White couch with pink blanket and furry pillows

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Our 4-step guide to decorating your first apartment

With 48 apartment buildings in cities across Canada, you could say we know a thing or two about setting up your first place. From artwork to furniture to everything in between, our handy guide will help you plan what you need to decorate it just so – and make the most of your square footage (and your budget).

First apartment decorating tips 

Tiny apartment with white chairs and grey couch

Image Credit: Living March

If you’ve just signed a lease on your first apartment (yay!), you likely have a couple of months before you move in. That gives you some time to scour the Internet for decorating ideas, plan an apartment budget for all the things you’ll need, and daydream about where everything will go. The thing about apartments is, you’re generally working with a smaller footprint – and that means your choices need to be a little more thoughtful. Planning is the fun part, if not a little daunting, so take a deep breath and take the following advice to get you started.

Whether you're looking for cute apartment decorating ideas or how to decorate your apartment on a budget, this guide will help turn your first apartment into the home of your dreams.

Not ready to start thinking about décor planning just yet? Check out our tips for moving into your first apartment – from the first steps you should take to how to book your mover, we’ve thought of all the details so you don’t have to.

1. Pin it

Girl sitting in front of her laptop in her kitchen

Start by visiting some of your favourite websites and Instagram pages for inspiration and creating a vision board that captures your ideas and resources. Beware: it’s easy to lose hours of your life here. It’s totally fine if you start off lofty – this is the daydreaming part. So go ahead and pin it, revisit it and virtually decorate each room in your apartment before you jump into the real thing.

Here are a few inspiring sites to get you started:

Apartment Therapy – expert advice, shopping guides, and DIY how-to's, with a mission to show you how to make your apartment more beautiful with true-to-life tips and photos for a range of budgets. 

eyeswoon – the name kind of says it all. The design and lifestyle inspiration here will make you swoon.

My Domaine – the latest home décor trends and inspiration, all in one place.

Domino – the ultimate guide for a stylish life and home to help you discover your personal style and create a space you love.

decor8 – a colourful approach to design with lots of DIYs and tips with simplicity in mind.

The Spruce – offering practical, real-life tips and inspiration to help you create your best home. 

We also rounded up the most follow-worthy interior design Instagram accounts, including the Spruce and their top 50 Instagram accounts to follow for interior inspiration. 

And don’t forget, there’s always Houzz, Pinterest, and HGTV. Not sure what your design style is? Take this quiz to find out!

2. Plan it

Bed with white covers, pink pillow, cactus paintings

Image Credit: Aspyn Ovard

So you now have a vision board and a pretty good idea of how you want to decorate your apartment. When you’re starting from scratch, you have to take the time to really plan what you’ll need for each room. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is waiting until the last minute to buy bigger furnishings you don’t already have like a couch, bed or dining table. Some of these pieces have a 6-8 week turnaround time, which means you could be sitting on the floor watching Netflix for a while. This isn’t such a bad thing though, because it’ll give you some time to get to know your space and understand what you really need (or want). 

Plus, planning ahead gives you time to shop around, both on and offline. Try visiting some garage sales, goodwill and thrift stores to look for used furniture that you might want. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it – you might find a cute, antique wooden piece that you can slap some chalk paint on and fall in love with. Why not give it a try?

Once you have a good idea of the dimensions of each room, this checklist will help you plan everything out. We’ve also made suggestions on what to save and splurge on. 

In your bedroom: 

• Bed frame: Save. A good IKEA bedframe is all you really need. Even better? A hand-me-down.

• Mattress: Splurge. This is a big investment and you want to make sure you choose the right one. After all, we spend about 1/3 of our lives in bed and getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your well-being. 

• Duvet & pillows: Save. IKEA. IKEA. IKEA. Source a fun cover here too, or look for economical options at your favourite home stores. 

• Bedside tables and dresser: Save. No need to splurge here. From thrift stores to Kijiji to Walmart to yep, IKEA, your inexpensive options are endless.

In your living/dining room:

• Sofa: Splurge. This is that one piece that will get tons of use – and it’s also a big investment that will take centre stage in your place. Keep scale in mind and build around it. Check out stores like CB2 that cater to smaller spaces. 

• Chair: Splurge or save. If you have space for a chair, it’s a nice accent to the sofa that won’t get as much use. You also have to keep the size in mind here. 

• Tables: Save. You can find all kinds of great options in all sorts of different materials without breaking the bank.

• Area rugs: Save. You can find great rugs that are on trend at places like West Elm, Wayfair and HomeSense. 

• Shelves: Save. Adding floating shelves in any room will help keep things tidy and modernize your space while making the most of it. This is a total DIY or IKEA hack.

• Dining table & chairs: Splurge. Another investment piece that you’ll carry from place to place. If you choose to go trendy, you can also choose to “save” and plan on keeping these pieces shorter term.

Extras: 

• Lighting: Save. Create warmth, interest and a feeling of space with lamps through your apartment. It couldn’t be easier to plug right in, string up or swap out.

• Drapes: Save. There are great online resources to have custom curtains made at a decent price – or shop your local stores for standard lengths, colours and patterns.

• Artwork: Save. DIY, shop vintage stores or antique sales, stock up at IKEA or HomeSense or check out minted.com for reasonably priced prints and original art. Empty walls can make a room feel incomplete so check out our post on how to choose artwork and make it feel like your own.

• Throw pillows: Save. This is one of the easiest things you can decorate with to show your personality and add hits of colour – especially on a neutral palette. “Throw” them everywhere!

Even without a ton of lead time, you can find incredibly stylish furniture on a budget. Check out this great list from My Domaine for pieces that are right on trend and won’t break the bank (even though you’ll look like you splurged).

And for a complete checklist of everything you’ll need on move in – from dishware to furniture – check out this list from Apartment Therapy. So good!

3. Purchase it

Garage Sale sign in front of old furniture

Image Credit: The Spruce 

Our best advice? Don’t buy everything all at once. This is an exciting time and it’s easy to get caught up in the fun of it all. But the best thing you can do is live in your space for a bit and see what you really need.

When you’re ready to make your purchases, it’s a good idea to have a budget in mind and stick to it as much as possible. There will always be impulse buys and things you can’t live without, so give yourself a buffer and plan for “incidentals”. But generally speaking you should know what the entire cost of decorating your apartment will be so you’re not surprised by your credit card bill at the end of the month.

Want to know what you’ll need for each corner of your new place? Have a look at My Domaine’s shopping list for each room. So practical and inspiring!

Apartment Therapy has also done a great job of compiling a list of things to buy now, and things to wait for – so you can budget accordingly. 

Budget a little tight? Have a look at these great DIY ideas that will give you the look you want for less. We also love this list by The Spruce on 11 best places to find budget furniture – including flea markets, consignment stores and online auctions.

And if you have your eye on something special that’s out of budget, keep an eye on sales. If you time it right you can often score anywhere from 25-50% off (January and July are your best bets).

4. Fake it 

Couch with furry pillows and a grey chair in living room

With limited space to work with, there are lots of decorating tricks that can make your apartment look bigger than it actually is. We provide some tips in our article on 10 design hacks for small spaces, but here’s a summary. Give these a try:

Choose light curtains the same shade as the walls – darker shades will make your rooms feel smaller.

Hang curtains as close to the ceiling as possible to make the room look taller.

Lean or hang a large mirror and “double” the size of the room.

If you’re allowed to paint, choose a light colour like an off white or pale grey to brighten rooms and make them feel bigger. You can add pops of colour through pillows, throws and artwork. 

Choose a light rug that matches the walls (but not too light if you have a pet or messy visitors) to give off the feeling of spaciousness.

Temporary fixes:

As we mentioned, there may be some restrictions around painting the walls, so try temporary wall treatments like peel and stick wallpaper or cool decals that can easily be removed or swapped out when your taste changes. 

Looking to change up the vibe of the kitchen? There are so many peel-and-stick tile options now that mimic marble and other higher end materials that only look expensive. Home Depot has all kinds. You can even find adhesive sheets that mask unsightly countertops. Amazing!

Getting your first apartment is a big deal, and decorating it in a way that's all your own is not only fun, it’s completely rewarding. Go for it!