How to Decorate Your First Apartment

So you’ve signed a lease and are getting ready to move into your first apartment—now what? For those collegiettes who previously lived in dorm rooms, decorating several rooms of a new apartment in a way that will create a mature and comfortable living space may seem a bit daunting. As you graduate from dorms and move on to the world of apartments, keep in mind HC’s decorating tips to help ensure your new space doesn’t end up looking like a step back into your past.

Color scheme

There’s a chance your landlord will allow you to paint the walls (but many don’t—make sure you double check your lease!). Painting is a fantastic way to transform a room that you couldn’t do in a dorm. Give a room a warm feel by painting it in soft yellows or oranges, create a calm and cool look with grays and blues, or go bold with a statement wall in red or black.

To come up with the perfect color scheme for your new space, celebrity design expert Kelli Ellis, a resident interior design expert for who you might have seen as a featured designer on TLC’s Clean Sweep, HGTV’s Takeover My Makeover, or Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County, suggests going through your belongings and picking out your favorite item. Ask yourself what color or colors are in it. “Pull a color out as your bold accent, then add grey, beige or white to it and voila—instant color scheme,” Ellis advises. She says that it’s important to stick with this scheme throughout your apartment: “Each room can have its own accent, just be sure there is one color that carries throughout.”

When you have an idea of which colors you want to use for each room, consider playing around with online simulators to get an idea of what the colors you picked might look like. Sherwin-Williams has a great online tool where you can upload your own photo and virtually paint your room yourself.


In your new apartment, you’ll find that you have more space to fill than you did in a small dorm room. Sophia Zhang, a 2011 graduate, says that “if you lived in on-campus, furnished housing for your entire college experience, you’ll find yourself needing to fill a lot of space. A real bed, sofa and tables were the essentials for me.” It’s important from the get-go to look at the space you have and plan what kind of furniture you’ll need since it’s likely that you don’t have much of your own furniture already.

IKEA, west elm, Pottery Barn, HomeGoods, and of course Target are a few great places to find inexpensive yet stylish pieces. For those willing to put in a little extra effort to find chic furniture for low prices, get your thrift shop on by perusing yard sales, Goodwill, and craigslist.

“You don’t realize how much money you spend upfront to get an apartment – realtor’s fee, moving trucks (if you don’t have friends with cars), security deposit. So I had to get a bit thrifty,” says Sophia. “My first craigslist acquisition was a 50”+ brand new Samsung plasma—top of the line and it only cost $350.” Sophia also used craigslist to purchase a dining table and a couch.

However, when shopping around, make sure you don’t just go for the cheapest option available; Ellis says it’s important to look for pieces that are inexpensive and wear well.

If you find a cheap but ugly couch in your thrift shopping adventures or simply want to reuse the futon you’ve had since sophomore year, try Etsy for some unique slipcovers.

Shared spaces

You may have lots of bedroom items from your dorm you can recycle, but chances are you will be starting mostly from scratch when decorating your living room, kitchen, and bathroom. This gives you a lot of room to experiment with décor, but remember to discuss all decorating makeovers for shared spaces with your roommates beforehand!

It’s important to make sure your living room is an inviting space to congregate in. “You'll want to entertain, but realize your place will become the hangout if you let it!” Ellis says. “Staying neutral in your large pieces will allow you to add color in accessories, which can be easily changed when you get bored and need a new look.” This can be especially great for living rooms, because you can change up color combinations of pillows, drapes, and rugs whenever you want to reinvent your living space.

For a kitchen, there are lots of little touches you can add to make the space your own. “Kitchens are tricky, because most of what you see is permanent. However, I like to add temporary flare with wall decals, oversized chalkboards, clocks, and colored countertop appliances,” Ellis advises. Dali Decals and Wallies are great sites to peruse for wall decals. If you want to use a chalkboard as a statement piece, instead of buying an actual chalkboard, consider using funky chalkboard paint  instead.

When decorating a bathroom, Ellis says practicality should take priority. “Function is most important!” she says. “Does the bathroom have enough storage? Hanging space? Mirrors? Lighting?” After you determine what you need, then you can buy cute, themed items to satisfy what you’re looking for. For example, Ellis suggests that for a beach-themed bathroom, you could “add a whitewashed, tall storage cabinet and change the handles to beach glass colored handles. Add four to five beach glass embellished hooks to a wall for towels.” 

Finishing accents and lighting

To accent your walls, keep in mind that you can reuse much of what you had in your dorm room. “From college I reused some of the decorations, like picture frames and memorabilia from friends who studied abroad or from my own travels,” says Sophia. Instead of a wall plastered with posters on every inch, consider picking a few favorites and putting them in funky frames to give the room a more crisp and mature feel.

You should also consider enlarging some of your own photography to hang on your walls—a 16x20 photo poster is just $6.43 at Walmart.

Lighting plays a key aspect in the feel of your new space. Not only is it essential to brighten up a room, but it can be used for decoration as well. Ellis prefers to use plug-in pendant lighting in apartments because they help keep the floors as open as possible. “Anchor the corners of the rooms with fun lighting. Remember whatever color the pendant shade is will be the color of your room at night,” Ellis advises. “Opt for exposed bulb styles for maximum light.”

While you don’t want your new apartment to look exactly like your dorm room freshman year, that doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything from your old room. Finding creative ways to revamp items you already have and combining them with new decor will help you cut costs and create a cute new crib.