From College Town to Big City Living: How I Renovated My 800 sq ft Apartment Into a Home

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Hey there, I'm Michelle!

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In this week’s blog, We are diving into the deep end and talking through my story. If you’re new around here, then you might not know that I went to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas (and just like the name would suggest, I was spending my days in an overly glorified college town.)

I’d started my career in nonprofit youth work, which…while impactful is also heavy and emotionally exhausting work. After being assaulted during my first “real” vacation while at this job, I wanted to place some roots down while I prioritized my mental health and healing from trauma.

My family was close by and I’d already established a sense of community that I could lean on for support. Staying in this college town just made sense. At least until what should have been a gap year, turned into two, then three, and then eventually 15 years spent in a place where every restaurant featured some form of a student discount.

Not the vibe.

I had an incredible studio apartment behind my brother’s house that I lived in for nine years. It was a pretty sweet spot and was even featured on Apartment Therapy. You can check out that space here.

I stretched myself and bought a MAJOR fixer-upper in the same town to grow some wealth and maybe even lay down some roots. 

Alas, roots apparently were not what I needed because within 8 months of buying and fully renovating that home (see more on that place here), I decided it was time to move locations entirely.

In May 2023 I (finally) uprooted myself and my business, found somebody to rent my house, and moved to Austin, Texas. I downsized significantly and was back in a rental.

When I was looking for where I wanted to live, here’s what I prioritized:

  • A one-bedroom apartment with enough space for a guest bedroom so I could host friends and family when they came to visit.
  • Enough natural light so I could open the curtains and feel inspired and refreshed while working from home.
  • A cozy atmosphere that fits the majority of my old furniture, with enough room for me to grow into.

Check out what the apartment looked like when I went to view it after signing the lease…

The Plan: Renovating My Apartment on a Budget

And I know what you are probably thinking—How could I possibly get all of that, stay on budget, AND move to one of the big cities where the real estate market is “actually” ridiculous?

Long story short: I went in with a plan.

I gave myself a renovation budget of ~$500 and decided to use it to make minor improvements while using a lot of the pieces I’d had in my house. Here are just a few of the things my apartment renovation budget went toward…

Peel-and-Stick Floor Tiles

I opted for peel-and-stick vinyl checkerboard ‘“tile” for my bathroom floor to make the space feel a little more me and a little more clean. I grabbed these peel-and-stick tiles from Amazon for $12/box. They were super easy to install, the most difficult part was making intricate cuts around the toilet. In all, it took me about 3 hours total.

These tiles completely transformed the space and gave me great piece of mind knowing they were new. When I move out I can easily remove them, but I also know others in my building who have left theirs and the landlord has appreciated it.

Replacing the slightly dingy (ok….suuuuper ugly) ceiling fans with new light fixtures

I had a good amount of West Elm credit and was able to get most of the light fixtures for free or cheap. I got a few from West Elm, one from Ikea for about $50, and one from Amazon for $30. I used to be overwhelmed by electrical work, but once I learned it and practiced with the help of my brother, I realized it was not hard at all. I did have a friend help me install most of these, just so someone was nearby to assist.

I really think the lighting was what made the biggest “custom” feel to this apartment. I did not save the old light fixtures, but when I move out I will either leave these here or replace them with super affordable “boob” lights. I cannot tell you the comfort I get out of my bedroom fan whirling at night knowing that all that dust is mine, not 40 years’ worth of someone else’s dust.

A Multi-Purpose Room: Guest Bedroom and Office

I created a multi-purpose room by combining the guest bedroom and my office so I had a separate place to work and sleep (instead of keeping my desk in my living room or primary bedroom). I always recommend keeping your workspace separate from your sleep space if you can avoid it.

I have loved being able to look out the window and people-watch while I take a little work break. Having the extra guest bed for all my Austin visitors has been amazing. People swear it’s the best they’ve slept when they stay with me. When I moved in, I hoped to put up doors or curtains to separate the guest space from the living room, but it honestly has turned out just fine.

Updating Kitchen Cabinet Hardware + Open Shelving

Removing the outdated cabinet doors in my kitchen and storing them so I have an open cabinet concept that displays my cute dinnerware completely transformed this kitchen. When I first toured the apartment, I actually wanted to remove those upper cabinets and do floating shelves. That particular set of cabinets on the right was obtrusive and made the kitchen feel so much darker and closed off. Once I realized I could remove just the doors, it changed everything. It also simplified my life to not have to remove cabinets.

I honestly tried a peel-and-stick countertop because I don’t love the look of this granite, but the peel-and-stick looked cheap and impractical so I returned it. I also tried a peel-and-stick backsplash and hated it so much. It was a pain to install (I tried like 2 feet) and it honestly didn’t look good.

I ended up adding fun and character through the one wall of peel-and-stick wallpaper. This isn’t my dream kitchen, but for a rental, it’s pretty great! I feel like it still shows off a lot of my personality and it’s clean and functional.

I changed out the kitchen cabinet hardware with some very affordable black pieces from Amazon. This takes about 30 minutes and again was a game changer for me feeling clean in the space. I love the way it modernized the space too.

Lastly, I removed the grids where the fluorescent lights were. Those lights felt so low and obtrusive. Once I had the grids down, I did some research to find some more fun lighting options for the ceiling. I found these on Amazon for about $30 and added the pathos plants to make it more whimsical and more intentional. This might be my favorite upgrade to the apartment.

Primary Bedroom Updates

In the bedroom, I mainly just styled the space. I changed out the fan and added curtains to replace the existing mirror closet doors which drove me insane every day. This space turned out great just with my furnishings and accessories.

My 800sq-ft Apartment Renovation

The truth is, I didn’t need to live in a drab rental just because that was what was in the space when I got there. I allowed myself to dream a vision of what I wanted my space to look like, and then I set the intention of how I wanted to use it.

And I want the same for you! If you’re looking to elevate your rental to reflect you and your style, I’d love to help create the space of your dreams—let’s work together!

Hey there, I'm Michelle!

Interior Decorator in Austin, TEXAS

As the founder and lead interior decorator here at Cultivate Your Space, I'm here to bring you the vision your space—from the baseboards to the ceilings—even if you have no idea at all what your decorating style is.

My job isn't just to design a space you love. I want your living space to be a source of peace, comfort, security, and joy...not just somewhere you lay your head each night.

Most Austin interior decorators only focus on how your space looks—but not me. I care about both how your space functions AND how it makes you feel.

Curating with intention

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