First, start with your landlord. Leases are often boilerplate documents meant to spell out the basics. But when the renter is paying for the changes, and those changes improve the property - like new tile in a bathroom or a wall sconce in the hallway - "I don't know any landlord who won't allow upgrades," said Center City interior designer Susan Hopkins. "It makes their space and property more valuable." (Just make sure to get the agreement in writing and have it notarized.)
Then, get to work making your apartment reflect your personality. Designer Cheryl Umbles of Newark, Del., says to focus on four crucial design elements: wall color, lighting, art, and fabrics and finishes.
Although you don't have to address them in that order, lighting is often the first consideration, Umbles said. "It affects how everything is seen in the space." And that includes fabrics.
That's why designer Kat Robbins from Wayne "layers" lighting when she is designing a space. Hired to refurbish a Northern Liberties apartment a few years ago, Robbins incorporated natural lighting from two large windows, floor and table lamps, and a pendant chandelier that hung over the dining table from the 12-foot ceiling.
And, no electrician needed: She hung the chandelier from a hook in the ceiling and plugged it into a wall outlet. The small screw didn't require any spackling or painting when the tenants left.
The chandelier "created this look, this was supposed to be here," she said.
Hand in hand with lighting are window treatments. If you want more privacy than side panels - essentially sheer curtains - then check out roller shades. "Not in the off-white vinyl your grandmother may have had," Appel said. A European company, Coulisse, has roller shades in some fun patterns: "Make [those windows] pop," Appel said.
And if you're already starting out with that grandmother vinyl, cover it up with cool wallpaper. The temporary kind will peel off when you're done.
Speaking of temporary wallpaper - self-adhesive, repositional - it's not just for walls. Try it on kitchen cabinets, the back of shelves, stairs, drawers, lampshades . . . .
Then there's paint - relatively inexpensive, but powerful.
Denise Turner, a designer in Los Angeles, makes her living coordinating color palettes for carpet and tile manufacturers. She also acts as a color consultant. In rental homes with three generations, allowing individuals to have their own colors lets them have "their own space."
If you don't want to spend the time and expense of painting the walls back to beige, go to the cyber-waves:
Murals: Try muralsyourway.com, Pixersize.com, www.thewallstickercompany.com.au. These wall decals are self-adhesive, removable, and movable.
Stencils: Go to www.cuttingedgestencils.com. You would need to paint over them before you leave, but it's less work than doing full walls.
You can make a difference with a host of portable design elements that don't require any changes. The best are those that do double duty, like Moroccan poufs, or ottomans, that can add color and comfort, Appel said.
Bedspreads, lamps, and area rugs are easily shifted around and totally you - even if you found them at a flea market. Appel helped decorate her son's bedroom in his fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan with dark drapery panels, a turquoise rug, and coordinated bed covers.
"It gave the room a personality he can take with him," she said.
Look for design elements that "add pop and personality and don't do damage," Appel said. The longer you plan to rent, the more money you can spend.
And if you are looking for cheap furniture and are handy with nails and hammer, find shipping pallets; you can use them to make industrial-style, rustic box springs or coffee tables.
Maybe you don't even know what looks good, or you've got too much stuff. A two-hour consultation can help pare down your possessions so your apartment doesn't end up on Hoarders.
"Clients call because they don't know what to do," Robbins said. "They can't relate to [the apartment], it's not a reflection of them, they want a solution. Even if they are renting, especially if they are renting, they can make a sterile, nondescript environment really personal."