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The Art of Turning Your Rental into Entertainment Gold

Mallory Fletchall, a social media content creator specializing in design, knows that her Instagram audience loves a good before and after. Over the past five years, the Brooklyn resident behind Reserve Home has chronicled the upgrades she’s made to two past spaces, amassing more than 320,000 followers along the way. Now, Fletchall is moving into a new apartment, which she plans to customize to fit her “modern Parisian meets English country” aesthetic.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Marianne Sides, who relocated from Apex, N.C., to New York in February 2021, also keeps busy by revamping her prewar apartment unit to highlight some of its original charm. She frequently shares home makeovers and styling tutorials with her Instagram audience of more than 50,000.

Sides and Fletchall have constructed full-time careers that largely revolve around maintaining an aesthetically pleasing living space. But, like many New Yorkers, both women rent their apartments. That can make it tricky when it comes to making updates.

“I always think of the changes I make to my home as investments in my business,” says Sides, who, with the permission of her landlord, has painted her apartment, installed molding and new light fixtures, and hung wallpaper, among other changes.

Imani Keal of Imani at Home says rental apartments — such as her own studio in D.C.’s Glover Park — fill a specific niche on social media. Keal considers the extensive (and expensive) home repairs by established design influencers who own their residences to be more aspirational than realistic. “They’re talking about things that you can do three to five years from now, five to seven years from now. I’m talking about DIYs and changes that you can make this weekend,” she says. Keal has made several changes to her apartment, including adding wallpaper, changing all the light fixtures and switching out the faucet in her bathroom.

The soothing, sensuous appeal of watching people restock their kitchens

Sides, Fletchall and Keal have benefited from landlords who are open to them making reversible, renter-friendly changes. And, in Fletchall’s case, a written proposal and careful planning led to a past landlord agreeing to the equivalent of three months of free rent in exchange for Fletchall revamping the apartment’s kitchen on her own dime. Tweaks included installing new cabinet fronts from Semihandmade, adding a faux marble laminate countertop with overhang from Ikea and swapping upper cabinetry for a custom plywood solution. “Our kitchen hadn’t been updated since the ’80s, so while it was absolutely fine, it wasn’t a space I was keen to show off,” Fletchall says. “That all changed, of course, with the revamp.”

Keal encountered a similar situation with her faucet upgrade. “When I talked to my landlord about what I wanted to change, they offered to do the work,” she says. “They were great, and it only took a few hours. Plus, I saved a bunch of money.”

All three women agree that, even if they weren’t making money by sharing their homes on social media, they would still be customizing their rental spaces. “My apartment would constantly be changing and evolving,” Keal says. “I get bored, and this is fun for me. I enjoy changing my apartment.”We asked Keal, Sides and Fletchall what rental upgrades they would suggest prioritizing. Here are their recommendations.Tackle lighting. Sides suggests replacing basic ceiling fixtures with decorative medallion and statement lighting. Or use a simple hook to hang a plug-in light in a corner. “Run the wire along the ceiling and down the wall inside a cord cover painted to match your walls,” she says. Sconces can also be styled to appear as if they are hard-wired to the wall with one simple trick, Sides says. Hang them with small nails, then place battery-operated puck lights inside the lampshades. You can use a remote control to turn them on and off.

Install faux molding. Sides and Fletchall have both added renter-friendly wall moldings to their units. “My love affair with molding started when we moved into our first Brooklyn apartment in 2015,” Fletchall says. “The living room had beautiful picture-frame moldings that we were able to mimic throughout the rest of the apartment after a few years of living in the space.” Fletchall uses a nail gun to install the molding and fills the holes with caulk. This allows for easy removal and eliminates the residue you might get from using mounting tape or Velcro hanging strips.

Take advantage of peel-and-stick options. “Cover outdated floors with patterned tile or faux hardwoods, create a statement wall with wallpaper and update a backsplash with peel-and-stick marble tile,” Sides says, adding that she particularly likes the classic look of a black-and-white checkered pattern. She is also a fan of neutrals; in her current rental, she opted for a beige printed tile.

Consider contact paper. “Use contact paper to change the look of kitchen flooring, counters, backsplash and even cabinets,” Fletchall says. “I’ve been loving more traditional styles, … especially in muted colors.”

Add a fireplace surround. Both Sides and Fletchall have installed faux mantels in their spaces. Sides purchased a free-standing one on Facebook Marketplace. “I wanted a fireplace that could feel authentic to the original building, something with a European or vintage aesthetic with lots of unique character,” she says. “I centered the wall molding around the fireplace, so it felt almost built in to our apartment, and added the insert inside with some battery-operated candles to give it a cozy feel.”

Switch out cabinet hardware. Updating the knobs and pulls on drawers and cabinets is a simple but effective way to refresh your space. And when it comes to selecting a style, “I would suggest sticking with what you love,” Fletchall says. “If you tend to gravitate towards gold, go with unlacquered brass knobs and pulls.” She says not to be afraid of mixing metals or knob styles. Just don’t lose track of anything you’ll need to put back before you move out.

Hang large-scale artwork. “If you’ve got a really strict landlord who prohibits paint, opt for large-scale art to add interest to your walls,” Keal says. “You can use discrete hooks and Command strips to hang.” Keal is particularly drawn to textured pieces, which are easy to DIY using spackling paste or joint compound and any paint colors you like. “It’s relatively cheap and truly allows you to experiment with texture,” she says.

Invest in Roman shades. “Take down those horrific plastic blinds and invest a little bit of money into Roman shades instead,” Keal says. Plus, “using fabric shades allows you to add another layer of texture or color to your space.”



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