I need to winter-proof my rental — are tapestries my only hope?

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A reader wrote to us asking how she can warm up her rental house:

I live in an older rental house in Canada, where temperatures often reach -35C (-31F!) in the winter. I’m wondering if there are any clever winter-proofing things I can do to decrease my energy consumption and heating bill over the winter — besides the standard heavy duty heat shrink plastic over the windows, which we already do. I tend to be cold all the time to begin with, so packing on a third sweater starts to feel excessive.

I have visions in my head of castle-style wall tapestries in the bedroom to warm the freezing cold wall behind my back. I know there are plenty of solutions out there, but I need something functional, not super ugly, and suitable for rental homes — i.e., not a brand-new heating system combined with better insulation.


Oh, we’ve got you!

I’m from WI, originally, so I feel your gut-wrenching, frozen pain.

I think tapestries would be a beautiful (if expensive) way to go about things. I never used them myself, really, but they really would be lovely.

The window plastic only works so well, and don’t forget to check on them every month (or slightly more often if you like) to see if they couldn’t use another go-round with the hair dryer.

First order of defense: block the gusts from doors and windows

First, You might want to consider getting some insulation board like this. You could paint it or stick nice wallpaper on it to make it look better. You could then prop it up against your existing walls, kind of like modern tapestries.

Other good tips are to make draft blockers out of old tights or socks filled with other socks or newspaper to put in front of doors and windows where drafts creep in. You can even sew or knit them if you’re crafty!

If you’re NOT crafty? you can totally buy stick on drauft blockers,

Finally, really heavy, thick curtains are very good insulation around windows. Have a look in charity shops for old velvet ones. They look great up, really vintage!

Now let’s talk about blankets

This is my favorite electric blanket!

I always like a lot of blankets. I seem to feel warmer if there’s a blanket (or six) spread on the couch cushions as well as one (or six) to cover up with.

Get yourself a really good heated blanket – I love this one

The heating blanket under the mattress pad is absolutely crucial to having warm, fuzzy, happy slumber.

What about a cold floor?

Felted wool slippers from here

Invest in a good pair of slippers, and I mean a really, really good pair like one of these.

I seem to warm up faster and stay warmer longer if I have good, thermal socks (I love my Smartwool socks!)on as well as slippers.

Also, rugs on the floors to ward off icicle toes and help lock in heat… I’ve gotten a few wool rugs on sale at Wayfair and loved them.

And what if you’ve covered all those bases and your house is still cold?

If you have ceiling fans, make sure they turn clock-wise so they suck the cold air up and away from you. 

Cook with your oven a lot, and when you’re done, turn the oven off and leave the door open just a smidge in order to let all that lovely heat escape into your surroundings. This is what baking is for. (Plus, cookies and pies and casseroles and comfort food automatically make you warmer, right? Isn’t that like, the law?) 

Space heaters, while a bit dangerous and definitely not eco-friendly or energy-consumption-lowering, will do in a pinch, and I had a friend whose mom put one in/near the bathroom. No frosty bums at her house!

Hope you find a cozy way to hibernate this year!

Check the comments for even more ideas….

Comments on I need to winter-proof my rental — are tapestries my only hope?

  1. That’s quite the dilemma, as a fellow Canadian I know what you mean about winter.

    I know you mentioned the plastic on your windows, but we also use thick, lined curtains on all our windows. It keeps the heat from being unbearable during the summer and blocks the cold as well. Although tapestries are pretty, I’m thinking it could get really expensive to cover all your walls in those so you could consider using blackout-esque curtains on the walls as well. We have a few and they’re aesthetically pleasing, readily available at most department or discount stores, and do an incredible job at managing the temperature.

    You may also want to consider using draft guards under the door(s). I believe they make actual draft guards but we just use a rolled up packing blanket for our single door. Finally, I’ve also know a few people who have purchased small space heaters. Although you probably don’t want a bunch in every room because it would defeat the purpose of lowing your energy consumption, you could have one and move it from room to room pretty easily. They’re small, inexpensive, and definitely apartment friendly. Hope this helps!

    • Also speaking as a fellow Canadian – draft guards and thick curtains are great (thick curtains are especially great for the kitchen, where you may actually need to open windows occasionally).

      Tapestries or thick curtains on outside walls that feel ice-cold to the touch are good, but they’re not as effective as you’d think. If your floors are cold (or wood and therefore drafty) large rugs can be a lifesaver – try Craigslist or Freecycle, but look for traces of bedbugs before bringing any fabric into the house!

      Practically speaking, I tend to get cold when I don’t move, so hot water bottles (for feet!) and quilts on every couch, as well as rather large shawls, work well for personal comfort.

      Oh, Montreal. It’s a good thing I love you!

    • A small ceramic heater can do wonders. They’re less than a foot in height and half that in width. We used one when our pilot light went out in March a couple years ago (stupid Canadian winter/spring).

    • Another trick that works really well with the plastic on the windows is putting insulation behind the plastic!

      My fiance and I live in a very, very old house and this past winter was harsh. We bought a roll of insulation from Home Depot, and cut it to size to fit the windows we were going to cover with plastic. We duct taped it to the window frames, and then covered the windows with plastic and heavy curtains. While this prevents you from getting light from those windows, it really helps the over all warmth of the rooms.

      It worked well for us because the windows we covered faced the street and we didn’t use them for looking out of anyway. We used the extra insulation to cover the door in the basement. It’s pretty inexpensive too!

  2. A lot of the same things you do to keep your house cool in summer work to keep your house warm in winter. Heavy curtains on the windows are great, especially if they’re dark. Consider also putting draft guards at the bottom of windows to prevent cold coming in and heat going out. Also, not sure how your place is set up, but if you have an attached garage, try to leave the house through the garage, since less cold air will gust in than going out a main entrance exposed to the elements. Keeping doors locked sometimes help, as the deadbolt pulls the door in closer to the jamb. If you have ceiling fans, make sure they turn clock-wise so they suck the cold air up and away from you. Winter is a great time to try long-cooking recipes as well. Pulled pork, stew, braised meats, baked potatoes, etc. because the oven keeps the house warm. It’s the same reason I don’t enjoy cooking as much in the summer. I’ve never experienced biting cold like you’re about to face, but I hope some of these suggestions help!

  3. As a Calgarian who has lived in many a basement-I feel your pain Laila! I used to spend all day cold, particularly in front of the computer and at night our thermostat went down even further.

    The best trick for nighttime is to get yourself a heating blanket and put in under your fitted sheet (and mattress pad if you use one.) Turn that sucker up 20 minutes before bed and crawl in for absolute joy. Just either put it on a timer (easy enough so that it only runs for 15 minutes of every hour for those -35 nights,) or so that it flicks off after you fall asleep because you don’t want it on. I know I couldn’t seem to stay warm and that helped at least make sure I was warm 8 hours of 24.

    I’m with Amy for using the oven to heat things up, I used to love getting that extra toasty feelings for the evenings. Goodluck!

    • This a hundred times. The boiler in our building went out last winter and left us without heat for two weeks in a Michigan November! We ended up with two heated blankets as Christmas gifts, so one goes under the sheets and one goes on top! It’s like a warmth sandwich and it’s awesome.

  4. First off, shame on all houses that aren’t properly insulated! But, moving in and out of rentals for the past few years (mostly in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), and growing up in a house where the thermostat was never above 55F in the winter, I understand your pain.

    I’m not sure how you can actually insulate your house better, but here are some tips for just surviving around the house: Afghans. Oh my goodness afghans. They are fantastically wonderful for when you’re lazing around and if you knit, you’re all set. If you have a pet, consider teaching them to sleep on your feet. Finger-less gloves work quite well.

    Something you might consider for your bed is to go old style and go with the fourposter, curtained-in bed. A smaller space will be easily heated by your body heat and it will help considerably. I’ve done this with creative placement of tension rods (although that requires a specific geometry of room) but you could attempt an idea like that with numerous 3M command hooks on the wall and some string (perhaps putting grommets in whatever cloth you use). Or you could simply rig up a self-standing 4 poster using painted PVC or even wood. Plus, then you’d pretty much have a blanket fort!

    • I’ve got a family place in the UP too and yes…VERY COLD! We burn a lot of wood in the fireplace but so many houses don’t have fireplaces so that nixes that for some….

      We do a lot of cakes and pies and things that warm up the oven when we are up there in the winters. It makes the house smell nice too.

      As for keeping heat in, we put plastic on all the windows and keep doors locked (pretty much all the things that people mention here) We also rearrange furniture to make sure that every vent is VERY well exposed and I put down more rugs. The softness on your feet feels so much warmer.

  5. We use this removable coil caulk around windows also. It feels sort of like play-doh or silly putty and is really cheap, easy to apply, and easy to remove. You just roll it out on the cracks.

    One place that loses a lot of air is around outlets. You can buy styrofoam outlet insulators – you unscrew the plastic outlet covers, pop these on, and your landlord never would know they were there.

    • You can make them too out of styrofoam meat trays from the grocery store. We did them for every outlet in our house last year (and begging our friends for meat trays since we don’t eat much of it!)

  6. I’ve used blackout curtains before, they work well, but you could also buy polar fleece when it’s on sale at a fabric store to make bed curtains out of as suggested above, or you could staple/pin them to the walls like fabric wallpaper. Bonus? You can find cool prints to brighten up your winter… I chose My Little Pony. I’ve also used the cheap fleece blankets from Ikea as curtains, the ones with borders that have holes in them hang great from tension rods anywhere you can fit a tension rod.

  7. Footie PJs. In the house, when I am not expecting guests, I rock the fleece footies with the trap door bottoms. I wear shorts and a tee underneath just in case someone pops over and I need to make a quick strip before answering the door.

    I also suggest rugs on the floors to warm up the room and hanging heavy tapestries in front of the doors to block drafts. I used to live in a basement with concrete walls and floor and rugs were my bffs.

    If you have cold spots on the walls, you might consider mentioning to your landlord that you have crack, leaks, and they may help out with expanding foam filler or, if they pay the heat, you might suggest how much lower their bills would be with insulation. They can shoot it in between the studs in the wall channels through little holes in the outside of the home.

    We just gutted out house to install insulation because we had zero in our walls. Now it retains temp so much better.

  8. As far as saving on energy costs, depending on what kind of heat your apartment uses you might find it more affordable to get an electric space heater (and like someone above said, carry it around with you). I used to do this in the winter – I didn’t care what temperature the rest of the house was, as long as my little heatersaurus rex was right next to me! I kept the thermostat in the house set low (like 60 or 65 degrees F) and when I wasn’t in the house, even if it was just for the work day, I turned it down even more – just high enough to keep the pipes from freezing.

    You can also get an electric heating pad to snuggle up with (for when you need to be away from the heating-blanketed bed). Draft blockers for under doors are a great idea, as are thick rugs on the floor. If your space has ceiling fans, you should turn them on low if you’ve got a space heater running (to push the warm air back down towards you as it rises). Wear a hat at all times (“90 % of your body heat escapes through the top of your head!” my mother always said). And finally, my last piece of advice for staying warm (as long as you’re not allergic): Procure a fat, snuggly cat to sit on your lap.

    • Actually, we don’t lose 90% of heat through our head. This was based on a study that measured heat loss, but the participants weren’t wearing hats, so compared to the rest of their wrapped-up body, it did look like they were losing a lot of heat from their heads.

  9. I forget where I saw it; maybe on here? HOWEVER, covering the gaps at the top of your curtains helps to keep heat in and cold out because it stops the air exchange. Also, door snakes to keep cold air from seeping in under the doors. I make my own by sewing a long tube of scrap fabric and filling it with bird seed; cheap and effective. Thick curtains or blankets in lieu of curtains help keep heat in, too. My first apartment was a poorly converted garage so I got pretty good at keeping the heat in!

  10. Often, windows covered with thick curtains turn themselves into unwanted cooling systems in the winter (and heating in the summer) the air trapped between the curtains and the window becomes chilled by the outside air making it heavier. As the cold air seeps down, warmer air is sucked into the space causing it to cool and the evil cycle continues. To end this cycle, as mentioned above, you can rest a towel or something on the top of the curtain to prevent the warmer air from being sucked in, or one of the boxy things that hides the curtain rod.

    We were lazy last winter and never got around to putting up the plastic on our windows and every month the electric bill was at least $20 more than previous years. We won’t make that mistake again :/

  11. Awesome ideas here, and I’ll probably be making use of a few of them, myself, come winter!

    A note about the tapestry idea? My first apartment had HORRIBLY insulated walls (in that “I don’t think it actually had insulation” sort of way) which in Central/Northern New England is all kinds of bad news. I looked at tapestries and oriental rugs and all of that, but decided most of them were hideous and not something I wanted to stare at seven months out of the year, and they were also WAAAY too expensive. Solution? Good, thick upholstery fabric, a couple of thick wooden dowels, and something to sew with. Find some fabric you like, get the size you need for your space, hem the sides, make pocket loops for the dowels (I did one on either end…one to hang, the other to hold it neatly), and hang on the wall. It did actually help a LOT with the heating bill and keeping some of the heat indoors, and was hella cheaper than the other wall hangings.

    • That’s what I’m doing in the bedroom this coming winter!

      Also a note: if you’re going for the “dark and cozy” vibe, uber-cheap upholstry fabric can typically be had dirt-cheap due to absolutely effing hideous patterns. That said, pink shades can be dyed dark red, and everything else looks good in black (applique in paler shades also looks good on black, to stop the oh-dear-I’m-back-to-15-and-goth look)

      Also, bonus: last year, I hung up a tapestry near the bed (against an outside wall that was zomgFREEEEEZING, but it’s the only place the bed will fit, so…) that I sewed a same-color pocket into. It’s a great place to stash toys/accessories! 😉

  12. Cornbags!
    Go to a feed store and get seed corn, for feeding deer. I think it’s cracked or something so that it wont sprout or pop.
    Make a little pillow/bag, either double folded or lined, fill it with the corn and sew it up. Toss it in the microwave in 5 minute increments until it reaches desired heat. It will stay hot for a VERY long time. This is a great way to keep dishes warm during transit to a pot luck, soothe neck and back pain, and yes, warm the sheets especially down by your toes. It gets so hot that I usually have to put a towel around my corn bag! Seed corn is very cheap, and you can make a ton of these in different sizes based on your needs. Like a long skinny one for your toes or short little tube sections to keep around your hands and warm your fingers!
    Corn bags last for years, so they are a wonderful investment and take practically no time or talent to DIY. Makes a great gift, too! Add dried lavender blossoms for a boost of aromatherapy.

    You can freeze it too, for a coldpack. Wonderful in summer!

    • You can do the exact same thing with rice, too!

      I fill up an old (thicker) sock with rice, put it in the microwave for a minute, and use it around my neck when I’m really cold at night. It stays warm long enough for me to fall asleep, but then cools off as my body heat warms up the bed. And putting lavender petals or oils in makes it smell nice too. You can use it for years.

      • Growing up with rice bags, I love the smell of the warm rice all by itself. I am also a huge fan of lavender, but the smell of lavender gives my partner migraines almost immediately, so we tend to keep it and a few other triggers out of the house.

        With rice or seed corn, or really any grain bag that you use to warm up, make sure to replace the grain in the bag/sock periodically. basically, if instead of the mildly sweet, grainy smell, you get a mildly burnt smell after warming… you’ve gone a little long with the same grain in the bag. 😉

        I have a few rice bags that I will heat up & put into our bed as I’m going about my winding-down routine. Then, when it’s time to crawl in, the bed is all warmed up already. This helps me to avoid cranking up the heat at night & saves on our electric bill big time.

  13. As an Edmontonian (and fellow Canadian!), I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. We had a super cold winter this year and last year…one day was -55!

    Anyways, besides the plastic I recommend these things:

    – draft blockers for doors and windows. Drafts are the #1 reason why it can get so damn cold in houses…even newer ones.

    – get some plush blankets. I have a super plush afgan I carry everywhere in my condo in the winter. Or…get a The Bay Wool Blanket. http://www.hbc.com/hbcheritage/history/blanket/ I just got one as a wedding gift, and had one as a kid. They are so warm and heavy!

    – hot water bottles. Your best friend ever.

    – a Onesie. I have a red one from Aerie. I like to mutter a Family Guy line everytime I wear it, “THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE A BEAR!”

    – Bootie slippers. Fuzzy slippers are great, but boots made entirely out of slipper material? Peeerfect. Lots of stores (The Gap, The Bay, Aerie, etc etc) carry them come fall.

    – I agree with a previous posters suggestion…cook with your oven. The oven will suprisingly heat up your space by 2-5 degrees.

    Other than that, drink lots of hot tea and wear some sweaters.

    I think fabric upholstery on the walls could work. But that can get quite expensive, and it depends if the owner/landlord would allow you to do things like that.

  14. the make your own faux Tapestry is an idea too, I did something similar to cover up an ugly wall at my wedding venue, and it is super easy, also on the in between days you can take a sash or something and tie it in the middle to expose some of the beautiful wall beneath, but not all of it as it would defeat the purpose. I also recommend LOTS of warm beverages, and of course Irish coffee. There is a reason everyone trapped in the mountains in the movies carries a flask, and it isn’t because they are heavy drinkers.

  15. Also, instead of just a heating pad for the bed at night, you can get full-on heated mattress pads (I just got one from Amazon but haven’t tried it out yet).

  16. if that’s your place tapestries would be amazing.

    but there are a few other things you can do.

    buy one of these: https://amzn.to/31Zqawm it’s not really a space heater. it’s like a warming air purifier & it uses very little energy. anyway, i heated a 700 sq ft place w/ it. i can’t say enough good things about it it’s super safe & works really well.

    i used to live in a drafty victorian w/ a ton of windows & my heating bill go up over $200 even keeping it at 65. i got this thing & it paid for itself in a month. even when it’s working it’s cool to the touch. & unlike most space heaters, the heat really spreads & you don’t get a weird smell. safe for babies & pets. no fire risk & it has a thermostat so it will turn off & on while you’re asleep

    another thing to do is buy hot water bottles (you know the red kind that are sometimes sold at drug stores for enemas? gross, yes, but they are perfect for this use. put hot water in 1 or 2 & place them under the blankets at the foot of your bed. you’ll be toasty

  17. This is a super idea, I’m going to check out home depot for this board and price it out for my bedroom – could make an interesting piece of art on that cold blank wall. I am not a builder DIY type so I never would have even known this stuff exists

  18. Such good ideas!

    The idea about covering up the top of the curtains is a great one, I have heavy curtains but I never thought of them stealing my heat, brilliant! Also the home made wall hangings, glad to hear others have tried it and it works out ok, I’m not much of a quilter but there’s always room to learn.

    My home isn’t the castle, but it sure feels like it on some winter days.

  19. You could make window quilts. Also caulk the outside of the windows (I know the landlord should be the one doing this, but how many actually do?). Keep an electric blanket on the couch and a heated mattress pad in the bed. Thoroughly check the walls/trim on the inside for cracks and holes where the cold air can get in, you can caulk those too.

    • If you’re going to caulk a home you don’t own, be sure you know what you’re doing and you do it well. Use clear caulk and stick to places like window frames. We had some tenants who inexplicably caulked closets and baseboards that weren’t even on exterior walls. They made a mess and it took me many, many hours to remove when they moved out. If they had legitimate concerns about warmth, I would have happily done the job myself rather than deal with their disastrous work later.

      Sorry, but as a landlord I always get a little nervous when I see comments on OBH that advocate for major, irreversible changes to homes that you don’t own yourself!

  20. I only have slight embellishments on what others have said.

    * HUMIDFY. Cold air is dry air. Dry air means that the moisture in your skin evaporates into the air. Even when you’re not sweating.

    *Pets. If you’re of a mindset to let them on the furniture: then by all means let them on the furniture. Winter is the time to encourage the velcro in your beast. I use my pyr as a foot warmer when I’m seated and snuggle against his back at night. He’s very nice (if improbably large) on a lap.

    * I hate taking care of floor coverings (see Great Pyrenees, above), but you don’t want to lose the heat you have to the no-man’s land under the house. Rugs are good. If you have carpeting, rugs on top of carpeting are extra good.

    * If you’re making your own heating pads, and don’t mind a little up-front tedium, sew some channels in them. It keeps the grain more evenly distributed. The sewing doesn’t have to be pretty. A thrifted pillowcase is good. You’re not going to fill the whole pillowcase–you’re just going to leave the extra fabric attached to fold over it in case it gets too hot.

    * If you’re going from room to room with your friend the heater, shut the door.

    * Actually, shut the door anyway. Because you will heat the room too.

    * An electric heater doesn’t have to be super dangerous. Look for radiant oil ones. They’re pretty robust, and you won’t have a heating element jammed against something if it does tip or scoot. They frequently have little castors, so that if you’re traveling around the house with yours, it’s that much easier.

    • Weird, I’ve found the opposite on the wet vs dry! In rainy Vancouver I was always chilly at the low of 0 degrees C and had to have showers or baths to warm up when I got home from work. Yet in insanely dry (dry like “ow, my skin!” and 4 inch zaps from the light switch) Yellowknife I’m toasty warm at -40 (C and F).

      Love the pet advice, so true, snuggle up. 🙂

      • I agree with the wet = cold. As well as really unhealthy — not good for breathing problems etc. As a kid, I grew up in a very cold, damp house – a pretty common problem in NZ – and as soon as my folks got a dehumidifier, it takes the chill off and stops the mouldy linen/crying windows thing. Also, I second blankets! I am such a blanket fiend. And I taught my dogs to be cuddly … in the middle of a southern NZ winter, it comes in handy!

  21. Aside from all the previous mentions, here are a couple of my favourite winter survival suggestions (Regina, SK here, prepping for a frozen prairie winter):
    1. Stock tea, hot chocolate, cider, whatever does it for you. Also get thick mugs. They hold the heat best and you can warm your hands while you warm your insides.
    2. If you have a heating vent in your bathroom, keep your bathroom door closed even when not in use to keep the heat in that small space.
    3. Down comforters. So amazingly toasty and you can change the cover on them to redecorate.
    4. If at all possible, move your bed away from the cold wall, at least a bit. Don’t put your sofa right in front of the big window (unless, like us, you don’t have an option, then get blankets).
    5. Don’t sit still too long. Even if it’s just getting up to get a drink, the longer you’re stationary the colder you’ll feel.

      • I’m soon moving from Yellowknife to Saskatoon and am excited about the “short”, “warm” winters. 😀

        Also, much like camping, make sure you have fresh shirts and fresh socks. Sweaty clothes make you chilly! And if you accidentally dry things in the dryer for too long and then roll around in them right after, I won’t be one to judge….

  22. A small dog. Nothing like a warm dog belly on your feet on a cold night.

    Also drink lots of warm drinks. I pretty much live on hot teas and soups in winter to keep warm.

    A nice warm/hot bath before bed, then I get dried quickly and leap under the blankets before I have a chance to get cold again. As long as I keep my hair dry I am toasty warm under the sheets.

    Get a nice big European pillow, I think they are called, to lean on if sitting up reading in bed, it will help keep your back off of the wall and they are super cosy in a home made polar fleece cover.

    I know they are a bit of a joke but have you thought about a snuggie? I am a huge fan of throw rugs and am forever dragging my quilt out to snuggle under when watching tv, my husband jokes he’s going to get me a snuggie one of these days.

  23. I know I’m generally repeating what everyone else has said, but I definitely recommend the following (as currently living in a Michigan basement apartment)
    -Specially designed heat-blocking curtains. We bought a lovely dark blue one for a very reasonable price and strung it across a doorway to block a GIANT draft from a back door. We strung a cheap shower rod across the top of the door frame and hung it up. The temperature went up at least 15 or more degrees!
    -Plush robe/fuzzy socks/snuggie/–generally as much clothing as you can stand! I used to go into work with thin gloves on back in Indiana, so there are no lengths I’m not prepared to go.
    -We bought a tiny ceramic space heater. When combined with thermal curtain, it worked like a dream.
    -Definitely stove top cooking. I was a beef stock making machine last winter–that stuff can simmer for up to 15 hours, so your stove gives off lovely heat AND I got delicious beef stock.
    -Giant stock of tea/hot chocolate/coffee. An electric kettle has been great for that, but stove top would do double duty I suppose!
    -Shutting doors between rooms as often as possible. I find that it keeps some ambient warmth trapped.
    -Good set of soft flannel sheets or warm sleepwear
    -and I use clay heat packs for extra spot warmth (they also sell those little chemical packet hand and shoe warmers–they work! I used to use them).

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