom as well as a small yard for the dogs, but would not want to clean another bathroom (a houseful of boys), or maintain a yard (seasonal allergies). So, it works for us.

    I completely agree with the unreasonable stigma attached to renting an apartment. Especially, as a 40-something-year-old who by society’s standards should have ‘more to show’ for her life! {said in the most sarcastic tone I can muster}.

    • Andrea Debbink

      So great to hear about your experience, Cheryl! Like you said, there are definite trade-offs for not having things like bonus bathrooms or yards. I love that we can clean our entire home in a pretty short amount of time! More time to do other (more interesting!) things 🙂

  12. Steele Honda

    I like that you said that when looking at apartments to rent in addition to outdoor space, the view from your windows is also worth considering. I am thinking about moving into an apartment soon because I want to downsize to a smaller space. I think that having a good view would be nice because I really like the outdoors and it would be a good way to at least see them every day. Thanks for the tips on making an apartment feel like home.

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