How to Decorate a Rental Apartment From Scratch on a Budget

When you move into a new apartment with nothing – not even a mattress – turning the empty space into a home can be a challenge. Enter: Homepolish. A savvy new DC resident turned to the online interior design company for help after she signed the lease on her one-bedroom rental. She was paired with Homepolish interior designer Shannon Smith who created a welcoming urban oasis completely from scratch — and all on a $5,000 budget. We talked to Shannon to find out how she did it, and she shared her secrets on everything from how to strategize your design to how to allocate your budget. Keep reading to learn exactly how to create your dream apartment, no matter how small the space or how tight the budget.

POPSUGAR: Where should someone start decorating when they move into a new place and have nothing?

Shannon Smith: Start with the staple pieces. You're going to need a place to sit and a place to sleep, at the very least. If you're unsure of the direction you'd like to go with the design of your space, stick with a neutral palette to start off with. If you choose large neutral pieces to start with, you can add in texture and color with art and accessories!

PS: Any strategies for planning out the design of an empty apartment?

SS: As a designer, I am a very aesthetically driven person, but in an empty apartment, you really need to focus on form over function. Try to imagine how you would like the space to make you feel: do you want a bold and colorful expression of your personality or do you want a calm and soothing haven in which to come home from work? Once you have an idea of these things, you're on your way! Choose the large anchor pieces first and build slowly around those, adding in texture and color as you see fit.

PS: When every dollar counts, where is it worth splurging?

SS: I always recommend spending the largest portion of your budget on the pieces you use most. Do you love lounging in front of the TV and binge-watching Netflix? Make sure you invest in a quality and comfortable sofa. Do you love entertaining and hosting dinner parties? Buy a quality dining table with comfortable chairs.

PS: Conversely, what pieces should you save on?

SS: Objects and pillows. There are so many great shops for decorative pieces at a great price (like HomeGoods), and there are endless Etsy shops that sell beautiful cushion covers. Just make sure to invest in the down inserts, and your pillows will look more luxe!

Laura Metzler

PS: What were the best and worst parts of decorating this apartment?
SS: The most challenging part was probably a tie between the smaller budget and the fact that it is a rental apartment. In an ideal world, I would have painted the wooden trim and doors, and swapped out the ceiling fixtures for something bold and fun. I think I'm the most proud of the way we added and layered textures in the space without adding color, and it still feels cozy and luxe.

PS: Do you have any favorite places to shop for affordable furniture and decor?

SS: HomeGoods, for sure. Etsy for vintage finds and quirky art prints. One Kings Lane is always a safe bet for furniture (and alternatively, Joss & Main for inexpensive pieces as well). Scour Craigslist, Krrb, and Chairish for unique steals if you're looking for a great bargain!

PS: How can you make a new home feel cozy and warm when you're on a budget that limits how much you can buy?

SS: I am a firm believer that you don't need a lot of stuff to make your space feel finished. If you consider these three things — texture, color, and scale — you can make any space feel cozy. Add texture with area rugs, drapery, vintage pieces, or natural fibers. Layer color in your space to add depth, even if it's neutral. I always try to choose three colors – a light color, a dark color, and something in between – and scatter them throughout the space. Finally, go big or go home. Large art pieces, leaning floor mirrors, and big area rugs accentuate the height of the ceilings or the width of a room. If you are worried about living in a small space, focus particularly on this tip as it will usually make your space feel larger.

PS: Any parting wisdom for those tackling an entire apartment from scratch?

SS: It's hard to design an entire empty space at one time. It's never going to happen in a weekend. Don't stress about adding to your space slowly until you have a space that you truly love.