This is another post that stemmed from a reader request. I’m hoping this one is especially awesome for those just beginning their home journey or first-time homeowners. I also think it might be insightful for those of you who plan to renovate someday, but are saving and embracing your home as-is in the meantime. Click through to read the initial message that sparked this post, and check out my tips for making a temporary living situation feel like home. After all- we all want our living spaces to reflect our interests, personality, creativity, and lifestyle.
First, I’ll share the inquiry I received from a reader, which prompted this post…
“My husband and I are newlyweds– all this to say, we have been and will continue to live in an apartment for the next couple years. While we are in this transition phase, I find it difficult to express my own personal style in cookie cutter, awkward, cheesy, plain, or poorly designed apartments. Do you think you could write a post on how to overcome some of these boundaries presented with temporary living spaces? The last apartment we were in felt like a temporary space we were passing through, and I really want to put my efforts toward making our new place a comfortable and inviting place to live.”
I remember our younger, engaged and newlywed days… it was such an exciting chapter in our lives! I also remember not having a permanent place to call our own. Emmett and I spent time as apartment dwellers for a bit. We even had to move back in with family for a few months while renovating our first home. During these transitional periods, it can certainly be difficult to embrace “home”- whatever that looks like at a given point in time. I’ve moved quite a bit over the years… 5 times during design school / college, and 5 times during my adult life. Each place I landed, I put in effort to make those cookie cutter spaces feel more like me. I think that’s the key. I’ll share some tips that come to mind below. The images you’re seeing here in the intro is the kitchen in our our very first home, by the way.
Commit to Enjoying the Space While You’re There
To me… in addition to design and aesthetics, home FEELS like home because of the people (also pets) and memories made under that roof. Cook in the kitchen, have a candlelit dinner, plan a movie night with awesome snacks, start a new routine (example- listening to music and making craft cocktails on Fridays), and try to adjust your mindset. Instead of thinking of this place as “a stop on your way to a better, more permanent living space”, make small efforts to enjoy what you have currently have. I lived in an apartment during school for many years and lots of my friends didn’t take the time to personalize or make their spaces their own. I asked some of them why and was always met with a similar response: it’s too much work if we’ll be moving on someday. I believe a space will always feel temporary if you don’t commit to loving it the best you can while you’re there. That means claiming it and making it your own. Obviously this won’t look like a full-fledged renovation, but you could definitely paint, hang art, and style furniture & decor that fits your personal aesthetic.
Spend Money on Things That Can Grow and Move With You
Over the years, I’ve realized the pieces that mean the most to me are the items that have moved with us time and time again. Seeing them moved into a new house with us always helps me feel more settled and brings me a sense of familiarity. Those are the best pieces! I’d encourage you to spend your money on things that can grow and move WITH you… timeless furniture and art are among the things I cherish in our home. Some pieces have even been with me since the days I inhabited an apartment.
Look At Your Environment in a Different Light (Literally)
Instead of flipping on your harsh overhead lights in the evening, turn on lamps and light some candles for a soft, romantic light instead. Nice lighting can truly change the way you feel about a space. These secondary fixtures are also ones you have control over, that can move with you to your next place (lamps, plug-in sconces, art lights, etc). These also help to offset the existing builder-grade lighting and make your home feel more intentional and lived-in. Try styling a tiny lamp on your countertop or vanity, enjoy the flickering of a candle while you watch your favorite TV show, and embrace light leaks during golden hour.
Incorporate Vintage or One-of-a-Kind Items
Given your space is about as basic as it gets, try inserting some personality with vintage or one-of-a-kind items to make your home feel more special and unique. Thrift shopping is another great way to save money and score high-style pieces! It’s my number one recommendation for adding interest and really making a space feel personal. Insert some conversation pieces that beg to be noticed, before the “boob lights” scattered around your apartment. If you style interesting pieces throughout your home, they’ll be the first thing you lock eyes on instead of fixtures and materials you can’t change.
Layer and Style Things You Love
I’m a big believer that you can make any space beautiful… even dated, cookie cutter, builder-grade, average apartments. I like to think the items that FILL a space are equally as important as the architectural elements and finishes. That’s all part of design! Even without renovating or updating finishes, if you lean into layering and styling- you can make any room feel inviting and designerly. I’ve found that against the most blah looking backgrounds or finishes, a little styling goes a long way. Layer, layer, then layer some more. Let’s use a countertop for example… layer some cutting boards, treat yourself to a KitchenAid mixer if you’ve been eyeing one, prop up your favorite cookbook on a stand flipped to your go-to recipe, bring in some fresh florals or greenery, add a lamp to your countertop if you have the space, DIY a kitchen cart as an improvised island, hang some art, gather some pretty wooden spoons in your utensil organizer, and buy some fresh kitchen towels. All of these small items add up to make a big visual difference. What would you like to see in your space? What items make you smile? What do you enjoy doing in this space? Ask yourself those questions and find ways to insert more things you enjoy to create that cozy feeling of home.
Splurge on Little Things That Make You Happy
For me that is luxe textiles, fragrances, and kitchen items. Buy the more expensive bedding, plush bath towels & robe, high-end candle, pretty cutting board, or countertop mixer. If these things make you happy, having them in your home will make you smile. I have a bathroom decor memory I want to share… in my college apartment, I splurged on what I used to call “fancy products” which doubled as decor. I also hung a waffle weave shower curtain on the rusted bar, and installed floating shelves in my very basic bath. These were small things I had control over. I bought the best smelling candle, soap, bath salts, and they all nestled into a marble tray I thrifted. They were packaged beautifully and even looked good against my off-white plastic 80’s or 90’s builder grade bathtub surround… it felt like a nice moment to me. Having spa time and seeing those pretty products made me love and appreciate my tiny, builder-grade bathroom. Though dated- I had a clean, functioning bath to enjoy, and the items I brought into it from that point forward, were ones that helped me embrace, appreciate, and love the space. I began looking forward to going home to have that time to relax. Think about what makes you smile IN your home and make a conscious effort to do more of that. Bring more of those little things into your space and remember you have the control to make your home homey (even without renovating or a huge budget).
Does anyone else have any tips for this reader? I know they’d be much appreciated! Please drop them in the comment section below. I think this year has really helped us all to appreciate home more than ever. No matter what your home looks like and no matter how long you’ll be there, I’m a big believer it should be a place you love spending time in!
MelissaJuly 16, 2020 at 7:22 am
With a constant stream of beautiful spaces on social media, it’s easy to get caught up in what you don’t have, but you are right in that we have to find those little moments that make you smile. Start with a small vignette. I agree that adding vintage pieces is one of the best ways to give soul and personality to a builder basic space. Resist the urge to run to Target or Home Goods and fill your space with on trend pieces you’ll tire of. See this as an opportunity to start curating pieces you’ll love forever and that will give you a jump start once you buy a home. If you hate your flooring search for a beautiful rug. Use peel and stick wallpaper in a closet, nook or laundry space. Changing out the lighting is an easy DIY that will add instant personality (just switch it back when you move). Plants and lamps can really up the cozy factor and bring life to a sterile space. Have fun with it!
SarahJuly 16, 2020 at 12:39 pm
It really is, Melissa! I love your point on appreciating the small things… even those little vignettes that make us happy. I also echo your statement on filling your place with items from Target or HomeGoods. I think having a healthy mix of original, less trendy items is key! Awesome tips for helping finishes feel more aesthetically pleasing- thank you for those :) xo
PeggiJuly 16, 2020 at 8:32 am
Ah, memories. When I think about some of the truly horrible places I have lived, I only remember them with laughter and love for the friends with whom I shared them. At the time, I was less enamored with motorcycle parking outside my bedroom window, cupboards too shallow to hold plates, and a kitchen so small we stored potatoes in the dishwasher. 🤣 We didn’t experience the pressure of Pinterest then, so that surely helped. I will say that making a space smell good (cleaning, cooking, candles) and purchasing special bedding always helped me feel settled.
All of your tips are so smart, but I think the first one is key. Commit to enjoying wherever you find yourself!
SarahJuly 16, 2020 at 12:37 pm
Right? It was fun taking a trip down memory lane. Even back in college I was dumpster diving for furniture… some things don’t change, haha! I love your point on the memories made all involve PEOPLE. That rings true for me, too. I also liked reading that you stored potatoes in your dishwasher. That is actually pretty smart! Cleaning, cooking, and candles were my biggest three things that made my crappy apartments feel more like home. It sounds the same for many. Definitely enjoying wherever you are in whatever stage is important :) That’s a good life reminder, in general. Hope you’re having a good day today! xo
JulieJuly 16, 2020 at 9:41 am
What a great reader request and article! I lived in an apartment through college, and then my husband and I rented a condo for a few years before buying our first home- so I completely understand wanting to have a beautiful home even in a temporary (and super builder-basic) space. I completely agree with all your tips, Sarah. For me, smell was always the biggest factor. I made a point of always having a lovely seasonal candle and burning it almost daily. It didn’t need to be expensive, just have a nice, happy smell that made me glad to be around it. I always loved coming home to a good smell. Plants and greenery were also hugely transformative (there’s clearly a reason they’re in almost any styled shot of an interior). If I didn’t have good lighting in the space, I’d buy cut Italian Ruscus from the grocery store… it always looks pretty and keeps for months if the water is changed every week or so. Hanging art I loved (not just the generic kind that’s made to take up space) also helped to make the space feel like a more permanent home and could transition to any future property. I absolutely love the related idea of putting resources toward buying other quality or higher-end pieces that are beautiful and can transition. I did some of this but wish I’d really prioritized forever pieces over short-lived pieces. :)
SarahJuly 16, 2020 at 12:34 pm
I thought so too, Julie! This was a fun one to write and reminisce. Smell was a big one for me, too. Plants and greenery is major- I can’t believe I forgot to touch on that subject. Great addition Julie! Ruscus is one of my favorites as well, because it lasts FOREVER. Even grocery shopping and having a well stocked kitchen made my apartment feel more like home. Fruit on the countertop in a big bowl, etc. Wonderful talking points! Thank you for sharing :)
HollyJuly 16, 2020 at 10:26 am
Love this because blooming where you are planted it so important. You mentioned art, but I wanted to expand a little. Hang things on the walls asap! There are many resources for lovely art at a variety of price points. My space doesn’t feel like home until nails are put in the wall! It’s a huge game changer!
SarahJuly 16, 2020 at 12:32 pm
It really is, Holly! Art is definitely an easy way to make a place feel like home. Even if you’re not nailing into the walls- I’m a big fan of leaning art, art ledges, and propping it. Even on an easel it’s beautiful! Thanks so much for that great tip. xo
MeganJuly 16, 2020 at 10:29 am
I appreciate this post so much, because I currently live in an apartment and probably will for several more years. I can’t afford to buy a house right now, and wouldn’t want to spend time renovating or doing yard work anyway. I agree about investing in pieces that can move with you. A couple of years ago I decided to start investing in classic, high quality furniture, with the intent of keeping the pieces for the next 30 years. Focusing on quality over quantity (in furniture and decor) has also helped my space feel less cluttered and more intentional. I also agree about lighting. I never use the hardwired overhead lighting in my apartment. My other tips: houseplants, window curtains, quality bedding and towels, and artwork. Probably most important, I think, is becoming a bit of a minimalist. Only bring stuff into your apartment that is actually useful, necessary, or that you love. Utilize all the storage space already available in your apartment (closets, cabinets, etc.), and then if you still need more storage space, declutter your stuff before deciding to buy storage furniture. For me, less clutter means more appreciation for what I already own, and better utilization of the space I have.
SarahJuly 16, 2020 at 12:31 pm
I love hearing that, Megan! Living in an apartment can definitely have its perks, too… spending weekends and evenings having fun sounds way better than house maintenance or yard work. Amazing point! I definitely agree with sourcing high quality furniture that lasts and can grow with you. Love your tips on house plants and minimizing, too. Thanks so much for weighing in!
LaurenJuly 17, 2020 at 7:40 am
This post brings back ALL the memories! The first apartment Jeff and I shared was spacious, but that was its only wonderful feature. The walls were a dark shade of peach, and the solid wood ceiling didn’t help to brighten the space. Our landlord wouldn’t allow us to paint, so we embraced it. We got a sectional with a classic print that incorporated a lighter shade of that peach, so that it felt cohesive. We lightened and brightened with textiles throughout the space, including window treatments and shower curtains. What we referred to as “James and the Giant rotting peach” actually became a space that felt like our sanctuary for that year. I agree with all the tips mentioned above. I will add this: don’t underestimate the power of peel and stick wallpaper, or the power of asking. Some landlords are ok with a tenant painting a space. Many times, the reason they don’t do it themselves is because they simply cant afford to paint every unit. Our landlord allowed us to replace fixtures, and actually deducted the cost from our rent because we were doing him a favor. Another tip: if you choose to replace anything, try to have a box or shelf in a closet dedicated to housing the old items. That way when you move, you can simply replace what was there and still get your deposit back. In our case we didn’t need to replace much, but our paint inquiry lead to the landlord having the interior repainted a month before we moved (womp womp womp). All this to say, embrace what you can even if you hate it. Sometimes the one thing you hate can be a great jumping off point to make it better. And have traditions. Even if they’re silly. Black Friday is and always will be my favorite time of year; if it wasn’t for our terrible apartment would we have ever done that??
SarahJuly 19, 2020 at 10:09 am
Right? I felt the same way! I am cracking up at your “James and the Giant Rotting Peach” named apartment. Great points on peel-and-stick materials and ASKING. Such an important thing to mention and you never know what you can change until you ask- the worst the landlord can say is no. I love your Black Friday tradition that started because of your apartment. Our pizza Fridays actually started during our apartment days! Hope you’re having an awesome weekend, Lauren!
Anne HJuly 17, 2020 at 4:04 pm
This is a great topic and post, Sarah because so many of us have been in this reader’s position for any reason at some point in our lives. I especially love your idea of acquiring prized pieces of art or furniture and bringing them with you whenever you go (when possible.) As for advice, I’d add that she should live in the space for a little while, see how they use all the spaces and note things they like or can live with. Then emphasize those spots with favorite art, textiles, decor, lighting, etc. (Overhead lighting that isn’t on dimmers can make the even the nicest place look terrible!) An investment in a comfortable couch with timeless lines and shape can go a long way, as well. Lastly, another vote for greenery of all types and if poor natural light is a factor, they make some amazing faux plants now. They don’t have to be your Grandma’s plastic plants anymore! 😆 Happy weekend, all!
SarahJuly 19, 2020 at 10:16 am
Most definitely, Anne! Great point on living with the space for a bit to see how they use the apartment and what areas need to be most functional / enjoyable. I second investing in a comfortable, classic sofa! Faux plants have come incredibly far and I never thought I’d be a fan- but here I am… LOVING them. Haha! Happy Sunday :)