Military Wife Guide To Making A Rental Home Rock


Don't read this unless you love to decorate. I love to decorate, which is convenient since my husband is constantly giving me new material-- courtesy of the military!

That's why my friends and I blog about decorating at 11 Magnolia Lane. We move every two or three years. Every time we unpack boxes, boxes and more boxes in our newest home, I am faced with decorating challenges.

Here are a few of my favorite ideas for making a plain vanilla rental house (or on-post/base housing) into a comfortable and welcoming home.

1.  Paint -- Rooms, Doors, or All of the Above!

I know it’s an obvious one, but it has to be at the top of every decorating list, because painting is an easy, fast, and inexpensive way to personalize your space.

You should ask your landlord about permission to paint before you sign the lease, and I usually have the specifics written into the lease so it’s clear what I’m allowed to do. Sometimes, especially in military housing, you have to paint the room back to white or off-white when you move, unless the incoming family accepts your paint choices. Since rules on painting vary from installation to installation, be sure to get that spelled out ahead of time.

Quick tip: Remember that you can paint almost anything. Maybe the front door needs a shot of red or aqua. Or there's a horrible brown tile backsplash in the kitchen. Get the go-ahead and paint it!


For the paint itself, I always use a flat finish, because I hate shiny walls and it seems to be more forgiving to novice painters. The only time I use semi-gloss is when I’m painting trim (which I usually don’t take the time to do in a rental, unless it’s a color other than white or off-white. Of course, I’m usually not going to be a renting a house that needs that much work, anyway!).

Quick tip: I keep paint chips of all the colors I’ve used, labeled with the house and room I used them in. If I love a color, I’ll use it again at the next house -- why reinvent the wheel?

Need more tips for getting your landlord to love your paint job? Check out this great article!

2.  Window Treatments Are a Must

I am always amazed at the difference window treatments make in a room. Seriously.

They are well worth the investment, but they don’t have to be super-expensive. Ikea, Target, Home Goods, and Craigslist are my favorite places to buy curtains, and they are relatively inexpensive. Most military spouses (the ones who care about decorating--which you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this article!) have a box of window treatments that moves with them, because every house has a different number and size of windows.  You’ve probably already figured this out, but panels generally work better than valances, simply because they work on windows of differing widths.

Quick tip: Hang the longest panels your room will allow. That will make even a small room with a low ceiling seem larger.

Consider making window treatments to save money. I needed something to cover the windows and French door in my kitchen, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. I used burlap, thumb tacks, and jute twine and came up with these--and I made all three for under $10:


Window treatments are particularly important if your landlord refuses to let you paint or you don't want to paint. For example, the home we're living in right now has a two-story living room. I could get up on a scaffold and paint over that off-white color, but do I really want to? Um, no. So I'm using my window treatments to inject color and style into the room:


Quick tip: Use the same style of curtain rod throughout your house. That way, when you move, even if the number of windows in a room changes, you will still have rods to match. All of my curtain rods are black with a clear glass finial.

3.  BYOL: Bring-Your-Own-Lighting

You can change your lighting out even when you can't paint. I love to find chandeliers at flea markets and yard sales -- those bright brass ones look great with a coat of colorful spray paint -- and hang them everywhere in my house, especially in unexpected areas like the laundry room, closet, and pantry.


If you've never hung a light fixture before, you really should learn. It will save you so much money over time! Let a friend show you how to do it, or hire an electrician to come out and give you a tutorial. Take lots of pictures and notes, but it's not that hard. When it's time to move, just replace whatever was there before (I usually label them and stick them in the attic so they don't get damaged) and take your chandeliers with you to the next house.

I hung this chandelier in our dining room just two days ago:


Quick tip: I used to shorten the chains and wires of my chandeliers so they would hang just right. The only problem was that when we moved, I would often have to rewire the whole thing if I needed a longer chain. Now, I simply use an S-hook to loop the chain to the correct length and use a cord cover to hide the extra.  Easy!

4.  Just Add Vinyl

Vinyl is widely available these days, and even custom orders are very inexpensive.  It's also temporary, so it's great for rentals. I love to put great big house numbers on my front door:


In our current home, there's a house number right next to my front door, so that would be redundant. So I put a swirly "Welcome" on my storm door instead:


I've also used a big vinyl monogram over the bed in a previous home, stuck patterned vinyl inside closets, slapped vinyl squares on the wall to make a giant calendar, and two houses ago I even used chalkboard Contact paper on the inside of my pantry doors.  It was great for shopping lists and menus!


Quick tip: When it's time to move, warm the vinyl with a hairdryer and gently peel it away. Go slowly and your wall will look perfect when you're done!

5.  Don't Neglect the Decor in Non-Typical Rooms

Just as I love to put chandeliers in unexpected areas, I also like to decorate my laundry room, pantry, closets, and other often-neglected areas. The powder room should always get some TLC; after all, most of your guests will wind up in there at some point in time! One of my friends put a guest book in her powder room -- how fun is that? And since the laundry room is a place where I spend WAY too much of my time, shouldn't it make me feel happy to spend time in there?


Do you live in a climate where you're outside for a good portion of the year? Then take the time to decorate your porch(es). I used inexpensive sheers from Ikea ($5 for 2 panels!) to dress up my covered back porch. I think it looks much nicer than the traditional table, chairs, and umbrella, and we can let the sheers hang down to keep the bugs out when we're eating outside.


Quick tip: Removing the door to a laundry room, pantry, or closet and hanging a curtain instead can make the space appear larger. This also allows you to repurpose a closet--say as a craft area or reading nook.

6.  Choose Neutrals for Furniture & Brights for Accents

By neutrals, I am talking about soft furniture -- chairs, sofas, bedding -- and rugs.  I have had the same white slipcovers on my living room sofa and chair for twelve years. About once a month, I take them off and wash them, and then they're white again. No matter what the color of the year is, my white furniture works. I just change out the pillows (and sometimes the wall color), and I'm good to go. White works well if you happen to live in a house with bright walls that you can't paint, too.  My white slipcovers have survived two toddlers and several big dogs who claimed their right to sleep on the sofa, so don't be afraid to take the plunge!

Quick Tip: The most inexpensive way to change the overall color of a room (after painting) is to change out the pillows and throws. If you're able to sew, you can make simple envelope-style slipcovers for your pillows and change them whenever you want.


I've also painted many pieces of furniture over the years, even before chalk paint became so popular. I love the look of white (and sometimes gray) furniture, and I think it lightens a room and makes your decor more versatile.

Quick tip: I change the fabric on the cushions of my painted white kitchen chairs with almost every move. This allows me to update my decor without repainting the chairs. I spray them with Scotchguard so that they don't get stained (see the above about children and dogs!).

7.  Use Lamps Wherever You Can

I love to put lamps in somewhat unexpected places -- on my bathroom counter, on the shelves in my laundry room, in the closet, and on the kitchen counter. Not only does light make a space feel warm and inviting, but lamps are completely portable when it's time to move.

Quick tip: Don't be reluctant to buy a used lamp that comes without a shade. You can buy a beautiful replacement shade at most of the big-box stores for $15 or under.

I've found some beautiful lamps at thrift stores. A few I've left as-is, and a few I've spray-painted. You can sometimes find plug-in wall sconces, too, and they are great for above sinks, desks, and over kitchen counters.


Quick tip: You can buy mini-chandeliers that plug in to the wall. Swag them out over a reading chair, a sink, or a desk to add instant glamour. When it's time to move, since they're not hardwired, just unplug them and pack!


8. Embrace the Distressed Look

This is both a design philosophy and a recipe for happiness. If you move frequently, your items will be damaged, no matter how carefully you watch over your packers and movers. It's just how that pesky law of averages works! That might be why, over the years, my design sensibilities have changed to the point where chippy, vintage, industrial, distressed, rusty, and the like are my favorite decorating words. There is no room in my style (or my home) for glossy, smooth, or precious anymore.

When my husband retires from the military and we settle (knock wood) in one place, I will purchase new furniture – maybe -- and until then the only items I am rabid about protecting are my late mother's piano and the stained glass window from the church in which my parents were married. Everything else is nice, but I refuse to lose sleep over it every two years when it goes away on the big truck. You have to choose your battles, after all.

Quick tip:  f the movers have "distressed" some of your furniture, consider painting it.  My dining room set was so creatively scratched that I had to paint the entire thing--but I love how it turned out!


9.  Be Prepared to Store, But Not Hoard

My goal is to get all of my boxes unpacked within two weeks of the unload, and usually by then, I know what fits and what doesn't. On the front end of our move, I purge things that I didn't want to bother unpacking on the back end.

Even though I try to plan where things will go ahead of time, at the end of our unpacking period, I am usually still left with items that just won't fit in this particular house. An unbreakable rule of moving is that two houses, even if they are exact same square footage, will not hold the same amount of furniture in the same configuration.


I can't keep everything. So lately I've really tried to strike a balance between keeping things I need, love, and will use again, and winding up on an episode of Hoarders.

10. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

In the end, you're likely only living here temporarily, and you probably can't turn it into your dream house in just a few years. Nor do you want to -- it's not your house, after all. So my final bit of advice is to do the best you can to make your house a home.  Spend some time and money to put your personal stamp on your space, but only as long as it's enjoyable to you. After that, just relax and enjoy the fact that if your hot water heater goes out (as mine did this afternoon), you can just pick up the phone and call someone to come and fix it.

Every home you live in should help you refine your list of must-haves, so that one day, when you move into that "Forever House," you'll know exactly what you want and need.


Christy Black is a semi-professional mover after eighteen years of wedded bliss to an Army pilot.  She's also the proud mom of two awesome kids and the keeper of a small zoo that includes two rescue dogs, a senile cat, and a hamster.  The Blacks currently live in Savannah, Georgia, and Christy blogs about life, DIY, and home decor with her friends Amy and Terry at

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