How to hide the ugly: 5 cheap tricks for renters

July 8 2013 | Guest post by Lucy J Loves

HatWallSMALLMy husband and I live in a rented flat in central London. It's small — a lot smaller than the seaside house we lived in for six years, and the flat we moved into when we first came to London. And it's not just small — it's boring and grotty, too. But it's allowing us to save some pennies for our future travelling plans, so we can put up with it for a little while.

It's a space that we can't really personalise too much — we have no idea how long we're going to be here (could be three months, could be a year). We can't hang pictures or shelves without permission, and we certainly don't want to spend any money on furniture or decorating right now. We've had to work with what we've got, and I'm happy to say that little by little over the past couple of months it's really taken shape.

How have we turned a dull, boxy flat with dirty walls into a space that we actually enjoy? A few cheap tricks:

1. Hide the ugly

Our first priority was giving everything a good scrub. It was a crappy way to spend our first weekend here but it brightened things up a bit. Unfortunately it also showed us that some walls were beyond saving. So we bought some coloured bulbs for the lounge, lit some candles and hey presto! No one can see that the walls need a repaint.

The wardrobes here are hideous, so we charity-shopped some silk curtains and covered them up.

HatWall2SMALL

There are some ancient and horrid thermostat controls dotted around, so we hung our hat collection on them — we've had compliments on this "innovative" wall décor!

EarringsSMALLThis one in the bedroom also made a good hangy place for my earrings, which are displayed on an old cut-up bag.

We also had a couple of walls which had little holes in them, so we bought cheap but pretty posters to cover them up.

LivingRoomPlantsSMALL

2. Plants are brilliant

They come with us everywhere we go and add a bit of life to whatever room they're in. Especially the tall ones — great for breaking up the expanse of walls you can't put anything on for fear of losing your deposit. Plus you can hang pretty things from them.

Plants in the kitchen.
Plants in the kitchen.

For the plant murderers out there (I used to be one of you!) you can't go wrong with some spider plants. They grow quickly and easily, and they multiply, too. You just pick off the sprouting baby and stick it in a new pot. Honestly, you've got no excuse — they're very hard to fuck up.

FairylightsWorkspaceSMALL

3. Fairy lights make any space better

Our PC is cunningly disguised in a gorgeous cupboard — an Ebay bargain. It's good at hiding the ugly monitor and wires from the rest of the room, but inside it's a bit dark and gloomy, and I realised this was putting me off using it — not good. So I added some cheap lights and BOOM! I've got an inviting little grotto of a workspace. I feel a bit smug every time I turn these twinklers on.

BottlesTableSMALLOther lighting can be cheap but effective too — I put a small lamp behind my collection of medicine bottles to make a glowing feature.

4. Repurpose all the things!

Booze and treats altar.
Booze and treats altar.
Change the way you see objects and you can do anything you like with them. My guitar amp doubles as side table next to the sofa. Our slimline book case slides neatly into a space in the kitchen and doubles as a booze and treats altar.

BedsideTableSMALLWe had no bedside tables but I really needed one and didn't want to splash the cash. I dressed a stool with a scrap of fabric from an old dress I haven't worn for years and a gold plate to made a makeshift one.

The bedroom was particularly dull (literally a dirty white cuboid) but I recently found a gorgeous turquoise skirt in a second-hand shop. Floaty and flowery is not really my style when it comes to my personal style, but I love that colour (hello, matching duvet, bathroom gear, blog logo…), so I hung it up on a piece of string suspended between the curtain rail and the one nail in the room.

5. Cater to your routine

TeaAltarSMALLI followed Ariel's advice and made a little "tea altar" which I appreciate every morning. Our hallways usually become dumping grounds, so I've made a designated floor space for flat shoes, high heels hang off the radiator, and an old broken chair that can't take a hoomin's weight happily stores our bags.

I like to get into bed early most nights to watch a film, or listen to the radio while I blog, so next to my bed I keep face wipes, nice smelly candles, and a wee bowl to put my jewellery in because I always forget to take it off until I'm all snug and cosy. All of this helps keep the place tidy and makes my day run a bit more smoothly — which makes me feel more positive about the living space as a whole.

So, if you're despairing about your rental space and can't afford to go buy new things or paint and decorate but, like me, really need your space to be welcoming and pretty… Fear not, it can be done! We've spent less than £50 on this place so far and it's definitely starting to feel like home. It's not perfect, but it works.

Be sure to check our Renting archives for TONS more thoughts on making your rental less ugly.

  1. Covering the ugly thermostats!! Never thought of that. We moved into a tiny dump, and are trying our best on 0 budget also. I never think of clothing as decor. Now if only I could keep my three year old from colouring the walls… Thanks for a great article on how to REALLY decorate on NO money (so often those "decorate on a budget" pieces actually have decent budgets….different world).

  2. This post gives me a lot of ideas. Thanks! I love how pretty and pulled-together you've made everything look.

  3. Nice ideas! But I have to say in fellow plant-killers' defense – I am fully capable of killing a spider plant. Dude, I've killed *succulents*. But at least I didn't kill so many until I had kids. After kids, *that's* when I discovered – I can either grow children, OR plants, but apparently not both. ROFL.

    • I'm currently looking at a dead spider plant and a peace lily that hasn't grown or flowered since I bought it two years ago and a dead cactus.

      That's right, spider plants and cacti die under my care

      • That is me too! I have a black thumb not a green one. My husband, luckily, got his father's horticulture gene.

        • I used to be terrible with plants, but I've improved over the years. One thing that really helped me for a while was relying on those aqua globe things–the blown-glass bulbs that you fill with water. They made my plants much more forgiving with my sporadic watering. I have a spray bottle I use to mist my plants (sporadically, again) that helps to keep them going, too.

          • My sister got bamboo as a present because apparently it's hard to kill. She killed it. I got all smug and bought one for myself thinking I wouldn't kill it.
            I killed it.

    • That's not very reassuring. My husband is all gung ho to have a baby and I just killed off my holiday cactus. Maybe we aren't mature enough yet to care for other living things.

    • I have a luscious tropical garden, but any plants that come inside the house die swiftly. Including spider plants, cast iron plants, cacti, and gerbera daisies – all supposedly unkillable. I have switched to crocheted catci.

    • At the risk of derailing this, I just wanted to mention that I used to kill plants. I guess I had trouble remembering when to water them, how much, etc etc, and they invariably died.

      When my husband got me an orchid (so much faith, amiright?) I got an app called Koubachi. It tells you what to do, and send you reminders, etc.

      My orchid is not only still alive and healthy-looking after more than four months, but it is flowering again.

  4. I have been visiting a lot of museums lately, and I have gotten a lot of those free brochures. Many of those have art prints! So while they are small, if you are able to get a collection of them, it could really dress up a place. In my current flat, we use them to decorate the bathroom walls.
    Where I currently am in Austria also has a postcard culture, and it's easy to find free postcards with an ad on the back. I like to think that Andy Warhol would be happy with my "advertisements as art" decorating scheme.

    • I pick up a couple of postcards every time I go to a museum or art gallery. Only costs pennies, and I decorate my 'toilet room' with them. If I'm feeling flush I put them in frames but otherwise just bluetack them on the wall (don't tell the landlord!). Now we have our own little art gallery full of really varied pieces for guests to look at while they poop! There's stuff from the Pompidou, York Minster, Edinburgh Portrait Gallery and Edinburgh Modern Art Museum in there, so they're sweet mementos of our holidays too.

        • I was just wondering today what I could possibly use in my 'toilet room' to dress up the wall. Thanks for the idea!!

      • For something a little bigger, you can also trawl flea markets etc for cheap LPs with cool (or hilarious) covers. They're also nice on side tables, because the stiffness of the record lets you lean them against the wall easily.

    • I got a calendar of Monet prints at an art museum (in February or so, so it was only a couple dollars!) and framed the prints for inexpensive art.

    • I made good use of a big collection of these by stretching a string across my wall, buying a set of wooden clothespegs, and clipping them all really neatly along the string. Easy to add more (just space them more closely together), and easy to take them away with you when you move. I happened to have a couple of low curtain rails that I tied each end of the string to, so that I didn't put holes in the wall, but you could prolly put tiny nails in the corners of the room and the holes wouldn't show at all.

  5. Fantastic! I love all of this! Great reminders as my husband and I prepare to move…

    When I was in grad school, I got pretty innovative in decorating my apartment–and hiding lots of "ugly." While it might not be the most fire-safe approach, sometimes just hanging a pretty scarf can cover ugly stuff. I put one over my breaker box because 1. My apartment was so small, I wouldn't have had trouble finding the box in the dark if I needed to flip the breaker, and 2. It was insanely hideous and I couldn't bear to look at it every day that I lived in that apartment.

    I also found that a mini-fridge (bought when I went to college years earlier, but not needed when I lived in an apartment with a full-size one) makes a useful side-table in the bedroom: perfect height, plus handy storage. Maybe it wasn't the prettiest of things I did to that apartment, but damn, was it useful.

    If you move somewhere ugly and think you have nothing to decorate, just look through your stuff. You never know what you have that could really make a place look interesting/beautiful/at least not ugly. Even a dress on a hanger could be used to decorate a bit of wall.

    • For some reason, the breaker box is usually in the kitchen of my flats. Generally this is the place I choose to hang my apron collection. They easily move to the side to gain access to the box.
      I have also hung a pretty glass cutting board over the box (in one case when it was particularly close to the oven).

    • My breaker has scrapbook paper on the front and is used to hang my robe and a second towel in the bathroom.

      As for wall hangings I am rarely lacking because of all the artsy fartsy types in my life who can just make something. I also found a scrapbook paper set of famous paintings 2 copies each of 15 pictures for $10.

      Granted they were trimmed to be square, but still. I now have prints of paintings I love in every room of my house [my favorites actually in two… don't tell]. I couldn't have afforded to buy all those in legit prints.

  6. Fortunately we live in a large lovely duplex now, but our days of being broke in an ugly apartment are not that far behind.

    There are multiple ways to hang things without risking nail holes or wall damage – someone's already mentioned bluetack, but I also swear by the 3M Command line of hangers. They range from little sticky corners suitable for pictures to hooks heavy-duty enough to hang a terry cloth robe on, and they really do pull right off. I've only ever had one damage the walls, and it was years ago (the tech had improved) and I had foolishly stuck it in a way that I couldn't reach the tab to pull it free.

    Also plain white toothpaste works great for hiding nail holes in white walls. If you're a little more flush than toothpaste, you can also pick up putty at the hardware store that will fill nail holes (and larger ones not big enough to need a patch) handily. It's designed to be painted over, but personal experience suggests that it isn't necessary. (Also if you're handy, you can always patch the holes and repaint the walls white – somehow I doubt a landlord would complain that you made the place look NICER.

    • I second, third, fourth, and fifth the use of 3M command strips. I really need to do a commercial write up for them or something showing just what those magic strips are holding up in my apartment. They are everywhere in my home! I've lived in this one for over 3 years now, and I still focus on getting that deposit back!!

        • I was the same in this house, not putting anything on the walls for years until the last few months… I banged in a nail the other day to hang a painting my grandma painted me. Don't tell the landlord O.O lol!
          Honestly though the walls are f*cked I doubt he will notice – unless we fix it, then he will be all 'Hmm that patch of wall looks very nice. What happened here????'

      • Yes, I sixth that! Command Strips are THE best. I used the plain velcro strips, sewed them to a piece of fabric and then hung that fabric behind the bed for a dramatic (and totally removable!) headboard. It's a great alternative to wallpaper and covers a lot of ugly wall all at once.

        I'm also loving that linen tote bag earring holder. I may need to try that. In fact, I would take a scrap of fabric and hang with some of those command strips to hold my earring. ha! Thanks for the inspiration.

  7. One of my favourite decorating tricks I used in an apartment was sticking odd things on the walls. I had purchased tiny mirror tiles at one point for some unknown craft project. When stuck on the wall (with sticky tack, but you could use command strips or something similar, or glue them onto fabric or cardboard), they added a bit of glamour without much work. I also used a deck of tarot-style cards stuck on the wall. They were by Brian Froud and I bought them as art rather than as a deck of cards, so it was a great way to see my favourites. I had them on hand already so even things you don't think of as art can help you cover up things you don't love. Calendars can also become great art after they are done.

  8. We bought our own thermostat and take it with us from place to place. It looks nicer, but more importantly it allows me to schedule the temperature for certain times of the day. Something to consider.

  9. When I lived abroad and didn't want to spend money on decor that I would then have to sell or ship home, I asked all my friends back home to send me post-cards, and said I'd send them ones back in return. I decorated my room with a "chair rail" of post-cards that reminded me of those I loved back home. And they were easy to save and bring home at the end of the year.

    • YES! When I lived abroad I decorated with cards/postcards from friends, bought pretty postcards (that I intend to eventually frame, one of these days) to hang up, and also took advantage of all of those free fliers, posters, and stuff from places I liked–they added extra colour and now are wonderful little reminders of places I went and things I did when I lived overseas. Some of the posters (like exhibition posters and stuff) I also intend to frame one of these days. I'm hoping they don't end up being super-weird formats or I'm going to have to do a lot of tricky matting & mounting…

  10. Renting requires a LOT of creativity. I love what you did with your place!

    My husband and I are renting a small house while we save up to get a house of our own. The living room/dining room, our bedroom, and the office all look great. But oh the kitchen…
    It has a terrible pine cabinets that are yellow-y orange. The floor is average, but on the walls there are these plastic tiles that are pale green with a maroon trim. Half of them are stained yellow. There is a short but wide window on the one wall, the kind that you can't really put a curtain or blinds on. The windows over the sink are so old that you can see daylight around the frame. The counter is a speckled laminate something that doesn't match the tiles (which is probably a good thing anyway). The ONE thing I figured I could do was replace the drawer pulls- but even they were a bizarre size that would have required drilling new holes or ordering custom handles to fit.

    But then I look out the crappy windows and see my backyard garden, and I remember why we rented this house in the first place!

    (But seriously, if anyone has cheap and easy suggestions for my shit-tastic design-fiasco of a kitchen, I would love to hear them!)

    • Plasti-dip? Or equivalent. It's like a spray on paint layer that's quite durable but peels off when you want it to. We used to have it on our car alloys

    • I would do anything to help draw the eye away from the ugly. You can get fancy window-cling plastic to put over the glass in the windows. It might take a while to find the right pattern (or colors) but it could at least draw the focus away from the ugly walls. An art piece that has orange, green and purple in it, hung on the wall to "bring the room together." A tea pot collection on a shelf.
      Another suggestion, if there is space, you could a draft jam and sew a multi-color cover for the window that would insulate, and you could make the cover match the colors in the space.

    • I once bought some funky wrapping paper (the coated kind) and covered my kitchen cupboards with it. It won't last forever but it's super cheap, and you could change it every season!

  11. I have cartoons stuck up on my toilet walls 🙂 It always takes visitors ages to go for a wee because they are reading all the toons. I love the idea about the fairy lights- I am going to pinch that one.

  12. Nice tips. I've worked at a lot of outdoor education camps the last several years where I lived on camp for 9+ months, so I've had a lot of practice with rooms I can't do much to. My favorite strategy has been using Command hooks (no nails necessary!) and hanging my favorite necklaces from them around the room. Not only are they pretty decoration, but they double as very accessible jewelry storage.

  13. I love, love, love the computer desk. I want to have more things in my home like this! I'm always afraid of using those lights because they seem very "college dorm" to me. But the way you've used them is very elegant. Kudos and thanks for the inspiration! Peace and Love

  14. Love the hats over thermostats ideas. Our thermostat (quite useful) comes in handy at christmas to hand decorations off.

  15. Do you have a picture of what you did with your turquoise skirt in the bedroom? I'm having a hard time picturing it.

  16. Another easy and no-budget thing is to take the covers of the light switches off, wrap them in wrapping paper or pretty patterns from magazines, etc, tape them down at the back and then rescrew them back on the wall. You can get some nice effects if you find the right image/pattern and it does no damage.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.