Making an apartment home
June 18, 2017 10:18 AM   Subscribe

I will be moving to my 3rd apartment in 4 years and hoping to make live there for quite a while. I haven't really felt like anywhere I've lived in the past few years has felt like home, so how do you help make an apartment when you can't make any big changes feel like home and not just a place you live?

Apartment #1 was where I lived for grad school, and while I liked it, I always knew I would be leaving both that apartment and that city upon graduating. Apartment #2, where I'll be living for about the next month is in a not nice area, which was my only choice as I had 2 days to move from several hours away for a job. Apartment #3 I'll be moving into in July, and due to its prime location (I don't drive in a city/state where driving is basically necessary so location is really important), safer locale, and affordability, I'd like to live here for several years and really have a place that feels like a home. It will be just me in a small 2 bedroom where the 2nd bedroom will be an office/hobby room. Typical apartment rules apply - no painting, no nails/screws, no big changes, etc.

(Just to stave off any comments about buying a home, it just isn't going to be an option for at least several more years for reasons that aren't important)
posted by Aranquis to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Tip number one is to ignore the 'no nails' rule and just fill in the nail holes when you eventually move out. It's insane to expect you to live in a blank-walled white box for years.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:21 AM on June 18, 2017 [25 favorites]

Alternative to nails - command velcro strips. I've had good luck with those.

Also, RE paint, choosing a light color and planning on repainting, even if just an accent wall, makes a difference.

Lighting is also key - some floor and side lamps which diffuse light softens the atmosphere.

Think about scent as well - what smell says home to you?
posted by MandaSayGrr at 10:29 AM on June 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

My walls will be plaster (from the 1940s) and I also am uncomfortable breaking rules. Secondly my walls will be light gray so it would be pretty hard to match. So please keep that in mind.
posted by Aranquis at 10:32 AM on June 18, 2017

Two big things for me: lighting and textiles.

I loathe overhead lighting, it's so sterile. Table lamps, torchiere lamps, cheap spotlights on top of tall furniture, string lights, LED candles, LED projection lights (holiday or regular). Nearly infinitely adjustable Hue lights means you can "paint" a wall a new color on a whim (almost all our bulbs are their cheaper white only bulbs, but they do a huge range of white temperatures, so they can be a good bright work light or a soft amber for hangout time).

And then blankets/throws/afghans, pillows, tension rods and curtains or tapestries or silks or novelty fabric. Tablecloths (I even use one on my coffee table, which is actually this handy table). Rugs. Chair covers. Kitchen towels.

Also, 3M makes a Command product for pretty much every application. We use their picture hangers and they work great, even on large framed posters that have a little heft to them.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:32 AM on June 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Another thing: plants and plant-like objects are great for un-sterilizing rented space, and they don't have to be real. You can get a fake ficus (a fakeus) that only weighs 13 pounds, hanging green vines on top of a bookshelf. If you have some good windows, you can use strong suction cups to hang suncatchers or small plants (a nice pothos would love a window that doesn't get direct light) - I use two of those hooks and a painted wooden dowel to hang little herb pots and lightweight kitchen gadgets on my kitchen window.

Just make sure to find ways to get stuff up higher than tabletop level, so you have visual interest if you can't hang anything on the walls.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:43 AM on June 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Different things make different people feel at home. I could have painted my place but could never decide on a color and am really fine with the default soft white. Anyway, plenty of commercial/short term residential places are painted colors. I guess it makes people feel like home because it's something they've actively chosen to customize their space.

I think just the fact that you're going in thinking of it as a long term space will help with the home feeling. But you can also look for things you can customize. For me, having things I love and things and an arrangement that makes me comfortable makes my home feel like home because it's mine and suits me. I also think a housewarming is a real thing, not because of presents but because it starts you creating memories in your home with your community and people you care about.

So I think I would start by setting it up to be as comfortable as you can. All the shelves you need so you can access everything you want to as easily as you want to. So you can really unpack. And then work on surrounding yourself with things you care about and people you care about in your space.
posted by Salamandrous at 10:55 AM on June 18, 2017

I've hung lightweight pendant lights with command hooks on the ceiling. We can put nails and screws in or place but command hooks are easier to deal with. I've also hung curtains with the heavy duty ones. Making statements with the furniture helps. You can add color and texture with that. Ask about painting. Worst they can do is say no.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:29 AM on June 18, 2017

Lyn Never: "Just make sure to find ways to get stuff up higher than tabletop level, so you have visual interest if you can't hang anything on the walls."

Bookshelves and other shelving/storage units are a great way to do this! Including the over-toilet kind (e.g. this one).

Agreed with textiles - curtains and rugs are the easiest way to make a place feel like home. Also blankets and throw pillows on couches and beds.

Finally, scented candles if you like them. They just make a place feel cozy.
posted by capricorn at 11:39 AM on June 18, 2017

Depending on your fixtures, look for some 'recessed can conversion pendant lights' - they come in a billion styles and can really make a place feel less generic/more custom.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 11:39 AM on June 18, 2017

When we moved into our current (rented) space, we bought a few new smaller things: area rugs, floor lamps, curtains/curtain rods, shower curtain, and bath mat. New throw pillows. A soap pump thing for the bathroom. They definitely made the place homier without any major, permanent changes.

My previous practice was to spend as little on home stuff as humanly possible and tell myself, "I'll get something nice when I own a house". But this went on for years and years and still no house. The new stuff we got for our current place was not expensive but slightly nicer quality than I was used to (like, not the absolute cheapest version every single time) and I think it made a difference because it made our place look nice now. You won't feel as comfortable in your home if you are constantly looking ahead to your next ("real") place.
posted by eeek at 11:50 AM on June 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Plants, so many plants.

If you don't feel comfortable painting, maybe some temporary/removable wallpaper?
posted by sea change at 12:08 PM on June 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

A lot of this is really about the attitude you bring to the place. So your approaching this space differently is the main step.

I'd not spend much money on anything new the first couple of months. See how the light moves through the space, where the plug sockets are and how all of that makes you move in the space/you end up using the space and why.

Move your stuff around a bit over time, try different options. Then you'll get a much clearer picture about what works/what is missing and what you might want because it'll make things feel more like a 'home'.

All that time you can also peruse options/come up with ideas/work out what makes a place feel like 'home' for you. By allowing for this to take some time you can then also search for the 'right' things and get 'what you want' as opposed to what you could find the weekend after moving/what was on sale or whatever causes us to make home furnishing choices we come to regret quickly/end up never really liking.

All of this is pretty involved and time consuming, an investment in the place. And that's the sort of thing you do for a 'home' as opposed to somewhere you plan to live for a short time only.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:29 PM on June 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you want a low-commitment way to fancy up your walls, I've had success with this fabric as wallpaper technique in rentals.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 12:35 PM on June 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Alternative to nails - command velcro strips. I've had good luck with those.

As a counterpoint I had terrible luck with them. After about a year several framed pictures crashed to the ground within a few days of each other in my place. Apparently they can dry out and lose their adhesion and a little shaking due to work being done in our building was enough to make them ready to fall. Then they did. In the middle of night. Scaring the crap out of me. It also ruined the frames.
posted by srboisvert at 1:18 PM on June 18, 2017

I sometimes take decorating books and magazines out of the library and bookmark the pictures that I find attractive, then try to determine the common elements. It can be color combinations, furniture styles, textures or cluttered versus spare.
And every chair or sofa seat should have a task light next to it (firm opinion).
posted by Botanizer at 2:08 PM on June 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you aren't already on Pinterest, sign up. Then spend a little time pinning every picture that makes you feel homey. You can go through later and pick out the elements that really speak to you, and develop your own style in the process. For me, it would be soft throws, bookshelves with books and my personal things, plants, one really comfy chair and ottoman, decent bed linens and towels, area rugs, an organized kitchen with everything I need.
posted by raisingsand at 2:23 PM on June 18, 2017

command hooks are really great for hanging things without damaging the wall. You can add a lot of warmth and colour to a wall by either going to a fabric store and getting a bolt of fabric that you love, and hanging that up with the command hooks, or get vintage saris to use as wall hangings or curtains.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:34 PM on June 18, 2017

As koahiatamadl says above, take some time to get it right. Do a few things right away so you don't feel you're living in a hotel, but take a month or two or more to get a good feel for what will work best in the spaces you have. Be determined, but not impatient, and put together a place that will make you happy to be in.
posted by ClingClang at 4:16 PM on June 18, 2017

I read somewhere" books are not furniture but nothing decorates a house better" . It helps if the books are your own interests and collection. But some nice book shelves with books, rugs, lamps, curtains, throws, poofs, plants. Nice couch/chairs. Dining table with center pieces - flowers, cool trivets. Perhaps furniture with whacky or industrial elements. My ex had a small collection of scale model cars that looked cool in our living room. And give yourself time, it won't all come together right away especially if you haven't had a homey home in the past and are just bringing in the pieces and rearranging them. And the enjoy the process, what fun - all the best!!
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 6:15 PM on June 18, 2017

I don't need to make major changes to make things feel homey since I guess I prefer kind of a sterile environment, but for those that do, they have tended to wildly break the rental agreement and then repaint before they move out. Nobody has had any major issues for this. (I highly doubt your future landlord remembers what color gray they painted your apartment however many years ago). I would also be surprised if you asked your landlord if you could paint and they said no--generally they either say "whatever, just paint it back" or "green sounds nice!". I also know many people who suggested to pay for half of an improvement or similar with good results .. but ok enough about the "major changes" thing..

You can tack up posters you print yourself without damaging walls, hang fabrics as decoration, add plants, rugs, lamps, etc. Lots of places sell large fabric hangings which are easy to affix and won't break anything if your 3M adhesive falls off. High quality sheets, towels, mattress make a world of difference but an ikea bed frame is totally fine (for me).
posted by love2potato at 7:08 PM on June 18, 2017

Command hooks are fine most of the time. If you're having trouble with them falling out, be sure to clean the wall really well beforehand. And sometimes, the adhesives sticks better than the paint behind it (especially if your landlord is cheap), in which case you're just out of luck.

I've sung the praises of these before, but I had an old apartment with plaster walls a while ago, and the landlord recommended a product called Ooks ( They use super-sharp, hardened nails, and the hangers hold them at just the right angle, so it's basically impossible to damage the wall. The hole they leave is about the size of a pushpin hole, almost impossible to detect, and covered up by the next coat of paint.
posted by Zuph at 6:16 AM on June 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

So there the trick to making an apartment feel like home is to make sure it appeals to all the senses - obviously sight, but also touch, hearing and smell. (I'd argue taste as well, but we'll leave that one out for now.) You do that by making sure you have the right balance in every room for:
- different levels of light
- color
- softness/textures
- scent (or at least the absence of bad smells)
- sounds
- personality

Light is the single most important thing. Every room should have a few lamps of different heights - standing, tabletop, hanging. Add candles as well, in different sizes. Tall tapers are more formal, tea lights are very casual; wider base candles feel more sturdy and secure.

Second is color. If you want to keep the walls white/light gray, that's not a problem, just find other ways to add color. Even if you're a minimalist who likes monochrome white, the way to keep that from feeling sterile is to add different shades of white (cream, ecru, mushroom etc.) in different textures (knits, fur, ceramics, plastics, wood etc.). Most people choose to add their pops of color with throw pillows, blankets, lamps, accessories, and of course artwork.

Softness and texture are really, really important, particularly if you have white walls and live in a regular apartment with very square/rectangular rooms. Fabrics, rugs, leather, plants, wood, fur - anything organic works here. Window treatments are wonderful ways to add texture and color, though may be difficult to do in a rented apartment. Keep flat surfaces to a minimum (tables, floors, electronics). I'm a minimalist so I don't like a lot of pillows everywhere, but even I have a few.

Scent is very tricky, since most people have very distinct preferences. At the very least, take steps to eliminate smells like mold, dirt, pet urine, strong cooking smells etc. I don't like most scents, so I simply go for neutral/organic 'clean', but many people like to use some source of lemon, vanilla, mint or even cinnamon. You can use scented candles for this if you prefer, though many people (me included) find them overwhelming and chemical-smelling, so YMMV. Essential oils are great for this.

For sounds, music is the most obvious. Even if you don't like a lot of background noise, having the option to play music in your home is important. You can also go beyond music to things like a windchime outside your window, a tabletop water fountain, some sort of white noise machine, a (soothingly) ticking clock, or even things like hourglasses or rain sticks.

You may have noticed that I've left personality for last. That's not to imply personal objects are least important - they're clearly not - but that's usually what people go for first, and I wanted to emphasize the other things since they can get left out. This is where books, photos, artwork, sculptures, projects, knick-knacks, souvenirs etc. come in. Make your apartment a showcase of who you are!

Lastly, I hear you on not wanting to break the rules, but the ook hangers Zuph mentioned above are strong, easy to hang and remove, and leave only a tiny pinhole behind that you could either ignore or fill with regular spackle afterwards - the hole is so small that you wouldn't need to match the paint. Seriously, I think you will have a hard time making this apartment feel cozy without any kind of artwork on the walls.

Have fun with it!
posted by widdershins at 8:37 AM on June 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Nthing the "take your time" approach--no sense spending money you don't have to on things that might not be what you really want anyway. Maybe pick up some super essential items that you need, but after that, just kind of make note of things as you notice them ("A table lamp here would really help." "Maybe I'll get a bench for by the door for taking shoes on and off." etc.) and pick up stuff piecemeal as you find cool stuff.

Periodically checking the thrift store or Craigslist/Freecycle/etc. for household items that strike your fancy will probably ultimately make your house feel a little homier. Most items will be in pretty good shape (or they'll be free, which can also be a bonus) and it'll give you an opportunity to find funkier pieces that fit your style better rather than just outfitting your house from Ikea or Target.

I have a bamboo folding screen/room divider thing (found it on trash day--which is ANOTHER great way to find cool furniture sometimes) that I placed flush against one wall and then used a combination of string and binder clips to hang little art print posters from. This wouldn't work for bigger framed items, but if you have smaller items you'd want to hang up (postcards, small prints, etc.) putting three little nails in the wall and hanging things with clips off of the string between them may be lower impact than individual nails for everything.
posted by helloimjennsco at 10:37 AM on June 19, 2017

If it's an older place with plaster walls, it may have picture hanging rails. They exist in lots of older buildings, although few people know what they are now, or use them as intended. Basically, it looks like molding or trim, but is on the wall a little below where it meets the ceiling. If you have this, you can get hooks that hang on this rail, and hang pictures from them with lengths of wire. It's what a lot of art galleries and museums use. It's nice because it doesn't damage the wall, and you can easily move and change art when you like.

Floor and table lamps are generally much nicer than ceiling lights - they tend to feel cozier.

Area rugs go a long way to feeling homey.
posted by Cranialtorque at 11:05 AM on June 19, 2017

As an alternative to hanging things on the walls, you could get a tall bookshelf (perhaps a leaning ladder shelf, or something that's on the minimal side with large open spaces) and place framed pictures, art, patterns, etc. on the shelf or shelves.

Other than that, I'd go with statement pieces for your furniture - so maybe pick a bold blue couch instead of tan, or a brightly patterned rug. Then add texture like everyone else has said - throw pillows and blankets, plants in baskets or decorative pots. You can set decorative and sentimental objects on windowsills if they're light enough. Console tables, buffets, etc. are great for creating a pretty spread of objects.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 1:48 PM on June 19, 2017

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