Apartment Life: the search for ACTUALLY renter-friendly apartment design resources

Source

“RENTER FRIENDLY APARTMENT MAKEOVER”

> paints walls
> renovates kitchen
> installs new light fixtures
> builds own furniture from scratch
> DIYs that require a garage shop
> massively different lighting / cropping in before and after

“TIPS TO MAKE YOUR APARTMENT FEEL LARGE AND AIRY”

> entire room in example is like 800 sq ft
> magnificent natural lighting from large south-facing windows

As someone living in a 420 sq ft castle of trash, it has been I N F U R I A T I N G trying to find resources for apartment organizing and decor that are realistic. I don’t want or need to have a Pinterest-worthy tiNy dReAM hOme, I just want to know what truly renter friendly quick changes or choices will have the highest impact in making my space more livable and pleasant. I want before and afters in the same lighting, from the same spot, from the same camera. Changes that don’t take an entire weekend, a garage, or an external storage unit to do. It doesn’t have to be my style exactly, but I’d prefer if the channel wasn’t the interior design equivalent of “makeup gurus” who can only do one style of makeup on their own face that only looks good in one type of lighting.

Unfortunately, I am still not aware of anything that is exactly dream version of Apartment Therapy (which I do enjoy, but their design stuff nowadays tends towards just being ads or too impractical or aspirational rather than directly obviously immediately applicable. I am just too tired and have too much junk I still have to declutter to mentally map all the glossy images into something with a realistic amount of clutter and an inability to make major furniture changes). That would be a channel that did something like “here are 4 simple, conservatively renter friendly changes we’ll make to this space (e.g. change placement of large furniture, add a rug, change the curtain fabric, change the lightbulb types), let’s show side by side at the same time of day how each of them improves the space”. But I did find some resources and get some recommendations on that while not perfect, I think would be helpful for people living the shoebox apartment life.

As an aside, here’s specifically what my situation is now and why it feels like there are hardly any lifestyle resources catering to it. No go’s:

  • Painting anything
  • Screws / nails into walls – no, I will not “just spackle over it later”, the landlady stops by often and would definitely catch us installing new fixtures or paintings (there were a few paintings that came installed in the apartment, but they conflicted with the furniture setup we needed so I took them down)
  • Large DIYs (e.g. anything involving large tools) – no garage, no yard, no car.
  • Things that require a car (e.g. buying large furniture from thrift stores or craigslist)
  • Large furniture purchases (we are stuck with the landlord’s couch and random shitty small pieces of furniture that take up the space where I would much prefer to have one large shelving unit or something)

Things that are on the table

  • Arranging stuff differently
  • Storage solutions that don’t involve drilling/nails/adhesive. I acknowledge a lot of the adhesive-based things do come off, but I’ve had enough bad experiences with them in the past that I’m going to avoid that until we exhaust all other options
  • Freestanding or shelf decor
  • Rugs, throw pillows, blankets, bedding

Certainly not as high impact as a new couch, light fixtures, or a coat of paint, but there’s a ton you can do with just that.

Things that I’d consider in the future when we’re not stuck in a furnished apartment

  • Major furniture purchases from IKEA, Target, etc (I want the option to return, I need shipping)
  • DIY/custom furniture that can be ordered online and delivered and just needs assembly (any finishing that is only practical in a garage/driveway/yard is a no go)

Resources

Kanomono Girls

(Chinese YouTube channel with English subtitles)

This was my favorite rec! I love how they focus on optimizing the utility of the spaces they’re making over. They are really focused on making the space great to live in, not just look at, but I like the little design breakdowns where they explain what color palette and materials they went with. The apartments they makeover are also truly small apartments (by US standards I think some of them would be unfathomably small).

They do incorporate mostly custom furniture, but it’s budget stuff that they order cut to size and then only have to screw together once it’s in. They show the entire assembly done in the apartment space only using a hand drill and a mallet. They install some adhesive stuff, but I’ve only seen them use it on tile which seems safer in terms of not offending a landlord.

An illustrator and designer and their cat in a tiny space. They need enough workspace for two people, cat stuff out of the way, wanted better storage for their clothes, and a landing space for groceries, umbrellas, etc.

A couple with a younger kid, where the mother cooks most meals at home: making the tiny kitchen more usable + a bit of living room decor:

Old Apartment Therapy

I couldn’t find a good way to dig up older posts on their website, but you can sort by oldest first on their Youtube channel and the featured things are generally less lavish and more renter focused. In particular, I like their “the A-line” series that shows two homes with the same floor plan but different layouts and decor. This is the closest thing I’ve found to the resource I initially had in mind.

Search YouTube for “Apartment Tour [NYC, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Paris, Singapore, etc]”

Basically, any cities known for tiny apartments and condos. I get the impression that outside of NYC, the US generally is just too far removed from thinking practically about small spaces for the average person (i.e. someone in a crappy rental, not someone building their tiny dream home on land that they own) and how to really use it. I always hate myself for reading comments on any of these apartment tours because they are inevitably full of “omg wow people are such suckers for living in small apartments” sneering. It’s not the life for everyone for sure, but as a city based millennial who grew up in HOA-grade suburbs and hated it, it perennially irks me how small minded so many people are about small spaces.

Anyway, in this rabbit hole you can also learn about arrangements or items that aren’t as common in the US, e.g. laundry solutions from a Japanese family apartment (Life Where I’m From is spectacularly well-produced and I recommend it for general watching, if not as an interior design channel)

Reddit’s interior design subreddits

These are the best resource IMO to see realistic arrangement and decor ideas. They aren’t small space focused, but I find there are more apartments and approachable sized homes here than on Pinterest. Of course, with user-submitted content, it’s extremely hit or miss, but sorting by top (month, year, all time) pulls up some sweet spaces. There’s also a lot of advice (again, hit or miss, but often worth considering) and you can participate yourself!

(unfortunately named) r/amateurroomporn – general interior decor

 r/femalelivingspace

 r/malelivingspace

r/ikeahacks – various ways to use ikea stuff

r/designmyroom – in particular, search for updates and before and afters

EClife

(Chinese YouTube channel with English subtitles)

Not as strictly renter friendly as Kanamono Girls (they use paint a lot), often work around the landlord’s restrictions and spend more time discussing decor than KG as the makeovers are usually on the extreme side. Varying styles, some DIYs but usually nothing that looks like it requires a whole garage. They also do space usage breakdowns. Also helpful if you want to prevent yourself from impulse-buying things, because most of the stuff they use isn’t stuff you can one-click buy unless you’re familiar with Taobao etc.

Engineer Your Space

Not explicitly renter focused, but lots of creative ideas for decorating and defining different apartment spaces. Generally more classic and less aggressively trendy style.

Individual Posts

I don’t recommend these for the main topic at hand (consistently helpful content creators specifically for rental decor/organization with a focus on concepts and showing demos on a variety of styles and homes) but they have some posts that are relevant.

  • Lone Fox – AFAIK he only decorates his own place (and he doesn’t have kids or pets and it really shows in some of his recommendations), but his production value is really good and his place is gorgeous with lots of DEPTH and VISUAL INTEREST and very on trend (and youtube-y; he talks extremely fast). In his actual decorating he does a lot of not strictly renter friendly stuff but these videos I think have very generally usable tips.
  • Jnaydaily – also a home decor and lifestyle influencer channel and she mostly does product recs, but her home styling tips I think are generally very practical and generally applicable, for example in this “how to style a bookshelf” video. I do love her channel in general; watching it feels like having time with an energetic, supportive friend.

Not helpful for me, but others might dig them

  • The Sorry Girls (YouTube) – Also got a lot of recs for them. Not renter-friendly. They paint everything, build/modify furniture, install light fixtures. They have 2 million subscribers so they’re entertaining/helpful to a lot of folks, but I wasn’t personally too hyped with a lot of their “after”s. I can get not aesthetically jiving with 1-2 things in any design project, but I found that in every video they had I was either not offended by anything but also just really underwhelmed with the result or had 3+ really serious issues with their choices (e.g. putting giant lamps on tiny shelves, blocking half a window with a vanity, wall decor layouts feeling like they need more breathing space, things needing more more depth/texture). They generally don’t buy tons of fancy furniture though and do have some diversity in attempted styles, although they lean towards trendy.
  • Alexandra Gater (YouTube) – Several recommendations for her channel too. I found it similar to The Sorry Girls, but with less decor diversity. Her tagline is “helping millennials decorate their rental spaces” and she mainly does mid-century inspired boho.
  • Mr Kate – My first impression from their channel page was that it looked extremely clickbaity, but I browsed their playlists and generally liked their Under $300 makeover series. Their production style feels like a traditional television show, which I don’t have patience for anymore, so I watched them at 1.5x speed and skipped through fluff sections. I liked that they catered to a variety of aesthetics and lifestyles (e.g. masculine minimalist bedroom for a dude who also teaches guitar lessons in there, a makeup studio room for an aspiring beauty blogger, kids rooms) and used a mix of new and secondhand stuff. They do repaint and add a lot of DIYs that while approachable, imo aren’t feasible for true shoebox apartment life because they require shop tools. In general I liked their “after” results more than most influencer style interior videos I’ve seen.
  • All the various Tiny Homes tour YouTube channels e.g. Living Big in a Tiny House – usually these involve a lot of customization, with the person owning the property and all that, so they’re not actually super directly helpful if you’re renting. But they’re fun and cute for decor inspo and sometimes organization ideas. My personal favorite in terms of design (minus the mannequin) was this submarine themed AirBnB:

I’m planning to do an apartment updates series here (I guess I’ve expanded into a lifestyle blog) because over the last 8 months I’ve been spending a lot more energy on that than fashion as I’ve been keeping a relatively strict quarantine. Not that I haven’t been wearing “real outfits” regularly, more that improving my space has been a bigger concern than challenging myself to be all creative with clothes. I haven’t been anywhere indoors besides my apartment, the grocery store, drugstore, and post office in 8 months (and haven’t done any non-virtual socializing) and while the current state of my apartment is still full of clutter definitely nothing to plaster all over Pinterest, I’ve spent so much time and money 😭 improving the state of things that I felt it was worth some posts.

Anyway, thank you to the many folks who chimed in on Instagram to recommend sites (most of these had multiple people recommending them)! If you have any other recommendations for strictly renter-friendly channels focusing on theory/concepts/demos vs creating a flashy before/after for Pinterest or the ‘gram, drop them in the comments below! Every time I post about this on Instagram I get loads of messages commiserating with me, so there there are at least DOZENS of us out there! DOZENS!

10 Comments

  1. If it helps, when we had our tiny apartment, throwing a different blanket on the bed and couch back really effects a small space. Thick and fuzzy for winter, light and lacy/linen/etc for summer.

    Command hooks are also a lifesaver in rentals. Hang coffee mugs to save shelf space, get the big hooks and hang bags and backpacks (great for keeping winter hats and scarves in the off season!)

    And lastly, stacking furniture. This may not be practical with rented furniture, but like my husband came with his late father’s low boy dresser. It’s huge. It’s like 8 feet long but only 3 feet high. So it was a wall in the bedroom and we put my childhood dresser that’s mid sized on top of it. Then the tv mounted on the wall to the side. Worked great for 6 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m hoping to get a blanket for the couch (or make one, I have a lot of yarn I was going to use for sweaters but at this point i think by the time I finish it I will be too big for the sizing I started making it with 😬) once I find a place to put all the stuff we’re storing on it. Having seasonal ones sounds like high impact and functional!

      Yes for hooks! I’m going to write up our usability improvements so far in the next apartment post! I’ve had hit and miss experience with command strips personally that I think were related to poor wall paint/finishing in previous rentals so we have S hooks off of various bars/grating here and over-the-door hooks (based on the quality of everything else in the building and paint coming off the door frames after we masking taped the door gaps during the fires, I don’t trust the finishing).

      Stacking furniture is right up there with IKEA hacks style ideas. Not an option for us as the reason we don’t like the landlord’s furniture is it’s spindly and half of it is on wheels and/or broken in some way at this point because it’s super cheap, but will def keep that in mind for future places.

      Like

  2. Reading this gave me flashbacks of the 420 sq ft apartment my husband and I lived in before we bought our house. It was a row home in Philly and we were in the middle of the block so we only had sunlight from the front (east facing – bedroom) and the back (west facing – kitchen, which was hotter than hell in the summer). Otherwise, it was a cave. Luckily we were allowed to paint and I put a ton of holes in the walls hanging things, but even then the general layout of the apartment was so crap that everything still seemed cluttered. The bedroom was the largest room (13×13) and the smallest room was the kitchen (it was the size of the bathroom next to it). We didn’t have a regular size stove/oven (20″) and had a small fridge, which was a size up from a mini. My experience doesn’t offer any help, but.. I sympathize because I know how hard it can be to not be able to do the large-scale DIYs you’d like to do to make your place more comfortable and more YOU. I do remember using the more heavy-duty 3M hooks to hang up cups or baskets to store items in, which did help since the entrance was in the tiny passage by the bathroom/kitchen. Putting new coverings on the second-hand sofa we used at the time also brightened up the cave of a living area. Decluttering though may have the biggest impact. When you free up space that way you find ways of storing things differently that you never realized could be an option before. I think that was the one thing that saved my sanity. I did a Kondo-style purge and it helped until we could move. GOOD LUCK!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And cave apartments are the worst. Ours only has east and west facing windows and both open up directly to the neighbors’ fences so it sounds like a similar atmosphere, although when we first moved in I was actually thrilled with how bright it was because my previous room was literally underground with a tiny window just peeking above ground level 😂. Wish they were more represented in all the apartment blogs and insta accts!

      Oh man I recently got some over the door hooks and I have no idea why I didn’t think of that sooner, especially since we installed hooks all over the kitchen. Instantly solved the whole jackets and bags constantly tipping over chairs from their weight thing.

      I hadn’t thought of a covering for the sofa! I’m not a huge fan of the white leather one that came with the apartment, but the light color at least hasn’t been dragging stuff down.

      Decluttering is really it though. I just washed a bunch of heavy knits that I’m going to be listing online soon. I’ve sadly come to the conclusion that no there really isn’t space for all my clothes anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A few of my suggestions have been covered in the comments, but here are some more: stack the ugly furniture and hide it behind the sofa/folding screen/fabric and use it for long term, off-season storage; picture hanging kits leave tiny holes yet can support some weight; replace drawer pulls/knobs/hardware/curtains/lamp shades but keep a box of the (labeled) originals for when you leave; use artist tape to replicate molding on walls/doors/cupboards (artist tape is a renters game changer); hang unframed artwork with pushpins and binder clips or create frames with artist tape; cover the sofa/curtains with duvet covers/sheets/curtains/fabric yardage; mimic wallpaper by hanging fabric/paper on the wall with pushpins; cover ugly tile/cupboards/backsplash with adhesive vinyl; add plants, grow lamps/fake ones when there isn’t enough sunlight; use a floor-length tablecloth to hide storage underneath; bring in scatter rugs/additional lamps/cushions to personalize your rooms.
    Yes, decluttering is essential. If it doesn’t fit in with this rental, get rid of it. It may not fit in your next place either.
    I love your blog for your analytical approach. Branching out into a lifestyle vein is fine with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for including me in this roundup of resources, I’m honoured! It also took me so long to remember to leave a comment because i immediately got sucked into watching all the videos on the channels that you recommended 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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