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After six months locked down in a 500-square-foot second-floor apartment with a 2-year-old bouncing off the walls and a second son on the way, my boyfriend and I were at the end of our collective tether. We’d bought our flat the week before Brexit in 2016, when we were carefree and foolish, believing that a minuscule second bedroom meant there was “room to grow.” As soon as we had our first son, Grey, we realized we’d made a mistake. What’s more, due to the tumultuous years following our first-time property buy, our flat never recovered its sale price. The year prior to the pandemic, we’d tidied up for more than 120 viewings while trying to sell and had become absolutely exhausted by the withdrawn offers (three; one on the day of completion) and seeing our real-estate agents more than our friends and family. 

Sofa, Argos; Artwork, Babak Ganjei; Pouf, Soho Home; Coffee Table, Tom Dixon; Rug, La Redoute.

So what do you do when the investment everyone encouraged you to make in property renders you stuck in a home that doesn’t work for your family? No one really mentions the dreaded words negative equity or tells you that you could lose the entire stake you’ve put into an apartment (aka five years of savings). What’s more, we weren’t just stuck in our home, as our inability to move meant we were also stuck professionally. My boyfriend had stayed a year too long in a job he had grown out of, and I was churning out commercial work to keep my earnings high instead of mixing in more creatively satisfying but less-well-paid jobs, all to ensure we would pass muster with the mortgage underwriters. We were unhappy at home and at work, and something just had to give.

Dining Chairs, Conran Shop; Table, West Elm; Wall Hanging, Slowdown Studio; Curtains, Dune Elm; Cabinet IKEA; Ceramics, Matches.

After much deliberation, we made the financially questionable decision to find a tenant for our flat and look to rent a family home further out of the city. The move has drained away some of our nest egg (our current rent is about 40% more with three times the square footage), and it sometimes feels we’re getting further and further away from ever owning our own house. But it has also been wonderful to release that cork on the progression of our life.

Bookshelf, IKEA; Baskets, Habitat.

The new rental house is in Chiswick, a particularly verdant and villagey area of West London. It’s a four-bedroom Victorian with character features that have seen better days. We knew we would be there for the next two years minimum, and I was adamant that it was going to feel like a home not a stopgap. Of course, that has meant I’ve had to decorate on a shoestring without any hired help and with as many hacks as possible. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Invest in Your Happiness

Bedding, Piglet In Bed; Pillow Fabric, The Cloth Shop; Table Lamp, Anglepoise; Side Table, Hay; Bed Frame, John Lewis; Paint, Farrow & Ball.

Since sharing my decor journey on my Instagram account, I’ve received countless messages from people shocked that I would bother putting so much time and effort into a rental. “You’re only increasing the value of someone else’s property” is the most common comment, and I think that attitude is deeply entrenched, at least in the U.K. Whether I’m repairing a botched fireplace (colored sealant £4.49; about $6) or removing paint from glass doors (three hard hours), the general consensus is that I must be mad.

I look at it from a different angle. If you are going to spend years of your life living in a space, making it beautiful is a question of self-care and an investment in your mental health. While I’ve tried to ensure that any money I’ve spent won’t be left behind if we move on, when it comes to my time, I’m happy to give it, because I truly believe my family will feel the benefit.

I’ve also used the house as a place to practice new skills. For example, I made some fitted cabinets for the guest room and through the process learned so much, which I will take on to my own home one day. The cost was less than a carpentry course, and nothing beats practical experience when you’re trying to master new techniques. 

A Little Goes a Long Way

Ceiling Light, Argos; Wallpaper, Etsy; Rug and Lamp, Oka; Bedding, John Lewis.

Our agreement with our landlord allows us to decorate on the proviso that we return the property to its initial condition—walls painted white with any picture-hook holes filled—before we leave. I would always encourage any renter to try to enter into the same agreement. Even if you never get around to hanging a single frame, it at least gives you the potential to put your mark on your living space. 

If it were my own home, every room would be painted or wallpapered. But that’s a lot of money to put out, especially when you know it has to be returned to rental white. So instead I’ve gone for smaller-scale color fueled by tester pots. In the master bedroom I brightened up the picture rail, doorframe, and headboard in a cool pink (two pots costing £10 total; about $14). In Grey’s room I added a small rainbow mural (£25, or roughly $35, for five pots) and used peelable decals. In the guest room I painted a feature wall and covered another with temporary wallpaper. The cost of returning these walls to white will be minimal, but the impact the color has is huge.

Prioritize the Portable

Chairs, Etsy; Cabinet, Mustard; Mirror, John Lewis; Art, Folk Interiors and Fine Little Day; Vase and Vessel, Casa Gitane.

Being really clear about where your budget should go is definitely important. I’ll never spend money on media units or wardrobes again—at least not until I know I’m in my forever home—because from experience I’ve found that what works in one rental doesn’t fit in the next. Storage is tricky and beds can be too big or too small. But there is always space for infinitely adaptable pieces like quality lamps, lighting fixtures, artwork, and chairs—they are worth investing in and bring your personality to a room.

Acceptance Is Key

Mirror Trim, MadHoney; Art, Alexandria Coe.

In any and every rental, there will be things that you hate that you can’t change. For us it’s the gray-silver carpet that covers all the bedrooms and the stairs—any renter will recognize the shimmery chenille-style texture of this particular floor covering. If I owned this house, I would tear it up on the same day I got the keys—I wouldn’t even wait to clink my glass of champagne. But I don’t. So instead of letting it get to me every day, I’ve incorporated it into my color schemes where I could, then bought huge rugs to cover it where I couldn’t.

Be Realistic With Kids in the Mix

Bed and Dresser, Stokke Home; Duvet, H&M; Rug, Etsy; Print, Woodism; Curtains, John Lewis.

The month before I gave birth, I was a blur of nesting because I knew that as soon as my younger son, Ripley, arrived, everything would inevitably slow to a comatose pace. The most important thing when decorating with children around is child care. You simply cannot climb ladders, use power tools, or mix turpentine with a baby or a toddler trying to “help with his screwdriver.”

Bookshelf, Dune Elm.

My advice is to get as much done as is humanly possible before the baby comes. I’m not saying your house has to be perfect for a new little one’s arrival—Ripley still doesn’t have a cot or a nursery, so clearly I have some work to do. But don’t put things off thinking you’ll have plenty of time during your maternity leave, because that is just not realistic. 

Now that I have the baby in arms, my expectations of what I can achieve are much lower, and if I know I have a hands-on project, I will book in with a friend or a babysitter to come and support me. It’s tempting to think you can do things while the baby naps, but you always get interrupted at the worst possible point. The newborn stage is, however, great for research—you have lots of time while feeding and rocking to hunt out new brands and designers online. I’ve done a serious amount of mood boarding while breastfeeding.

Keep Perspective

This is more of a philosophical/mental health consideration, but it’s something that has helped me shape my expectations of the finished results in my “just for now” home. In 2018 I released my debut book, Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life, which focused on comparison and the impact of digital sharing on our life satisfaction. During the COVID experience, we have shared our living spaces to a greater extent than ever, and the standards set for what a home should look like can feel totally unobtainable. 

I’m a 37-year-old mother of two and I’m still renting. It has definitely been hard to square that reality with my expectations of where I thought I would be at this stage of my life. At times, watching on Instagram as seemingly all my peers as well as women who are years younger than me decorate beautiful houses they own has made me feel both envious and like my 15 years of grafting haven’t amounted to much. I’m still very much hustling to make a beautiful home, doing it all myself and obviously making mistakes along the way—and that can sometimes feel crappy when you see the perfect finish of professionally decorated spaces that seemingly everyone else can afford. But I hope my experience shows you can make your living space special even if you don’t own it or have a big budget to make improvements.

Home ownership for our generation is just very different. My parents bought our family home in their early 20s, but for so many of us, even if we are modestly successful, that is out of reach in most cities. No matter how it seems on social media, I know I’m not the only middle-aged parent renting a house with terrible carpets IRL. While my rental may have some criminally bad building work and be costing me a couple of limbs on a monthly basis, it’s also an airy, sunny home that my family and I are so lucky to be living in. And that deserves my time and energy, no matter whose name is on the deed.

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