What You Really Need For Your First Apartment

Image: David Maloney via Flickr Creative Commons

Image: David Maloney via Flickr Creative Commons

I lived in seven different apartments between college and my 30th birthday.  Yes, SEVEN.  There was the apartment in Boston with the elderly Italian landlord who insisted we pay our rent in cash each month, and pretended to not understand English when we asked her to call an exterminator to handle a mouse problem.  There was the apartment in Brooklyn where the hipster neighbors decided to raise chickens, and each morning at 5 a.m. I would be woken up by the rooster (I think there was a Sex and the City episode where something similar happened).  Finally, there was the apartment in Manhattan with a bedroom so tiny I had to walk sideways between my bed and the dresser.  Oh, to be young again!

Yet for all the years of packing and unpacking, of lugging my precious belongings all over the Eastern Seaboard, of scraping together enough cash for a security deposit, I really wouldn’t change a thing.  I lived in two beautiful, glittering cities filled with energy and opportunity.  I met so many great, interesting people through roommates and friends and friends of roommates.  I traveled.  I tried new things.  I learned to cook.  I learned to be a grown-up, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.   

Whether you’re a young person leaving your parent’s house for the first time, or you’re older and starting fresh, your first apartment is special.  It’s probably not your dream home, and you don’t plan to stay forever.  Regardless, it’s important to make it yours, for however long that may be. With a small space, and an even smaller budget, it’s still possible to create a home that’s functional, comfortable, and stylish.  Here are four key take-aways from my twenties, a.k.a. Apartment Living 101:

  1. If you have a little money to spend, make it a priority to purchase a quality living room set (or at least a sofa) and a comfortable mattress.  These items will last several years, and you’ll use them every day.  A nice living room set goes a long way towards making your space feel pulled-together and like a grown-ass adult lives there.  And a comfortable bed is always a great investment.
  2. Personalize your space with easily reversible changes.  After all, you will be moving at some point!  In a place with a high cost of living especially, you could be moving about every two years (leases are typically 2 years, and then the rent increases...hence my vagabond lifestyle). Take it from me: DON’T PAINT YOUR WALLS.*  This will be a HUGE headache when you move out.  YUUUGE.  I once lost part of a security deposit because I ran out of time furiously trying to paint over my light blue bedroom the night before moving out. Three coats of white paint and the blue was still peeking through in some places.  All while trying to maneuver around piles of moving boxes and not get paint on the floor.  The most irritating part of it all was that I was moving OUT of a place, and had to spend money on Kilz and white paint and rollers when I could’ve been putting that money towards my new apartment.  At least Home Depot has those cute, but useless painter’s hats.  If I had known those jerk landlords were gonna charge me anyway, I would’ve just left the blue paint (celtic gray, actually--quite nice) as is.  So: don’t paint your walls, unless there is a special circumstance that I explain at the end of this post.  End rant. Instead of painting, try switching out items like cabinet and drawer hardware to things that are more modern and stylish and less “1980s clearance bin.”  Landlords sure love to buy the cheapest, ugliest hardware, vertical blinds, and sconces, am I right?  Buy some reasonably priced hardware and light fixtures that you love, remove the existing pieces, and install yours.  Remember to save the existing hardware to re-install when you move out, if the landlord asks you to.  These seemingly small changes have a big impact--you’ll see!  With your select quality furniture pieces (see above), fresh light fixtures, window treatments, and new cabinet/drawer hardware, your space will feel like home without requiring a lot of time or money to get the apartment back to the way you found it.  Much less messy and time consuming than painting your walls. 
  3. Leave the hand-me-downs for small items like cookware, dishes and small furniture items.  Pyrex casserole dishes and cast iron skillets are passed down through the generations for good reason: they are extremely durable and generally awesome.  Similarly, small appliances such as blenders and microwaves are great items to pick up on Craiglist or Freecycle (without having to worry about bed bugs). For “hard” furniture such as end tables, coffee tables, kitchen chairs, and night stands, try to find pieces that are of the same scale and general proportions.  While hand-me-downs and yard-sale finds for these items are great, they can make your space feel disjointed if they are totally different sizes and styles. A fresh coat of paint or stain on these items will make them feel like they are part of a matching set, even if they’re not.  

With a little pluck and some elbow grease, your first apartment will truly feel like home.  And when you’re ready to pack up and move, you won’t be making extra work for yourself.  You got this!  


*In some instances, painting the walls is allowed (I’m being so bossy right now, I know).  For example, if you’re renting from someone you know well, and you talk it over with him or her, they may be open to new wall colors, and may even pay for it.  Otherwise, painting walls in a place you rent and don’t own is generally not a good idea (IMHO).  If you really can’t resist and NEED to paint something, opt for one or two accent walls only.  And the lighter the color, the easier it will be to paint over.