photo of a stylish apartment interior with wallpaper

Fixing the design flaws of an older apartment might be easier than you think.

With 16 years in New York behind me — all while living in charming, cozy and old rentals — I’ve dealt with my share of apartment design problems. There was the pink tile/toilet/sink/tub combo, the appliances that predated my birth by a solid decade, the crooked floors that imparted a cruise-ship vibe, the layers upon layers of paint. I’ve learned that you can fight these nasty features, or have fun with them — ideally through temporary solutions that won’t jeopardize getting back that security deposit. Here are a few tips from design experts and veteran renters.

Problem: Bathroom Desperate for an Update

Other than renovating, there’s little you can do to truly fix an old bathroom. Ideas are endless for intrepid DIY-ers (among them are these nice upgrades to cabinets and these temporary solutions for the floor), but you may be surprised by the power of just keeping things really tidy and focusing on the right details. This is where thinking like a home stager will help. Kyra Frankel, principal with White Space Staging and Design in Brooklyn, uses this motto: “Work with it, not against it.”

photo of bathroom storage containers

In the bathroom, she says, “clear out any clutter around the sink, fill a soap dispenser and put out a candle, and get some nice white towels and a bath mat.” Frankel also pays attention to the lighting and opts for incandescent bulbs with a warmth rating of somewhere between 2500 and 3000 lumens. “They’re softer than CFLs and LEDs, and the lighting is more flattering — not too yellow, not too blue.”

To create a more spa-like atmosphere with whatever you have, Sue Gross Rapp of All Rapped Up Interior Rearrangements suggests choosing white over colors for things like shower curtains, trays (for items that must be left out in the open) and storage cabinets (which she recommends, if you have room).

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Problem: Kitchen Needs Help

In the kitchen, these undershelf baskets are my favorite for maximizing storage and getting things off the counters (to make way for a pretty fruit-filled bowl, of course!). What you do keep in sight looks best out of packaging and in glass jars or other simple containers. And for the floor, consider an inexpensive rug or runner (those with patterns are best, as they will mask inevitable stains). If you are desperate for cabinet space — and especially if it will help you get things off the counter — you can’t go wrong with the shallow Pax wardrobe from Ikea, either in or near your kitchen.

Problem: Drab Walls and Ceilings

photo of a dining table near elegant wallpaper

Temporary wallpaper is a designer favorite for adding a quick dose of style — and, when necessary, covering up minor flaws. (Image courtesy Tempaper Designs.)

As apartments turn over, they typically get repainted — but whether it’s done well is another story. Quite often, the same paint gets applied to the walls and ceiling, but with a slight contrast on one surface, since a lighter, brighter white helps make a place look more polished. Another problem you may encounter is damaged, over-patched walls. Sue Gross Rapp says that flat wall finishes will hide flaws best, but another thing to consider is a temporary wall covering. Freelance designer Malika Lewis recommends Tempaper Chinoiserie. “It goes up just as easily as it comes down,” she says, “and adds a nice element to the room.”

Problem: Unsightly Old Pipes and Radiators

photo of an NYC apartment steam pipe wrapped with sisal rope

Interior decorator Alec Holland wrapped his heat pipe with sisal and offers a how-to with helpful tips on his blog.

Peeling paint is just a given in old places, especially on radiators and heat pipes. Sue Gross Rapp’s quick and temporary fix on pipes is sisal rope wrapped in a bold pattern. For radiators, custom covers are worth it for the long term, but if you only plan on staying in your place for a short while, you might consider furniture that can be repurposed later. Reclaimed wood planks with hairpin legs (like this) will draw attention away from the radiator now, and can be used as a console table, or retrofitted with new legs to create a bench, in your next place.

Problem: Sloping Floors

photo of a room featuring the Hyde wall-mounted cabinet from CB2

The Hyde cabinet from CB2 is one of many wall-mounted storage pieces that won’t draw attention to your sloping floors. (Image courtesy CB2.)

The older the building, the more likely you’ll see sloping floors. The quickest fix is taking a $2 package of shims from the hardware store around your apartment and propping up various legs and bases. With any new furniture, consider wall-mountable pieces. My favorite, versatile recommendations are the Container Store’s Elfa wall system and the Hyde cabinet from CB2.

Problem: Apartment Feels Like a Rental, Not a Home

It may seem counterintuitive — after all, you may only be there for a year or two — but it’s worth taking some time to settle in as if you’ll stay in your apartment for the long haul. To make even a temporary place feel more homey, Kyra Frankel suggests making better use of your wall space. “So often, I see the perimeter of a space taken up by furniture,” she says. “People can be so afraid of installing things on the wall. It’s intimidating, but it can make a room look a lot bigger and elevate the overall look. She recommends installing window treatments, using wall-mounted bookshelves, and hanging mirrors to reflect any natural light. “These simple efforts will create a warm space and visually add square footage,” she says. A comfortable conversation area will also do wonders for making things feel like home, adds Sue Gross Rapp: “Arrange it so people can face each other and easily be heard. Have tables within easy reach, and define your area by grounding it with an area rug.”

A Final Tip: Ask Permission

On one hand, you may find out your landlord has a list of limitations that could jeopardize you seeing your security deposit. But you may also be surprised to learn that you’ll be reimbursed for any lasting improvements. My husband and I were able to get our current landlord to foot the bill of a pretty decent kitchen and bath remodel — one of the many reasons why we’re still in our apartment 10 years later.

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