How to Make a Rental Feel Like Home

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Lately, I’ve been asking the questions about what it means to be “home.” What is that sense of home we all long for? I can confidently say that it’s more than just the place where you lay your head at night.

Home is often wrongly associated with the house a person grew up in. It’s easy to get sentimental and lose yourself inside the memories of a simpler time. For some, childhood memories feel like something that cannot be replicated, so we hold onto the past. For others, those memories aren’t quite as joyful, and home hurts.

red couch with cute gray throw pillows

Too often I catch myself saying, “I’m heading home” after a long day of work. Then I’ll turn around and say the same thing when I’m going to visit my parents after extended periods of not seeing them. To be honest, I can’t pinpoint what home is anymore. 

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been grieving the loss of home, without attempting to find it. I moved a thousand miles away, married the love of my life, and yet I look back on a singular place as if nothing could ever live up to the standards it set.

Is it something that we can find? What does it mean to be home? Is it merely where our loved ones are located? I’m not talking about home as a physical residence. I’m talking about the feeling of home. That feeling of safety, comfort, and relaxation that we feel when we know we are home. A word people commonly use to describe this feeling is “homey”.

In an effort to understand this phenomenon, I reached out to Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist and creator of Design with Science. This organization combines cognitive science with interior design to tailor residences to meet the psychological needs of individuals.

I started off the conversation by asking Augustin to discuss home, or rather, the sense of home. She stated, “home is a place where people feel they can really be themselves and live how they want to live. It’s a place where we come to decompress and mentally refresh.”

This concept seems simple, but how does that relate to a person’s surroundings?

“A person wants to surround themselves with the nonverbal messages that they link to themselves.”

In essence, a home should mirror the individuality of the inhabitant. Even if it is subconscious, human beings want to surround themselves with things that remind them of who they are as a person.

How important is this individuality?

“We want our physical environments to be a reflection of ourselves,” Augustin says. “If they don’t, we experience stress. If you can’t modify things about your world, it can increase the tension even more.”

Ikea does an annual research survey that recently yielded some startling results.

smoothie and cute wall decor

In cities, only 35% of people feel at home in the space that they live in. 1 out of every 3 people they interviewed actually said they feel more comfortable in places outside of their home.

Based on their research, they concluded that there are five factors that define the feeling of home. These factors are privacy, security, comfort, ownership, and belonging.

Ownership touches on the concept of control. Our ability to control our environment goes beyond a piece of paper that says we own something. Rental properties don’t typically allow for many areas of control, so it can be somewhat restricting.

Privacy frees people to be themselves. It allows us to take off our mask and disconnect from the outside world.

Security is the idea of safety. A home should always feel safe, whether that means safe from external threats or internal dismay.

Belonging pertains to both inside and outside of the home. A person who feels that they belong in their environment instantly feels more relaxed.

Lastly, comfort is (possibly) the most important of the factors that Ikea describes. Comfort is the culmination of all of the elements. It’s letting go of that breath you were holding in all day. It’s kicking off your shoes and relaxing. It’s hugging your loved ones.

When it comes to renting, the inability to modify or make cosmetic changes is a significant reason why people have a hard time feeling “at home”. Renters are in a particularly tough spot because they cannot modify their space. As a renter myself, I sought to find out how to make an apartment feel like home.

Based on information I’ve received from Augustin, here are some tips for making your new space feel more like home. 

Unpack

Whether you moved in last week or moved in a year ago, this is something you should have already done. Unpacking promotes a sense of permanency. Even if a situation isn’t permanent, living life with one foot out the door is a weight you shouldn’t have to carry.

Pictures

Hanging pictures is one of the best ways to establish a congenial atmosphere. It is a method of directly surrounding yourself with comfort. Hang pictures of the family or friends that you miss, hang photos of the places you’ve been, hang pictures of activities you like to do, or hang pictures of the memories you’ve made. All of these things stimulate positive responses in the brain and remind you of who you are.

Scents

energizing and uplifting soy blend scented candle

For me personally, smells are the strongest form of nostalgia. When a familiar scent hits my nose, I can’t help but recall memories. Perhaps it’s a perfume that reminds me of an old friend or a lingering odor that reminds me of an old building. My wife doesn’t always understand why I enjoy certain smells so much. In an instant, the slightest smell can send me back in time.

Surround yourself with smells you love. It’s an underappreciated way to make your home feel more like home.

painting a white wallColors

Although renters rarely have the freedom to make changes in their living space, landlords sometimes allow renters to paint the walls. At the very minimum, you need to get verbal permission from a landlord. If you want to protect yourself adequately, you should try to get written permission for your records.

Another way to personalize a space is by decorating and designing based on specific color palettes. White walls are a popular option because of the versatility. One year you might like navy decor, but next year you might prefer green. White walls make it easy to play with the color palettes without too much work.

Furniture

Furnishing your home can be expensive, but it can also be a positive memory reinforcement. Augustin gave the example of a couch. Perhaps your grandmother had an extremely lovely couch. She might have even called it a Chesterfield or a Davenport. If you can afford it, try and find a similar sofa or furniture set. Check out how to furnish an apartment on a budget.

Arrangement

Something renters can always control is their furniture arrangement. Perhaps this doesn’t hold the nostalgic weight of the furniture itself, but at least it grants a certain level of ownership. If you feel like swapping out your entire living room set, try rearranging it first. It might save you a lot of money.

Another aspect of arrangement is space. Some people may prefer wide-open rooms vs. enclosed rooms.

Light

Renters can customize their space by choosing the amount of lighting that’s present. This can be controlled with lamps, light switches, and windows.

Another key in light is the curtains. Most renters are allowed to update or install their own curtains.

Temperature Control

Barring some dire financial situation, there’s no need for you to be too cold or too hot in your own home. Crank that heat up if you’re chilly!

Decorate, Decorate, Decorate

throw pillow with a deer image

If your space should be a reflection of your personality, then you need to decorate accordingly. Augustin said that you can usually understand parts of a person by what their home looks like. If a house has a more traditional style, that person is probably more traditional in life. If a home has an edgier design, that person is probably more prone to taking risks.

With that being said, design your home how you want to live. Surround yourself with things you enjoy and things that bring you peace. If you like reading, display books on shelves as decoration. If you enjoy the outdoors, consider cabin-style decorations. If you love movies, create a space conducive to watching movies.

The decoration possibilities are limitless. Here are some expert apartment decorating tips that you can do yourself.

Install a Security System

When you’re in your home, you want to feel safe. Security systems aren’t perfect protection, but they can ease anxieties. The trend in smart home technology is rapidly increasing, so everybody has access to home security.

Get Involved

If you aren’t feeling comfortable at home, perhaps it has to do with your social life. Although home is primarily correlated to a house, a neighborhood or a town can play a significant role. Try getting more involved in the community or social groups. Go out and meet some new people. Relationships are imperative for the joy of home.

Partner Up with Your Spouse

If you and your spouse have different tastes when it comes to decorations, perhaps you need to break out the DIY. It’s common to find that you and your spouse can’t agree on individual pieces for your house. Rather than choosing something to buy, make something yourself!

Try teaming up and refinishing a piece of older furniture. Even if you don’t know anything about refinishing furniture, you can find tons of helpful hints online. Working to build or refinish some furniture for your house is a great way to make it feel like home. By working together, you get that sense of accomplishment when something is finished. No matter what the project is, you can agree because you did it together. That is the type of memory you want to surround yourself with when you’re establishing your home.

Add Some Plant Life

house plant next to a stack of books

Adding a plant to an area adds life to an area. As long as you remember to take care of the plant, it can have several benefits for your home. First of all, it’s an excellent visual piece. The right plant can promote a feeling of peace. Second, plants can improve the the indoor air quality in your home. According to Ambius, plants can reduce carbon dioxide levels, increase humidity, and eliminate other airborne pollutants.

I can’t write this without acknowledging the fact that home looks and feels different to everybody. But home is something that everybody has, whether they know it or not. The best advice would be to surround yourself with yourself.

Every decision you make in your home should be made with the goal of forming positive associations. Having a home you are comfortable in can have significant psychological and physical benefits. Stresses can be exacerbated when we come home to a space we don’t love.

I hope you find that piece of home you’ve been searching for.

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