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How to update your apartment without making your landlord angry

By Michaelle Bond, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:04am

Ben Everette Moore rented in Philadelphia for 15 years, and he transformed every place he stayed.

In a Center City apartment, he spent six hours filling a wall with patterns by hand using a stencil, gold spray paint, acrylic paints, and a small brush, and his landlord loved it.

“Normally, we’re supposed to paint the walls back, but she’s like, ‘Don’t you dare. Leave it,’ ” said Moore, who is now an interior designer.

Nearly 2 million households in the Philadelphia metro area are renters, according to the Census Bureau. And many are hungry for design advice that won’t get them in trouble with their landlord.

“Life is so hard,” Moore said. “And once you come home, you deserve to have a sanctuary.”

Moore owns the Collingswood, N.J.-based Everette Wilson Designs interior design business and home decor store with his husband, Jimson Wilson D’Souza. He teaches clients and customers about what he calls the “holy trinity”: window treatments, lighting and rugs.

Moore recommends that anyone looking to decorate start by choosing a color palette based on a beloved piece of art, a rug, or even a location, and use those colors throughout the home. “That way it kind of gives you direction,” he said.

Moore and other local interior designers offered a bunch of renter-friendly redecorating tips.

“Don’t let renting hold you back from making your space your home,” said Rasheeda Gray, founder and principal designer of the interior design firm Gray Space Interiors based in Montgomery County, Pa.

  • Consider your apartment’s needs and use workarounds: Often, renters have limited space to work with, so “the first thing you want to think about is maximizing the space that you have in terms of storage and function,” Gray said.

Get a couch with storage. Ottomans also can be used for both storage and seating. And they can be placed out of the way under an entryway table, where renters can place items such as mail and keys instead of hanging shelves or hooks on the walls.

Since renters can’t make drastic changes like homeowners can, they need to look for workarounds.

Renters can’t change the amount of natural light coming in, but if they want plants, which make spaces feel cozier, high quality artificial plants can be a solution, Moore said.

If renters can’t change their flooring, “go crazy with area rugs,” Gray said.

That might mean using a very large solid rug as a base and layering a patterned rug on top or layering atop carpeting.

  • Pay attention to walls: Painting walls gives the “biggest impact for the least amount of money,” Gray said. An accent wall or painted ceiling is better than nothing, she said.

Renters also can use stencils to make a feature wall, Moore said.

“Give it that beautiful illusion of wallpaper, but when it’s time to go, just grab some white paint and a roller and then be one and done in like two seconds,” he said.

Peel-and-stick wallpaper on walls and in bookcases, Gray said, is a “great way to bring some pattern, some color, and some personality into your space.” Peel-and-stick backsplashes can elevate the kitchen.

Gray recently renovated her son’s dorm room and stuck leather panels to the wall to create a headboard. It’s another way to make walls visually interesting, she said. So is creating a gallery wall with photographs or artwork that personalize a space.

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“People make the mistake when they try to put together a gallery wall of being too symmetrical and perfect,” Moore said. Asymmetry is key, and he recommends using pieces of different sizes and frames with different finishes.

  • Transform a space with furniture: “Go a little bold on your furniture to bring personality to the space,” Gray said. That includes lots of patterns and color.

“You don’t have to spend a fortune to create a gorgeous, expensive, high-end look,” he said. “You just have to find the right pieces. And if you have a tight budget, one way to do that is to go to flea markets or estate sales or garage sales or the trash.”

Don’t be afraid of pieces with imperfections because those pieces tell a story and make spaces feel lived in and comfortable, he said.

“Don’t just wave the white flag and say, ‘I’m just gonna go to Wayfair because that’s what I can afford.’ No. Go to Goodwill, go to Habitat for Humanity, go to all those places that have really beautiful, quality items that are just vintage.”