This California Bungalow Home Stays Cool in 550 Square Feet

Unafraid to make temporary digs their own, this couple used simple updates to maximize storage—and style—in a California rental.

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In terms of decorating, many people view rental homes as the equivalent of a hot stove burner: Don't touch it. But interior designer Brittany Stiles believes life is too short to live surrounded by colors and fixtures that grate. Experience has taught her that a few small tweaks executed with approval from the landlord can make all the difference in feeling at home.

Mini updates are all the more important in a small-space rental, where closet, cabinet, and living space are often at a premium. Brittany and her husband, Kyle Henderson, sacrificed interior square footage to gain outdoor living space when they settled on a 1930s-era bungalow with two bedrooms in the hip beachside community of Costa Mesa, California. But it was the interior's blank canvas that really sealed the deal. "It's rare to find a rental that doesn't have ugly carpet or hideous cabinets, so when I saw white walls, brown laminate flooring, white cabinets, and marble in the baths, I knew we could make it our own," Brittany says.

When a fireplace in the living room severely constrained seating options, the couple opted to remove and store the mantel. They then drywalled over the firebox opening (with their landlord's permission) to create a flush wall where the sofa now sits.

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Eschewing conventional notions about rental dos and don'ts, the couple made strategic design choices involving artwork, furniture, and storage that make the house feel larger than its footprint. They swapped out light fixtures, enlarged a patio, eliminated a fireplace, added hardware to kitchen cabinets, and hung shelves. They also put up plenty of artwork, undaunted by the wall patching they'll need to do when they move out. "If there's nothing on the walls, it's difficult for a rental property to feel like home," Brittany says. "We wanted it to feel finished."

To take advantage of California's pleasant year-round weather—and to literally add another room to the bungalow—Brittany and Kyle expanded the concrete pad of their rental's backyard patio. The result: Extra space for a sectional sofa. "When I told people I was going to do this at a rental property, they thought I was crazy," Brittany says. "But now we hang out there a lot, so the investment paid off."

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To free up space inside kitchen cabinets, Brittany hung a pot rack on the end of the peninsula. The pots are now accessible, but they also exude a farmhouse vibe that's amplified by new industrial pendant lights over the peninsula. "The lights help define the kitchen from the adjoining living room, yet their shape still makes them easy to see through," Brittany says. In a kitchen, you can personalize your rental by swapping outdated hardware for bling you love. Just hold onto the originals and put them back before you move out.

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Brittany cut an inexpensive piece of butcher-block countertop from IKEA into a pair of shelves to hold everyday dishes. She found the brackets on Etsy. "The shelves are equal parts decorative and functional, which is an important consideration in everything you do in a small space," Brittany says. "Living in a smaller home has forced us to pare down our belongings and decide what we really love and what we can live without."

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The bungalow's new corrugated exterior siding caught the couple's attention. "It was funky and fun, a little bit industrial, and had a casual but cool vibe to it," Brittany says. "It, and the landscaping, made us want to move in immediately." The homeowners can enjoy a casual meal al fresco with a bistro table for two on the patio. The small, collapsible set can easily be stored inside when needed.

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A sectional sofa bed from IKEA allows the den, which also houses Eve's crib, to serve as a guest bedroom when needed. To snare extra storage and seating, Brittany chose lidded rattan ottomans. "Even a few things out of place in a small house make it feel like a disaster," Brittany says. Install shelves up high to reinforce tall ceiling heights and gain storage.

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In fashion, horizontal stripes are hard to pull off because they often make people appear wider than they really are. But in home decor, that's an effect Brittany was eager to capitalize on. She used a striped rug to add visual interest while stretching the visual width of her narrow bath. A single neutral color on the walls and vanity make the space feel more open and airy.

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Plug-in sconce lighting frees up valuable real estate on two petite tables in the primary bedroom. Sconces like these are the plug-in variety, though the hard-wired versions can be a nice touch for homeowners familiar with electrical work. For a light look, Brittany opted for all-white bedding. "A few accent pillows finishes things off," she says. Hide clutter in a small bedroom with a bedside table that has at least one drawer.

How to Make a Rental Feel Like Home

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Embrace the chance to make a rental property your own with these tips from interior designer Brittany Stiles.

  • Rock it with rugs. Bad flooring is a given in many rental units. Brittany suggests making good use of rugs—even atop carpeting. "It's a nice way to finish the space and cover carpeting that's not super fantastic," she says. Rugs also help define living spaces, an important consideration when one room needs to serve many functions.
  • Grab some paint. Brittany was lucky this go-round because her walls were white, but a fresh coat of paint can do wonders to "own" your rental. Just don't wait! People often spend longer in a rental than they first envision so there's no time like the present—with your landlord's permission—to make it your own.
  • Look for right-size furniture. Trade in furniture that's not conducive to your rental's floor plan, either because it's overstuffed or too dinky. Can't afford new pieces? Measure rooms and shop secondhand stores for pieces that fit.
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