How to make a rental feel like a ‘forever home’

(Image credit: Your Not Forever Home/ Yuki Sugiura)

Woman holding measuring tape by window at home

Making the very most of your temporary or rented living space can be a challenge – but with a bit of inspiration, you can create a domestic haven.

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In some countries, including the UK and US, recent years have seen more people renting, fewer people owning their home, and increased competition for good rental properties.

Whether renting is the only option or a choice, there is sometimes a perception that this isn’t your “forever home”, but merely a stop-gap. Not necessarily in countries with long, secure tenures, like Germany, but that’s certainly the case in the UK, where renting can be a precarious, short-term business. 

In her new book, Katherine Ormerod explores how to make a temporary property feel like a permanent home (Credit: Yuki Sugiura)

In her new book, Katherine Ormerod explores how to make a temporary property feel like a permanent home (Credit: Yuki Sugiura)

Writer Katherine Ormerod knows all about this. She has moved home 15 times in the past 26 years. “On average that’s packing cardboard boxes every 20 months,” she explains in her new book, Your Not Forever Home.

Some rental homes are in good condition. Others, particularly for those on a tight budget, can be poorly maintained, with multiple issues – from mould, damp and leaks to worn-out appliances.

But what tends to unite all rental homes is the bland décor – walls, carpets and curtains or blinds come in white, beige, magnolia or pale grey. Ormerod’s experiences have turned her into one of those savvy renters who has worked out how to make each temporary address feel like home.

The décor in rental properties can be bland – Ormerod recommends temporary, stick-on tiles to brighten up the kitchen (Credit: Yuki Sugiura)

The décor in rental properties can be bland – Ormerod recommends temporary, stick-on tiles to brighten up the kitchen (Credit: Yuki Sugiura)

This process starts well in advance of moving in. “Before I sign on the dotted line, I open a conversation with the landlord about what I would bring to the property,” she says. She learnt this trick from her friends in New York, where, she says, this is standard practice. “You enter into a negotiation, where you offer to make changes to help improve the home,” typically for a reduced rent.

In her current place, she painted over the magnolia walls in every room herself, having presented the landlord with a palette of paints. She also changed the kitchen cabinets to a Shaker style, swapped the tired door handles for ones in brass, replaced the sink tap herself, and added a kitchen island and shelving. “It was all contractually agreed,” she says.

For a quick upgrade, Ormerod is a fan of sheets of vinyl. “In my current kitchen I have used white marble vinyl on the work surfaces,” she writes in the book. “I’ve used cut-to-measure vinyl tiles on the splashback and wrapped the white goods in stick-and-peel [temporary wallpaper]. Vinyl can improve the style of any kitchen surface, is affordable and is also entirely temporary. For a renter this is the holy trinity.”

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A lot of renters see their art collection as key to making a place feel like home. The pop artist Emma Gibbons in Devon, south-west England, hangs her own artwork and “small, curious pieces I buy at art shows”, grouped together salon-style. “The artworks I make are colourful, and when a rental is neutral, you want colour injections.”

A wall featuring a collection of pictures – as seen here in a Taipei home – is a good way to create a congenial feel (Credit: Mish Hsu/ Never Too Small)

A wall featuring a collection of pictures – as seen here in a Taipei home – is a good way to create a congenial feel (Credit: Mish Hsu/ Never Too Small)

She recommends hanging a dozen or so pieces with different colours and textures at different heights and levels, “that represent your personality and taste”.

Between moves, Gibbons bubble wraps her big pictures and puts them in a rented storage unit for a week, so they don’t get damaged in the move. Then once she’s settled in, she’ll spot places for them. “There’s always somewhere they can go, up the stairs or above a bed.”

And where wall hooks aren’t allowed, there are sticky picture-hanging strips, which are removable. “It’s about having stuff around me that inspires me, and brings joy to me and my daughter,” she adds.

Ormerod suggests  “glazing” artwork with transparent vinyl, to make it lightweight and more robust to transport. And think about transporting art in glass frames yourself, in order to avoid breakages en route.

In a flat in Buenos Aires, an abundance of plants makes for a welcoming mood (Credit: Enrico Cavaglià/ Never Too Small)

In a flat in Buenos Aires, an abundance of plants makes for a welcoming mood (Credit: Enrico Cavaglià/ Never Too Small)

For Paul Melly, it’s all about textiles. He’s been in his current rental in south-east London since 2007, and is about to move into a new flat – a first-time buyer aged 66. As a writer and commentator on African politics, he does a lot of work trips. “I travel to parts of the world where handmade textiles are a big thing, and far cheaper than here. And they’re portable.” His flat is adorned with Fulani handwoven blankets and rugs from Niger, sofa throws from Tanzania, and cushions from Ethiopia, Cameroon and Benin.

Gibbons likes to give herself a small budget of around £200 at the beginning of each move. That allows her to make quick fixes like “changing out the curtains, blinds and lampshades, and sticking the old ones in the top of airing cupboard in zippy storage bags”.

Basic sewing skills will allow a renter to hem their favourite curtains to fit a succession of homes – much better for the planet than buying new each time.

Small-footprint living

But it’s risky to do everything the minute you move in, Colin Chee believes. He’s the creative director of Never Too Small, a Melbourne-based media publisher whose TV and YouTube shows and books are dedicated to small-footprint design and living, including rentals. “When we think about furnishing a house, often we want to do it quickly like the TV (make-over) shows. But it doesn’t happen instantly, it might take years.

Meaningful pieces and curios collected over the years will help a space feel more lived in – as seen here in an apartment in Berlin (Credit: Kateryna Gonchar/ Never Too Small)

Meaningful pieces and curios collected over the years will help a space feel more lived in – as seen here in an apartment in Berlin (Credit: Kateryna Gonchar/ Never Too Small)

“You’re not buying for each home, you’re buying for yourself. Then every piece means something to you, and even if they might clash in terms of design, they’re stories that make up your life,” Chee adds, “Then it feels like home for you.”

Chee also advises ditching bad artificial lighting completely (during daylight hours) by hanging sheer curtaining. “It transforms everything inside by letting gentle natural light in,” he says, “it creates privacy as well as a sense of calm.” Another tip to create ambience: apply LED strips to the underside of units or on ceilings.

Sally Lukins, who manages London-based design organisation DBA, feels similarly about surrounding herself with personal pieces. “I’m not massively materialistic, so I’ll always choose experiences over things. But that does feed into my interiors choices, I guess. I fill the home with things I love, and that therefore make me feel connected to the space.”

More tips and tricks

  • To create ambience, apply LED lighting strips or hang fairy lights  
  • Hang pictures with removable sticky strips – or place them on a sideboard
  • Temporary covers will mask cheap or badly hung radiators

So for renters moving into unfurnished properties, it’s not about going on a spending spree each time you move, but about buying considerately, with one eye on the practicalities. As Ormerod puts it in her book, “When I invest in furniture, I honestly consider how much I could be motivated to bubble-wrap it.”

For pricey items like the bed and sofa, going for a smaller rather than a bigger version could avoid disappointment, if your next rental is tight on space. And if a piece of furniture doesn’t fit in your new rental, could it have a different role in another room? Ormerod found space for a bedroom wardrobe in her kitchen, where it was re-purposed, and became storage for pots and pans.

The book Your Not Forever Home showcases décor tricks and tips for home renters (Credit: Yuki Sugiura)

The book Your Not Forever Home showcases décor tricks and tips for home renters (Credit: Yuki Sugiura)

And anyway, your home is more than your interiors. Its surroundings have an important role. Lukins rents out of choice. “For me, it’s about being purposeful about where you choose to live. I’ve made sacrifices over the years to be able to live where I’ve wanted to, where I’ve felt nourished and happy from being in that location. That’s actually part of the reason I choose to still rent.”

And when she moves to a new place, she embraces the local area and finds hobbies locally – like joining a tennis club – and a community to tap into socially. The last place she rented on her own was in a big Art Deco block that had a strong sense of community. “I got to know loads of people there, just by being neighbourly.” Putting down roots like this can be just as good for morale as what’s on the walls.

Your Not Forever Home: Affordable, Elevated, Temporary Décor for Renters by Katherine Ormerod is published by Quadrille.

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