Published on September 2, 2019

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Photography by Sean Litchfield; Graphic by Madeline Montoya

I never intended to move 12 times in 12 years. With each new apartment since I left my parents’ place for college, I thought I had found my home. But thanks to a few international jaunts (three, to be exact) and a roster of roommates, I ended up packing and unpacking a lot more boxes than I had planned.

If it’s true that there’s a lesson to draw from every life experience, I should have a master’s degree in relocating (and, by association, decorating) by now. But I didn’t get it right the first time and I made a ton of mistakes along the way. Moving into my twelfth apartment this month, I decided to reflect on my rental journey. Here are the nine biggest slipups I made—and what I learned from them. 

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apartment door decorations New Room Challenge Archives · Savvy Home Photography by Sean Litchfield

The Mistake: Buying Everything From One Store

For my first three apartments in Montreal, I schlepped the same stuff from place to place: a Verner Panton Illumesa table I inherited from my grandmother, a tulip table, a set of four shell chairs I bought off Craigslist, and a whole lot of IKEA. Not just IKEA furniture, but rugs, pillows, kitchenware, bedding, and even art. Despite my prized mid-century pieces in the mix, each rental still felt like a showroom.

The Lesson: Try not to buy more than three pieces from the same retailer. Your space will feel more personal and layered when items are from different sources.

The Mistake: Leaving a Fully Furnished Rental as Is

My fourth and fifth rentals, respectively, were fully furnished homes I moved into when I studied abroad in Australia. The first was owned by two college professors in their 60s. I shared it with three roommates from my hometown. Everyone who came to our house was baffled—it did not look like it belonged to four 22-year-olds. The second was an apartment by the beach that had barely any furniture in it. My bedroom only had a bed (no frame!) and one sad nightstand—and it stayed that way until I left. 

The Lesson: Personalizing a rental doesn’t have to involve replacing furniture. Bedding, pillows, and little accent pieces can go a long way in making a temporary place feel like home.

The Mistake: Thinking a Coat of Paint Fixes Everything

I moved once more in Australia, into a Victorian cottage not far from the beach. (My sixth home, if you’re counting.) The previous owners had eccentric taste. The walls were blue, orange, and green. The floors were paint-splattered plywood, Pollock style. There were no doors on the kitchen cabinets. The bathroom walls were corrugated iron. We promptly painted everything: the walls a stark white, and the floors and kitchen cabinets a high-gloss black. It looked 100 times better, but it wasn’t functional. The corrugated iron in the bathroom started rusting (even through the paint), and the open storage in the kitchen collected dust at an alarming speed. 

The Lesson: Paint can cure a lot of visual ailments, but sometimes, a little more elbow grease is required to make a place as practical as it is stylish.

The Mistake: Bringing Home Too Many Vintage Pieces

I started from scratch in my seventh apartment. I had just moved back to Canada with no furniture left to my name. I was also 25 and operating on a very small budget. Luckily, I inherited a sofa and a couple of other pieces from my parents, but I had an empty two-bedroom place to furnish. This is when I discovered estate sales. I snapped up $100 brass bookcases and $40 Chippendale chairs. I’d go in and grab vases, art, and whatever else I could find in an effort to complete my space. The result: It looked like an 80-year-old’s home. 

The Lesson: Vintage finds are great, but they need to be offset with more contemporary pieces to make them feel fresh.

The Mistake: Purchasing a Fake Moroccan Rug

My seventh spot was also the place where I decided to invest in a fake Moroccan rug. The style was extremely popular at the time, and I couldn’t afford the real deal. It lasted me through two homes, but it shed everywhere. I was picking up fist-size dust balls daily.

The Lesson: Some trends are either worth investing in or forgoing altogether. If you are dead set on buying a replica, pay attention to quality.

The Mistake: Ignoring My Balconies

I actually made this error twice, in my third and eighth apartments. Both had two big, beautiful outdoor spaces with tons of potential for barbecues and summer lounging. Both sat empty for a whole year because I refused to spend my hard-earned money on decorating them.

The Lesson: Buying outdoor furniture is an annoying expense (especially in cities where the summers are short), but it’s 100 percent worth it for the few months of fresh air and vitamin D.

The Mistake: Ordering Custom Shades Online

By my ninth apartment, my first “adult” home, I had things pretty figured out in the decorating department. I bought a ton of new furniture and I did a lot of online shopping. (I wanted options.) All was going smoothly until I ordered custom window shades online. They arrived a few inches too short, and I had to get on the tip of my toes to pull the extremely short cord to roll them down. Did I mention the quality was terrible?

The Lesson: Some things (especially custom things) are better bought in-store (or at least seen in person) before purchasing. 

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Photography by Sean Litchfield

The Mistake: Waiting Too Long to Decorate

My tenth apartment was my first New York rental. Although I had moved some furniture across the border into my tiny 280-square-foot studio, I still needed a few additional pieces to finish it off: a sofa, a rug, and a dresser (with lots of storage space!). For the first eight months, I did nothing. I was working long hours and on the rare occasion I was actually home, I sat on my bed, my stuff piled up around me. When I finally pulled the trigger and purchased the few missing pieces, I finally felt like I had my life together. One month later, a note was slipped under my door: My landlord had decided to sell and my lease would not be renewed.

The Lesson: Don’t put off buying big-ticket items that impact your comfort. Taking your time with art and accessories is one thing, but spending the better part of a year without a sofa is quite another.

The Mistake: Getting a White Rug

I brought over the (brand-new) furniture from my last place to my eleventh apartment, another studio in NYC’s East Village but added an off-white rug to brighten up the dark floors and kitchen cabinets. It looked great—for the first few months. But after a few wine spills and footsteps in dirty shoes, it was all but ruined. 

The Lesson: Darker, textured rugs do better in high-traffic areas. If you really want to go light, invest in a high-quality piece that isn’t made from viscose (which, I later learned, stains easily) and be prepared to pay for professional cleaning regularly.

Discover more decorating lessons:
One Open-Plan Living Room, Four Different Layouts
I’ve Moved 11 Times in 10 Years, and This Rental Essential Has Been My Saving Grace
The Under-$100 Target Purchase That Extended the Life of My Rug by Years

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