Decorating a rental – how to make a rented home your own according to the celebrity designer Robert Novogratz

One half of celebrity design duo the Novogratz, LA and New York-based interiors guru Robert Novogratz offers his top tips for decorating a rental, without risking your deposit

a rental house decorated by the novogratz
(Image credit: Novogratz)

Decorating a rental can be frustrating. In most cases, you won't be able to make any permanent changes such as painting walls. If you've only got a plain white, characterless space to start with, it can feel difficult to give a property a sense of your personality that makes it into a home. 

It might feel a bit futile, whether you're decorating an apartment or a house, but don't let that get in the way of creating a space you find joy in living in, no matter how long your tenancy is. 

'It doesn't matter how long you live somewhere, whether it's a month or two years, treat it like it's your home' says bicoastal interior designer Robert Novogratz. One half of celebrity design duo The Novogratz, Robert has spent his fair share of time turning rental properties into cozy homes. Not only as an owner, but as a renter too. 

While undertaking work on their historic home in Manhattan, the Novogratz spent two years in a rental home. Yet, this didn't mean forgoing their charming, eclectic signature style. 

The walls may have remained white and the floors unchanged, but the Novogratz furnished this space to maximum effect. 

Livingetc caught up with Robert to talk all things rental, and get his advice on ways to bring a designer style to a rented property without forfeiting your deposit when it comes time to move out. 

8 ideas for decorating a rental without losing your deposit

"It doesn't matter how long you live somewhere, whether it's a month or two years, treat it like it's your home."

Robert Novogratz

1. Use rugs over problem flooring 

a living room in a rental house

(Image credit: Novogratz)

'No matter how long you're renting a property for, I'd avoid doing anything too permanent,' says Robert. 'I particularly wouldn't mess with floors, as that's entering into the construction side of things.' 

That being said, you don't have to live with terrible floors blighting your day-to-day life. Rugs can be a savior when it comes to covering up unwanted flooring, while also helping to make sense of your room spatially. They're especially useful as an open plan apartment living room idea, helping to group and demarcate areas. 

Follow Robert's lead in the design of the living room of his Bedford rental, opting for as large a rug as possible. Big rugs can be expensive, but there are ways to source an area rug that won't break the bank. Seek out materials like jute and sisal which are more budget-friendly. They also are much easier to roll up, move and store if you need to.  

2. Embellish the lighting scheme 

a small home office in a rental house

(Image credit: Novogratz)

Lighting set-ups in rentals tend to be, at best, basic. But how can you elevate a lighting scheme as a renter?

'Sometimes it's easier to not mess with things like electrical systems,' Robert says. 'You can still make a rental's lighting scheme much better, just by bringing in lamps.' 

'Whenever you're buying something for a rental, I always think it's a good idea to think about whether you can just unplug it and take it with you.' 

Table lamps and floor lamps are easy to add into your rooms, but wall lights with external wires are also simple to install if you've got permission to drill into walls. 

However, in the right circumstances, and with the right landlord, you may be able to change pendant lights or wall lights for your own. Easy fit pendant shades are simpler to switch out, and bear in mind that for any non-essential electrical work, you're more likely to have to foot the bill. On the plus side, you can say goodbye to standard, boring light fittings and embrace some exciting lighting trends in your space. 

'If you do change light fixtures, keep in mind you'll likely need to store the old ones in your rental somewhere so they can be put back up when it's time to move out,' Robert advises. 

3. Ask about a fresh coat of white paint

a white dining room in a new york rental home

(Image credit: Novogratz)

If you have an open dialogue with your landlord, or the leasing company, it's worth asking whether you can re-decorate before you move in. A lot of landlords won't be up for you going wild with color and wallpaper, but it's reasonable to allow you to give the property a little revamp so that it's fresh and new to move into. 

'We always used to say a fresh coat of white paint is the best way there is to make a home feel new again,' says Robert. 'That, along with a bit of spring cleaning, can really make you feel at home.' 

If there is any wiggle room, you might be able to specify the best white paint for decorating your rental. While it might not seem like a lot, any deviation from pure, brilliant white will help give the space a bit more character to build on with your furnishings. 

4. Take temporary measures 

a hallway with temporary wallpaper

(Image credit: Novogratz)

Some brilliant products around nowadays offer ways of getting creative with walls, floors and more, but without making permanent changes to your space. 'At the Novogratz (opens in new tab), we've worked with Tempaper (opens in new tab) on a collection of temporary wallpaper. It's basically peel-and-stick wallpaper idea in modern designs,' Robert explains. 

'When we moved into a rental for two years while we were building a home, we used it. When we finally moved out, we were pretty amazed at how easy it came off, and it didn't damage the walls at all. There are similar designs you can get for kitchen floors and tiles nowadays too.' 

While you might not get quite as much choice when using temporary wallpaper, there are some brilliant designs around that can make your wallpaper dreams come to life in a rental. To create more of a mural, you could even use individual decals, applied in a design that plays out over a feature wall. 

5. Pay attention to what you can change

a teen's bedroom in a rental house

(Image credit: Novogratz)

Even if your rental apartment or home is furnished, there are always things you can add that will make a difference, so give your attention to these areas. 'It's the little touches,' says Robert, 'that make a real difference. Even in a furnished apartment, you can always change the bedding, so think of that as step one in turning a rental from basic to a boutique hotel feel.' 

Textiles are a brilliant way to add personality to your space. They allow for the introduction of color, pattern and texture, plus they take up quite a lot of real estate in many rooms, so they're valuable in bringing character when you're working with a white box. 

Our top tip for decorating a rental bedroom? Go bold with your choices. A vibrant color, statement pattern or intricate texture can pull focus, which might be exactly what you need if you only have white walls. 

Opting for an extreme version of a bedroom trend can make a pared-back room feel purposeful. The Novogratz have a new bedding collection, available via Next (opens in new tab), which has some great takes on this idea.  

6. Bring life to walls by hanging art

a bold artwork in the hallway of a white walled rental house

(Image credit: Novogratz)

Though their rental Brownstone in New York was far from characterless, the Novogratz introduced artwork in every space to dress up white walls and bring their eclectic sense of style to the property. 

'In our last rental, the nails were already in place in the walls, so we just hung the artwork straight away,' Robert recalls. 

However, if you want to add artwork to a rental, it's worth checking in with your landlord before putting nails in walls. It's likely to be permitted, but you may have to fill holes and put the walls right before moving out to protect your deposit. 

When it comes to how to hang a picture, there are no-nail solutions, such as Commands strips, which you buy from Amazon (opens in new tab). But, be wary to use enough to support the weight of your artworks, especially when they have a real glass insert, as it's not unknown for wall décor to come crashing down when under-supported with this type of temporary adhesive strip.  

7. Prioritize affordable design and modular furniture

a hallway in a rental house

(Image credit: Novogratz)

'If you're going to spend any money on furniture for a rental, you need to make sure it's something that you can take with you, and will fit your next place,' suggests Robert. 

His suggestion? Investing in affordable, modular designs. By opting for modular modern living room furniture ideas, you can choose pieces that fill your space comfortably, but also have the added benefit of being easy to adapt, and get in and out of your space - particularly important if you live in a walk-up apartment. 

'If space is tight, also think about furniture that serves multiple uses too. Think how your dining table can best work as a work-from-home desk, and any other clever furniture that has a secondary use,' he says. This is particularly important when you have a space that needs to work for more than just living, such as if you're setting up an apartment office in your rental, for example. 

8. Use plants as home decor 

a rental house decorated by the novogratz

(Image credit: Novogratz)

'Plants are some of the best décor choices you can make for a rental,' Robert says. 'They're such an easy way to bring some soul into a space.' 

As well as choosing types of houseplants that suit the different rooms in your home, also consider how you can display them. Open shelving, sideboards and coffee tables can all benefit from green touches, but there are also design ideas such as plant stands which offer an affordable feature piece for houseplants. 

The best houseplants should have quite the effect on your space, not only giving your rental that all-important connection to nature (especially if you don't have a garden), but help improve your mood and productivity too. 

Can I decorate a rental? 

Before considering any redecorating, get written permission from your landlord –don't just rely on conversations, as though technically this should be binding, it's harder to prove. As part of this agreement, layout who is responsible for paying for the work. If it's necessary, most landlords will take responsibility for painting, but you may be limited in the paint they're willing to use to paint the property. 

Landlords, in general, should allow for minor alterations that are deemed reasonable, but don't take this for granted. Any rental may need to be returned to the state they were in before you took up residence, meaning all changes have to be undone. Decorating then, without the skills to put it this back, is unwise, and could leave you with a seriously dented deposit or handyman bills to pay at the end of the tenancy. 

'Whenever we've rented, I've always filmed the itinerary walkthrough with the landlord, with permission of course,' says Robert. 'This is the best way to make sure there are no disputes on changes that have been made or damage when you come to move out.'

Hugh Metcalf
Hugh Metcalf

Hugh is the Deputy Editor of Livingetc.com. From working on a number of home, design and property publications and websites, including Grand Designs, ICON and specialist kitchen and bathroom magazines, Hugh has developed a passion for modern architecture, impactful interiors and green homes. Whether moonlighting as an interior decorator for private clients or renovating the Victorian terrace in Essex where he lives (DIYing as much of the work as possible), you’ll find that Hugh has an overarching fondness for luxurious minimalism, abstract shapes and all things beige. He’s just finished a kitchen and garden renovation, and has eyes set on a bathroom makeover for 2022.