Houseplants

You’ve deposited your first and last month’s rent, and the landlord has turned over the keys.

Now might feel like the ideal time to decorate.

But before you go all HGTV, make sure you mind your Ps and Qs.

Some lease agreements severely restrict a tenant’s ability to change a unit’s interior, while others ignore the issue all together. So how does a renter know exactly what can and can’t be done when it comes to changing colors, hanging artwork or even adding lighting?

“Check with your landlord, refer to your lease because it really is a case-by-case scenario,” says Dave Oatridge, a property manager with Hometown Property Management Services. The company oversees hundreds of apartments, row homes and single-family houses across Lancaster County. “My stock line for applicants or even existing tenants is always to ‘use reasonable discretion.’ ”

Even getting too ambitious with wall hangings — with all the holes and potential drywall damage — could cost a renter money for repairs when it’s time to move. And Oatridge’s properties rarely allow painting, with the exception of a couple of pre-approved colors.

Get too crazy, and the landlord can bill for repairs or withhold part of the security deposit later.

That doesn’t mean would-be home decorators can’t use creativity to sass up a sad space.

Some landlords will allow — and even welcome — upgrades undertaken at a renter’s expense if they improve the property in the long-term.

Ask first to find out if the owner requires changes like new faucets or lights to be installed by their licensed contractors. And the renter and landlord should hash out whether any improvements made will remain in place after the tenant leaves. Getting that agreement in writing is “a very good way for the tenant to protect themselves when they move out,” Oatridge says.

With all that in mind, here is a range of decorating ideas that can help renters feel more at home in a new home.


Go green

Create an oasis with a grouping of plants, or incorporate them architecturally. A freestanding vertical garden, with shelves and a rod for hanging baskets, can double as a screen to define separate spaces. It only takes one or two small nails to hang light wire baskets, which add dimension to walls and provide a non-floor option for small planters. Don’t have a green thumb? Opt for succulents, which require little water and do just fine in low light. For extra protection, keep a drip pan under any area being watered routinely.


Swap cabinet pulls

New hardware is a relatively inexpensive way to modernize a kitchen or bathroom (98 cents and up at Home Depot). Changing the shape or switching a finish from brushed nickel to on-trend bronze can make cabinets look newer. Similar-sized pulls will often work with existing screws. Longer, bar-style pulls may be easier for older residents to grasp than traditional knobs, but they typically require two screws per pull. Check with the landlord before drilling into cabinetry. If in doubt about whether a landlord will accept your preferred style, keep the pulls that came with the unit and swap them back in when it’s time to move.


Peel and stick all over

Peel-and-stick wallpaper is ideal for introducing bright colors or patterns to a small space. There’s no messy glue to pull off paint or drywall at removal, and it’s safe enough that many colleges allow students to decorate their rooms with it. An extra bonus: Some brands are reusable, as long as the renter keeps the backing to reapply before moving to a new room or a new home.

Decals, likewise, are easy to apply and remove. They come in a variety of looks, from NFL logos to sweet florals. Custom designs can also be ordered. Peel-and-stick flooring comes in carpet, tile and wood-look options. It must be applied on top of a hard surface, and could be a great solution to cover old, cracked tiles. A landlord most likely won’t want it on top of hardwoods, though. Adhesive-backed flooring is not reusable, so renters should check with the landlord to find out if they’ll need to remove it before vacating a unit or if they can leave it for the next occupant.


Cover that ceiling

Have a dreaded popcorn finish on the ceiling, or worse, discoloration from old water leaks? Steal a page from outdoor design and cover either with fabric. While some decorators have used cut fabric to drape walls — stapling draped panels directly to the top edges of walls — renters can use stands to deploy sails. Picture the crisscrossing fabric triangles restaurants have introduced to shade outdoor diners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Large shade sails are readily available online, or measure for a smaller space then head to the craft store. After the fabric is cut to size, fold over any rough edges and use a hot glue gun to create a hem. Secure your sail to high posts (weighted in a planter filled with cement or heavy rocks) or a bracket added to existing furniture (such as a floor-to-ceiling bookcase). This look works best in rooms with high ceilings, which allow the fabric to sag just a bit and still keep the room passable.


Splurge on an electric fireplace

While televisions get top billing in many modern living rooms, an electronic fireplace provides a warmer focal point. The flames, which offer a purely visual effect in electric models, can be turned on without heating a room. But when you want warmth, a typical electric unit can produce enough heat to warm a 400-square-foot room, according to a manufacturers group.

Versions with mantels start around $400 on Wayfair.com, though there are plenty of wall-mounted options for less. Neither version requires a vent or special outlet, but a stand-alone also allows renters to avoid drilling holes that may need to be patched later.

Direct Energy estimates a 1,500-watt unit — with the same energy demands as a large window air conditioner — costs about 18 cents per hour to run with all settings on high.

In an older apartment or home, renters should check with the landlord to ensure that existing electrical systems are sufficient.