How to Make That Boring Rental House {or Military Housing} Into a Home: Top 10 Decorating Tips

This is the article that I wrote for SpouseBuzz.com (they’re the spouse side of Military.com).  You can read that article {here}.   They made a few tweaks and changes, so I thought it would be interesting to publish the original draft.  Plus, the pictures are all linked to my previous posts, so if you want to read more about my master bathroom, for example, just click on that picture and the browser will open a new window with my master bathroom redo post.  While this article was geared towards military spouses, it’s also perfectly applicable to those of us living in rental houses.  I hope you find it to be full of lots of good ideas!  ~Christy

PS If you’re about to move, then Amy’s post on Moving Tips & Tricks (and How to Stay Sane!)  and the follow up to that post is a must read!

 tips tricks decorating rental military house housing

I love to decorate, which is convenient since my husband is constantly giving me new material, courtesy of the military!  We move every 2-3 years, and every time we unpack boxes, boxes and more boxes in our newest home, I am faced with decorating challenges.  Here are a few of my favorite ideas for making a plain vanilla rental house (or on-post/base housing) into a comfortable and welcoming home.

1.  Paint–Rooms, Doors, or All of the Above! 

I know, it’s an obvious one, but it has to be at the top of every decorating list, because painting is an easy, fast, and inexpensive way to personalize your space.  You should ask your landlord about permission to paint before you sign the lease, and I usually have the specifics written into the lease so it’s clear what I’m allowed to do.  Sometimes, especially in military housing, you have to paint the room back to white or off-white when you move, unless the incoming family accepts your paint choices.  Since rules on painting vary from installation to installation, be sure to get that spelled out ahead of time. And if you have to paint everything back to boring old white, be sure to use one of these PaintSticks–they will save you HOURS.

If your landlord is uncomfortable about giving you permission to paint, you might have to make your case to him or her.  Since a couple of rooms in our last home were featured in magazines (see them here and here), I’m not shy about showing those to a potential landlord (See this?  I could do great things in your house!).  Even if you don’t have a magazine feature in your portfolio (yet!), you can still make this trick work for you.  Give the landlord a few paint chips for approval, and let him or her know what you plan to do to improve the space.  Sticking to lighter, more neutral tones will always work in your favor, especially if you are going to be covering over a more dated color.  What landlord wouldn’t want you paint over that bright red dining room with a light gray?  If you are painting to cover over something atrocious (say, a shockingly bright child’s room), be sure to ask the landlord to reimburse you for the cost of the paint.  In this case, you are increasing the value of the home by painting it and saving him or her the work they’d have to do anyway.

Quick tip:  Remember that you can paint almost anything.  Maybe the front door needs a shot of red or aqua.  Or there’s a horrible brown tile backsplash in the kitchen (learn how to paint tile here).  Get the go-ahead and paint it!

Painted tile backsplash before and after

For the paint itself, I always use a flat finish, because I hate shiny walls and it seems to be more forgiving to novice painters.  The only time I use semi-gloss is when I’m painting trim (which I usually don’t take the time to do in a rental, unless it’s a color other than white or off-white.  Of course, I’m usually not going to be a renting a house that needs that much work, anyway!).

Quick tip:  I keep paint chips of all the colors I’ve used, labeled with the house and room I used them in.  If I love a color, I’ll use it again at the next house–why reinvent the wheel?

2.  Window Treatments Are a Must

I am always amazed at the difference window treatments make in a room.  Seriously.  They are well worth the investment, but they don’t have to be super-expensive.  Ikea, Target, HomeGoods, Amazon, and Craigslist are my favorite places to buy curtains, and they are relatively inexpensive.  Most military spouses (the ones who care about decorating–which you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this article!) have a box of window treatments that moves with them, because every house has a different number and size of windows.  You’ve probably already figured this out, but panels generally work better than valances, simply because they work on windows of differing widths.

Quick tip:  Hang the longest panels your room will allow.  That will make even a small room with a low ceiling seem larger.  

Consider making window treatments to save money.  I needed something to cover the windows and French door in my kitchen, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money.  I used burlap, thumb tacks, and jute twine and came up with these–and I made all three for under $10.  {The tutorial is here}

how to DIY burlap window valance

Window treatments are particularly important if your landlord refuses to let you paint or you don’t want to paint.  For example, the home we’re living in right now has a two-story living room.  I could get up on a scaffold and paint over that off-white color, but do I really want to?  Um, no.  So I’m using my window treatments to inject color and style into the room:

living room window treatments

See/purchase these window treatments  HERE.

Quick tip:  Use the same style of curtain rod throughout your house.  That way, when you move, even if the number of windows in a room changes, you will still have rods to match.  All of my curtain rods are black with a clear glass finial {see them here}.

3.  BYOL:  Bring-Your-Own-Lighting

You can change your lighting out even when you can’t paint.  I love to find chandeliers at flea markets and yard sales–those bright brass ones look great with a coat of colorful spray paint–and hang them everywhere in my house, especially in unexpected areas like the laundry room, closet, and pantry.

silver pink closet chandelier

If you’ve never hung a light fixture before, you really should learn.  It will save you so much money over time!  Let a friend show you how to do it, or hire an electrician to come out and give you a tutorial.  Take lots of pictures and notes, but it’s not that hard.  When it’s time to move, just replace whatever was there before (I usually label them and stick them in the attic so they don’t get damaged) and take your chandeliers with you to the next house.

I hung this chandelier in our dining room just a few weeks ago:

chandelier cosette dining room

Quick tip:  I used to shorten the chains and wires of my chandeliers so they would hang just right.  The only problem was that when we moved, I would often have to rewire the whole thing if I needed a longer chain.  Now, I simply use an S-hook to loop the chain to the correct length and use a cord cover to hide the extra.  Easy!

4.  Just Add Vinyl

Vinyl is widely available these days, and even custom orders are very inexpensive.  It’s also temporary, so it’s great for rentals.  I love to put great big house numbers on my front door:

front porch vinyl house numbers

{Available here}

In our current home, there’s a house number right next to my front door, so that would be redundant.  So I put a swirly “Welcome” on my storm door instead:

vinyl welcome on front door

Available {here}

I’ve also used a big vinyl monogram over the bed in a previous home, stuck patterned vinyl inside closets, slapped vinyl squares on the wall to make a giant calendar, and two houses ago I even used chalkboard Contact paper on the inside of my pantry doors.  It was great for shopping lists and menus!

black white chalkboard pantry

Quick tip:  When it’s time to move, warm the vinyl with a hairdryer and gently peel it away.  Go slowly and your wall will look perfect when you’re done!

5.  Don’t Neglect the Decor in Non-Typical Rooms

Just as I love to put chandeliers in unexpected areas, I also like to decorate my laundry room, pantry, closets, and other often-neglected areas.  The powder room should always get some TLC; after all, most of your guests will wind up in there at some point in time!  One of my friends put a guest book in her powder room–how fun is that?  And since the laundry room is a place where I spend WAY too much of my time, shouldn’t it make me feel happy to spend time in there?

blue white laundry room chandelier

Do you live in a climate where you’re outside for a good portion of the year?  Then take the time to decorate your porch(es).  I used inexpensive sheers from Ikea ($5 for 2 panels!) to dress up my covered back porch (see the how-to’s here).  I think it looks much nicer than the traditional table, chairs, and umbrella, and we can let the sheers hang down to keep the bugs out when we’re eating outside.

back porch sheer curtains

Quick tip:  Removing the door to a laundry room, pantry, or closet and hanging a curtain instead can make the space appear larger.  This also allows you to repurpose a closet–say as a craft area, reading nook, or mudroom drop zone.   

6.  Choose Neutrals for Furniture & Brights for Accents

By neutrals, I am talking about soft furniture–chairs, sofas, bedding–and rugs.  I have had the same white slipcovers on my living room sofa and chair for twelve years.  About once a month, I take them off and wash them, and then they’re white again.  No matter what the color of the year is, my white furniture works.  I just change out the pillows (and sometimes the wall color), and I’m good to go.  White works well if you happen to live in a house with bright walls that you can’t paint, too.   My white slipcovers have survived two toddlers and several big dogs who claimed their right to sleep on the sofa, so don’t be afraid to take the plunge!

Quick Tip:  The most inexpensive way to change the overall color of a room (after painting) is to change out the pillows and throws.  If you’re able to sew, you can make simple envelope-style slipcovers for your pillows and change them whenever you want. If you don’t sew, then I usually find inexpensive pillow covers here and here

white chair with black white neutral pillows

I’ve also painted many pieces of furniture over the years, even before chalk paint became so popular.  I love the look of white (and sometimes gray) furniture, and I think it lightens a room and makes your decor more versatile.

Quick tip:  I change the fabric on the cushions of my painted white kitchen chairs with almost every move.  This allows me to update my decor without repainting the chairs.  I spray them with Scotchguard so that they don’t get stained (see the above about children and dogs!).

7.  Use Lamps Wherever You Can

I love to put lamps in somewhat unexpected places–on my bathroom counter, on the shelves in my laundry room, in the closet, and on the kitchen counter.  Not only does light make a space feel warm and inviting, but lamps are completely portable when it’s time to move.

Quick tip:  Don’t be reluctant to buy a used lamp that comes without a shade.  You can buy a beautiful replacement shade at most of the big-box stores for $15 or under.

I’ve found some beautiful lamps at thrift stores.  A few I’ve left as-is, and a few I’ve spray-painted.  You can sometimes find plug-in wall sconces, too, and they are great for above sinks, desks, and over kitchen counters.

master bathroom built ins chandelier

Quick tip:  You can buy mini-chandeliers that plug in to the wall.  Swag them out over a reading chair, a sink, or a desk to add instant glamour.  When it’s time to move, since they’re not hardwired, just unplug them and pack!

brown aqua pink girls room chandelier

8. Embrace the Distressed Look

This is both a design philosophy and a recipe for happiness.  If you move frequently, your items will be damaged, no matter how carefully you watch over your packers and movers.  It’s just how that pesky law of averages works!  That might be why, over the years, my design sensibilities have changed to the point where chippy, vintage, industrial, distressed, rusty, and the like are my favorite decorating words.  There is no room in my style (or my home) for glossy, smooth,  or precious anymore.

When my husband retires from the military and we settle (knock wood) in one place, I will purchase new furniture–maybe–and until then the only items I am rabid about protecting are my late mother’s piano and the stained glass window from the church in which my parents were married.  Everything else is nice, but I refuse to lose sleep over it every two years when it goes away on the big truck.  You have to choose your battles, after all.

Quick tip:  If the movers have “distressed” some of your furniture, consider painting it.  My dining room set was so creatively scratched that I had to paint the entire thing–but I love how it turned out {post is here}!

dining room table chairs painted white monogram

9.  Be Prepared to Store, But Not Hoard

My goal is to get all of my boxes unpacked within two weeks of the unload, and usually by then, I know what fits and what doesn’t.  On the front end of our move, I purge things that I didn’t want to bother unpacking on the back end.  But even though I try to plan where things will go ahead of time, at the end of our unpacking period, I am usually still left with items that just won’t fit in this particular house.

moving boxes piled stacked

Quick tip:  An unbreakable rule of moving is that two houses, even if they are exact same square footage, will not hold the same amount of furniture in the same configuration.

It is what it is.  So, I used to try to get rid of everything that didn’t work in this particular house, and then I’d wind up re-purchasing the same item when I needed it in the next house.  Lately I’ve really tried to strike a balance between keeping things I need, love, and will use again, and winding up on an episode of Hoarders.  My general rules are:

  • I donate unused holiday decorations when I pack up after the fact.  If I haven’t used them in two years, they are gone (sometimes they get the axe after one year).
  • It’s okay not to ditch my sweaters if we’re spending a few years in the Deep South; however, if I haven’t worn a piece of seasonal clothing in my closet in a year, it’s outta there!
  • My kids get to have a few boxes of “memories” that we drag all over the place, no questions asked.  “Normal” people have basements, attics, garages, etc. and don’t have to throw away their childhoods; my kids should be able to do the same.
  • Some houses don’t have storage; then (and only then) it’s okay to get a storage unit.  My rule of thumb is that if it fits in my house and we can still park the cars in the garage, then we can keep it.  However, the house we’re living in now doesn’t have a basement, or attic storage, or linen closets.  When things like that happen, I call an audible and we’re allowed to rent a storage unit, or hubby can park in the driveway.  His choice.  See, I’m flexible!

10. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

In the end, you’re likely only living here temporarily, and you probably can’t turn it into your dream house in just a few years.  Nor do you want to–it’s not your house, after all.  So my final bit of advice is to do the best you can to make your house a home.  Spend some time and money to put your personal stamp on your space, but only as long as it’s enjoyable to you.  After that, just relax and enjoy the fact that if your hot water heater goes out (as mine did this afternoon), you can just pick up the phone and call someone to come and fix it.

Quick tip:  Every home you live in should help you refine your list of must-haves, so that one day, when you move into that “Forever House,” you’ll know exactly what you want and need.

PS I’ve written another post on how to decorate the bathroom in a rental house; you can see it {here}.

You can see how Amy decorated her daughter’s bedroom with all rental-friendly decor {here}.

Pink, white, and gold girl's room | 11 Magnolia Lane

 

See how we’re currently updating our new rental home kitchen here and how we created a rental-friendly dropzone/mudroom here.

DIY closet turned mudroom for renters | 11 Magnolia Lane

 

Here is an easy-to-pin graphic so you can save this post, and we’d love for you to share it if it inspired you!

 

Easy and affordable ideas to decorate and personalize your rental home {written by a military spouse}.

 

Some of the links used are affiliate links; if you purchase after clicking through one of these links, we will earn a small commission.  You won’t pay a penny more than you would have otherwise.

Happy decorating!

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Comments

  1. Hi Christy. Great ideas. When we were in the military (loooooong ago) we couldn’t do anything with base housing units, as far as painting, and decals weren’t available then. Glad to know some things have changed! Civie housing was a different story, and easier to put my own touches on. Even in the places I got to paint, the landlords never made us repaint before we left, because they liked what I had done. At that time, decorative contact paper was popular, and put to good use in many a kitchen and bath during our tours! And when we left one apartment in San Diego, other tenants were fighting over who could switch to our place! That was a big compliment!

    • Cheryl, I am absolutely hoping the same thing happens here. We don’t have to paint it back if the incoming family accepts the colors. Cross your fingers for me!

  2. Great post full of great ideas!!!

  3. Love! Love! Love your design style….would you mind letting me know where you got the fabric for that awesome pillow on the chair next to your fireplace? And also the turquoise/salmon bedding in your daughters room? Thank you!

    • Hey, Helen–Glad you like it! OK, the pillow is from Home Goods, about 6-8 months ago, so that might be hard to find now. My daughter’s bedding is from Serena & Lily and it’s the Annabel duvet cover. Hope that helps!

  4. Love the ideas! We are foreign service, but also live in rental homes and apartments. Coming up with ways to make your house a home without making major changes has been a challenge. Your ideas are great and I plan to implement a few!!

  5. I know this base! Haha! What you should do is ask someone if you can do this to the old Marne homes and then it would really show off your awesome decorating skills! You do decorate beautifully 🙂 Enjoy it there, I miss it!

    • Thanks, Kendra! I just asked them if I could paint the contractor-grade cabinets white and they said “Heck NO”, so maybe I would have had better luck in one of the soon-to-be-demolished old houses!

  6. We aren’t a military family, but are a family of 2 with a little one due any day now, and two large dogs. And we rent!! Your advice and tips and design style are always so helpful and beautiful! Thank you so much!

    • Faith–congratulations on the new baby! I’m so glad you found my tips helpful–even though we rent, we like to make sure our “nests” are nice, right?!

  7. I had a decent kitchen hutch from Walmart that got damaged in our ETS move from Texas to Indiana. And once my husband and I divorced I was left with the cast off furniture. Currently that same cabinet minus the hutch is being used as a homework station. Although it has yet to see a coat of paint, which hopefully will be next summer. But I remember as a kid many times losing items when my family had to move as well. Luckily when I left the Army I moved what few things I had myself.

    • Angela, it’s always an adventure to see what we wind up with after a military move, isn’t it? It sounds like you’re doing a good job of repurposing items to make them work for you, though. Thanks for commenting!

  8. I love the wallpaper that was in the laundry room!! Where did you find it? And what is it called?

  9. Christy,

    Love your style! I am a military spouse and my husband is actually about to come home from his year long tour overseas. I have just signed for our next home and was looking into temporary adhesive wallpaper. Have you used it? I’m interested to know if it really comes off as easy as the websites say. Any tips or tricks you can share?

    Thanks!

    • So glad he’s about to come home! That’s great news. 🙂

      I haven’t used the adhesive wallpapers, but I’ve used tons of vinyl on my walls and I think it’s made of the same material. My best advice is to use a hairdryer on it for a few seconds when you want to remove it; the adhesive will loosen and peel off without any residue. A razor blade might help you start the edge, too.

  10. I was wondering what you used to paint the counter tops and the backsplash in the kitchen?

  11. I love this article. I’m recently out of the military, but my husband is still in…so this next adventure I’ll have all kinds of time to decorate the way I’d like. I’ve been finding ways to spruce up these cookie cuter houses, and I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to write this article. Very helpful!

  12. This is our first real PCS. I mean, we moved twice before, but this one is a big one, 5000 miles away from home and our first time in base housing. I’m at a total loss, but your words have given me hope. I’m in this for the long haul, so I’m buying far too many curtain rods (so they all match) and I’m about to distress the living daylights out of my furniture. Thanks, you’ve given me hope.

  13. Hello! I was hoping you had some ideas for me! We live on base in what is called “Historic Housing.” The walls are either concrete or plaster with decades of layers of paint. Whenever I try to hang anything on the walls, I need masonry screws (which may or may not work). It has been quite the task to do ANYTHING on the walls. I’ve tried using command hooks, but the walls are so highly textured they wont stay on. Even on the flatter, less textured parts, the command hooks just won’t work (maybe it’s because of the uneven surfaces of the plaster walls?) I have some vinyl wall art that I wanted to try, but beyond that, I’m ready to give up try to hang anything. Do you have ANY ideas for my walls? (Hubs didn’t want me to paint b/c in the last Historic home on base, we had to repaint regardless of whether the next family wanted it or not). Sigh.

    • Hey, Rachel–

      If you’re in historic housing with plaster walls, then hopefully you have crown or picture molding at the top of at least some of the rooms? You can then hang your things from there using wire, like they do in art galleries. Just google it for some images of what I mean. And I’m sure you’ve already tried these, but Ooks hooks are the best for plaster applications. Good luck!

  14. Mary Abraham says:

    Hi Christy, I love your creative ideas. It looks like some of the places you lived in were actually quite nice. My dilemma is we are in a rental house that is almost 20 yrs. old and has formica cabinets in a blush color and white formica counters. I would love to up date them and was wondering if you had any ideas? Thanks, Mary

    • Hi, Mary–
      You’re right; we’ve always had really good luck with our houses, even the rentals. Sounds like your kitchen is definitely a challenge! If your landlord isn’t willing to spend the money to renovate, you can ask him/her to cover the cost of a few DIY updates. Maybe try the Rust-Oleum Counter Transformation Kit (http://amzn.to/1Qx90WV)? Or their cabinet kit? You could also cover the doors of the cabinets with shelf paper (something like this: http://amzn.to/1Qx95tK) if you don’t want to try to paint them.

      Let me know how it works out!

  15. Thank you so much for the inspiration! As a recently divorced mother of three, I had to sell my home which I had put my heart and soul into remodeling (myself, no contractors), decorating, and … well … making it our “home.”
    I’m now renting and as we all know, all afordable rentals need the kind of work that only an owner would be willing, and could afford, to put forth. This added to the depression of being a 45 yr old homemaker having to start over. I desperately needed to find a way to walk through my front door and ultimately feel comfortable in this stark, cold house. You have shown me that I can tackle this challenge!! I’m actually excited now! Thank you so much!!

    • Wendie,
      Thanks so much for writing and sharing your heart with me. We’re almost the same age and I can imagine the sadness of having to change my entire life at this stage of the game; I don’t doubt it’s been beyond difficult. I can tell from your words, though, that you are absolutely up to this task, and you can make your new rental a wonderful home for yourself and your children! Good luck and God bless!
      Christy

  16. I’m not sure if you’re still “living the lifestyle,” but I wanted to say I absolutely love this. At our last base, I was having our first child, and Pinteresting away! I was utterly distraught when they told me I couldn’t paint or change anything unless it was a frame/decal. We moved into a new home this week, and I must say you’ve given me hope! Thank you for writing this wonderfully inspirational/informational piece.

    • Hey, Krystina–

      Yes, we are still living the lifestyle, although I think I am almost over all of this moving around! I have a high schooler and the moves are getting tougher because of that.

      Thanks so very much for writing and telling me that my post helped you. Even with white walls, you can do a ton to make your space your own.
      Good luck!
      Christy

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