4 Pro Designers Share Their Best Tricks for Improving a Rental Kitchen

updated Apr 26, 2019
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(Image credit: Natalie Grasso)

Rental apartment kitchens. If those three words bring to mind visions of blonde wood contractor-grade cabinets, dingy appliances, janky electric stoves, and a lighting situation that would not be out of place in a horror movie, then … yeah, you’re thinking of the right thing.

But wait! Rental kitchens don’t have to stay that way. I know because savvy, stylish people told me so, and I believe them. Here four designers share the smartest ways to make your rental kitchen feel more like home.

(Image credit: Anita Jeerage)

4 Designers on the Best Upgrades for a Rental Kitchen

1. Orlando Soria of Homepolish

Orlando serves as the West Coast Creative Director for Homepolish. He also works as an interior designer and writer. You can read more about his work on Homepolish Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles.

My sister and her wife did a great upgrade on their San Francisco rental kitchen. It previously had dated 80s pine cabinetry that they hand-sanded and painted a sophisticated grey. It made their kitchen look so much more polished and modern.

In my first LA apartment, the linoleum flooring in the kitchen was tattered and worn. So I applied a fresh new floor of peel-and-stick linoleum tiles in a super-cute white and black stripe pattern.

Other ideas:

  • Changing out hardware on cabinetry can be an easy way to add some quick sophistication.
  • If your fridge is a little dated, a fun way to make it feel fresh is to add a patterned removable wallpaper. (I love the Keith Haring patterns from Blik wallpaper.)
  • People often overestimate how hard is is to change lighting, but many rentals have awful overhead dome lights, or worse, large boxy fluorescents. Changing these out for an inexpensive yet tasteful ceiling mount makes all the difference in the world.
  • Changing out faucets and other hardware can make a huge difference in how you feel about your kitchen. You touch these things every day, and having nice ones greatly improves the experience of using your kitchen.
  • Floor rugs. You think you don’t need them, but they make a kitchen feel so much cozier. Buy the kind you can stick in the wash so they don’t get disgusting.

2. Holly Becker of Decor8

Holly runs the award-winning blog Decor8. She also works as a stylist for clients, books, and magazines, and has written a series of best-selling Decorate books that are available in nearly 20 languages worldwide. Her fourth book will release in September 2016. She lives in Hannover, Germany.

When I rented one of my first apartments in Boston, it had dark wood paneling, vinyl flooring that was at least 50 years old, dark brown cabinets, and a horrible light fixture in the center of the room. I was single, going to college at night, working full-time during the day, and 23 years old. I saw potential, though; signed the lease; and moved in with plans to renovate my kitchen for under $500.

After first getting written permission from my landlord, I worked with my friend to:

  • Fill in the grooves of the paneling with plaster and rented an electric sander to smooth the seams after the plaster had dried. This was before painted white paneling was considered a good look in the kitchen. I painted the paneling four times!
  • I primed, sanded, and painted the cabinets in white, too.
  • I added new and very affordable brass hardware.
  • My friend, a carpenter, then helped me lay a very inexpensive plank wood floor. The kitchen wasn’t very large, but it was an eat-in kitchen so I wanted to still put some money into the flooring. Because labor was free, and we used wood planks he had leftover in his shed from previous jobs, the costs were kept very low.

In the end, the new walls, flooring, and refreshed cabinetry made the ugly countertops seem to disappear, along with the old white “seen better days” oven and sink.

If you’re in a rental and your landlord doesn’t mind, you might not be able to install new flooring (throw rugs work wonders!), but you may be able to paint the walls and cabinets. New hardware, especially something clean and modern, can make the whole kitchen look great.

(Image credit: Adrienne Breaux)

3. Jonathan Lo of of Happy Mundane and J3 Productions

Jonathan is the editor behind the lifestyle blog Happy Mundane. He’s been featured in numerous publications and was also a judge for the 2013 Room for Color contest on Apartment Therapy. He lives in Irvine, CA. Follow him @happymundane.

I think there are a lot of little things you can do to make a rented space your own.

  • If you’re allowed to paint, that’s probably the easiest and quickest way to transform a kitchen. Switch up the cabinet colors or paint the walls.
  • There are also lots of new removable and paintable wallpapers that have some great faux textures and some very convincing woodgrains.
  • Consider using unconventional items for additional storage, like a vintage breadbox to hide away small items or spices and condiments, or a unique vase to put your cooking utensils. Little decorative touches like that will give your rental kitchen more personality and make it not feel so generic.
  • If your kitchen is lacking work surfaces, a rolling cart is a great way to give you added counter space.

4. Jacquelyn Clark of Lark and Linen Interior Design

Jacquelyn is a Toronto-based interior designer, blogger, and former editor for Style Me Pretty Living.

I fully subscribe to the belief that when you move in to a new space, you need to make it your own, no matter how long you plan on staying. So long as it’s done tastefully and respectfully, I encourage you to:

  • Paint those dingy walls.
  • Replace that leaky faucet.
  • Get rid of mismatched cabinet hardware!
  • Since lighting is a huge factor when it comes to a well-designed space, also consider switching out that builder-grade flush light for something a little more your style, while you’re at it.

It’s amazing the difference those small details make. Although you may need to put it all back how you found it once you leave, your home is supposed to be your sanctuary, and I truly believe that really getting in there and making it your own is essential.

Thanks so much, Orlando, Holly, Jonathan, and Jacqueline!

More Ways to Amp Up Your Rental Kitchen from The Kitchn