Make it Yours
8 ways to spruce up a rental
Living in a rental property doesn’t mean you have to reside in a space that doesn’t feel like you. Just ask interior designer Sarah Mervis of Sarah Mervis Design. She and her husband spent a year living as “reliable tenants” in their Pacific Beach cottage rental. “After showing our landlords that we cared about their house as much as they did, we convinced them to let us make a few simple upgrades,” Sarah says. With her design background and her husband’s handiwork, their landlords let them rip up wall-to-wall carpeting, install vinyl flooring and replace the bathroom vanity. While you may not want to take on projects that big, Sarah, who now lives in Point Loma with her husband and golden retriever, Murphy, says there are plenty of things you can do to make a rental feel more like home despite constraints in a leasing agreement.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Establish a positive renter reputation from the get-go, Sarah advises. “If you respect their property as though it’s your own, you stand a better chance of getting a positive response when you ask to make changes.”
2. Paint for impact.
“I always paint all the interiors white,” Sarah says. It makes smaller spaces feel bigger, darker rooms appear brighter (since white paint reflects—instead of absorbs—the light), and you don’t have to repaint (if required in the lease) when it’s time to move out. Sarah buys the un-tinted white right off the paint store shelves. “I opt for a flat white unless I’m doing a bathroom, in which case, I get a semi-gloss.”
3. Mask signs of wear and tear.
If you’re swapping the flooring, Sarah can’t say enough about high-quality vinyl planks that mimic wood and stand up to lots of foot traffic. “They’re waterproof, scratch-resistant and super durable,” she explains. If new flooring isn’t in the cards, buy jute area rugs or other material that will hide dirt. “Often times in rentals, you can see decades of visible traffic flow on the flooring. A rug covers that and also brings a room together.”
4. Cozy the bathrooms.
Rental bathrooms typically lack character. Sarah suggests bringing in greenery, adding something with a pleasant scent like a candle or diffuser and using organizing bins to keep personal belongings stored away and out of sight.
5. Let your personality shine in the kitchen.
When space is limited, display your things. Sarah loves to bake, so she hung a collection of baking tins on one wall and keeps pretty canisters, a cake dome and her stand mixer on the countertop. Her husband, who loves to cook, keeps all his cooking oils next to the range.
6. Invest in quality.
“As a renter, it’s easy to get caught up in the everything-is-temporary mindset, which leads to buying it-fits-for-now furnishings that you won’t keep beyond your lease,” Sarah says. “But making those big-ticket purchases can make a space feel homey. Invest in quality pieces you can take with you.” Sarah says all renters should buy a great mattress, a couch they love and a wall-mountable TV. “You might not want to buy a massive dining table while you’re renting, however, since some floor plans don’t include formal dining rooms.”
Whether you have a small patio or a lush landscape, turn your outdoor space into an escape. That can be as simple as bringing a chair, side table and a few container plants outside, or as grandiose as hanging market lights, creating a lounging area with a weather-resistant sofa and buying a portable fire pit.
8. Display your memories, collections and art.
This one might seem obvious, but renters are often reluctant to put holes in the walls. “Pictures, art and mementos are also one of the easiest ways to personalize a space,” Sarah says. “It’s important to find a place for absolutely everything, to unpack and to really nest. Remind yourself that you’re going to call this place home”—even if it’s just for a short time.