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How to upgrade your NYC rental apartment on a budget

Five easy ways to make a drab NYC apartment feel brighter and more homey

A living room with a dark red couch, coffee table, bookshelves, and windows. There is large artwork hanging above the couch. There is a black and white rug under the coffee table. Various other framed artworks hang above the bookshelves.
Hanging art is one obvious way to spruce up a NYC rental, but there are other ways to make a space feel homey.
Kelly Marshall

Turning a nondescript New York rental into a homey, Instagram-worthy apartment can be a real challenge. The age of the city’s housing stock and the competitiveness of the market often means that landlords are not compelled to make cosmetic upgrades beyond slapping some white paint on the walls between tenants. For the design-minded, this simply won’t do.

But renters have to be careful when making their own upgrades: While peel-and-stick wallpaper or a fresh coat of paint will easily spiff up a boring space, those changes must be reversed come move-out day—and even then, without explicit consent from your landlord, you may run into trouble.

“It is always a great idea to double-check with your lease and landlord to make sure you’re allowed to make cosmetic changes to the apartment,” says REAL New York rental manager Gina Castrorao. “Landlords will usually allow a tenant to put up pictures and a wall-mount for a TV; a good rule of thumb is that if you can remove and spackle the area when vacating the apartment, landlords ordinarily are okay with it.”

But there are plenty of of quick and easily reversible decor tricks that can make rentals feel more personalized. If one of your resolutions this year is to make your apartment feel more like your apartment, here are five upgrades that make a big visual impact, are wallet-friendly, and won’t piss off your landlord.

Good lighting

Fluorescent lighting is about as homey as a dentist’s chair is comfortable, and yet it still appears in New York rentals. Or perhaps the ambiance issue a total lack of lighting. Whatever the rental’s lighting shortcomings are, there’s a fix.

Lamps work wonders to make a space bright, but for mood lighting with a more sophisticated look, consider under-cabinet LED strips or frame-mounted picture lights. (Remember: security deposit.)

New York-based interior designer Perry Sayles has another idea. “If you would like a light over a table, but there isn’t a pendant or other fixture installed where you would like to put the table, I suggest a wall-mounted swing arm fixture,” Sayles says. (Don’t forget to spackle that hole at lease’s end.) “You don’t want to go to the expense or trouble—and you may not be permitted by your building—to bring in an electrician to install a ceiling fixture where you want it. There are a number of attractive fixtures available, many of which come in plug-in versions.”

Williamsburg lighting store Beam sells all manner of lights, buttheir products tend to be spendy. For more budget-conscious items, check out the East Village’s Frontline Lighting and the Upper West Side’s Oriental Lamp Shade Co.

Backsplash stickers

While subway tile is all the rage in many a new rental kitchen, older apartments might need a little help in the backsplash department. Good news: A bunch of brands make backsplashes of the peel-and-stick kind these days that are friendly to both your lease and your budget. They come in tons of varieties to boot, including (surprise!) a subway tile look, a glass tile look, and a mosaic tile look all in a rainbow of colors. Home Depot, Etsy, and Smart Tiles are all good places to start the peel-and-stick search. Bonus: Backsplash stickers can pull double-duty as riser decoration, for those renters with stairs.

Floor-to-ceiling curtains can help a small city apartment feel bigger.

Window dressing

Many New York rentals can seem cold and boxy, even after the furniture has been moved in. To create softness, do not underestimate the power of properly dressed windows. Roman shades—flat panels of fabric that fold as they are pulled up—are one good and cost-effective option for creating warmth and privacy in rentals. But if a space is in need of extra plushing up, go for curtains. New York-based interior architect Elizabeth Steimberg points out that hanging rods and premade curtains in rentals not only blocks out unwanted light, but also helps reduce noise from the street.

A curtain rod hung closer to the ceiling with floor-length curtains will pull double-duty in softening the look of a space while also making ceilings look higher. If drilling into the walls is out of the question, Command makes decorative hooks that can hold up to five pounds. For the crafty, New York fabric store Mood is a great place to shop for curtain fabric. For the rest of us, there’s always Ikea.

Hardware

“Although it’s not traditionally considered a design detail, cabinet hardware is the easiest and most affordable thing to change,” says Highlyann Krasnow, founder and creative director of Brooklyn-based interior design firm The Design High. “Most pulls are either stainless steel or chrome. Opting for a high-contrast pull can really modernize your cabinets.” Switching out those old light switch backplates for new ones is also an easy way to perk up a space. (Anthropologie has plenty of options for both types of hardware.)

The mother of all rental hardware swap-outs, though, is the shower head. Installing a new shower head isn’t really a crucial design move, but it provides an opportunity to put in a handheld faucet that makes cleaning the shower, watering houseplants, and washing pets a cinch, especially in squeezed apartments. Find a quick tutorial on how to make that upgrade here.

Snap flooring

New York rental flooring runs the gamut from glorious hardwood to not-so-lovely plywood to ancient, stained vinyl. (Beat this: I had rubber matting, painted plywood, and industrial carpeting in my college-era East Village apartment, and it was exactly as awful as it sounds.)

For areas with flooring that’s not up to snuff, consider laying laminate floors or vinyl on top of the rental’s existing floors. Laminate planks float on top of what’s already there, and can be easily removed when the lease is up. Vinyl, however, is cheaper and easier to install. It can be cut to fit and secured around the edges with hot glue that’s easy enough to scrape up come lease’s end. Big-box hardware stores are a good go-to for these products, but Aronson’s Floor Covering in Chelsea is a good local bet. Peel-and-stick tiles can also obscure a multitude of flooring sins. If all that sounds too complicated, a good area rug can also do the trick.