12 Affordable Upgrades to Help Make Your Apartment Look Fancy

Decorating on a budget? Here are a dozen things you can do to make your pad look fancy without spending a fortune.

Landing a great apartment doesn’t always mean you have the budget to furnish it. As great as any pad might be, guests won’t be too impressed if they have to sit on the floor.

Luckily there are ways to spruce up an apartment without spending too much money. Here are a few:

1. Plants

House plants can liven up a room, said Brian Davis, a real estate investor and director of education at SparkRental.com. “Some plants, such as aloe vera, can actually filter out toxic chemicals and improve the air quality in your apartment,” he said.

2. Mirrors

Mirrors can make your apartment seem much more spacious. “If you have plain doors, they’re the perfect place to add mirrors,” Davis said.

Renters can also upgrade the plain mirrors that come with their apartment with mirrors that match their tastes, said Brentnie Daggett, a real estate writer for Rentec Direct, which specializes in renter trends. “If you don’t want to toss your existing mirror (or it came with the apartment), find a DIY project that offers instructions on creating a damage-free frame to give the mirror more style.”

DIY mirror projects abound on sites like Pinterest. (If you’re an aspiring do-it-yourselfer, make sure you avoid these common DIY home repair mistakes.)

3. Rugs

Area rugs can help cover up old flooring you hate or new flooring you want to protect, Daggett said. “Eclectic and traditional designs are easy to find these days, making it simple for you to find something inexpensive that will give your space a pop of color while covering the existing carpet or vinyl,” she said.

4. Large Cutting Boards

Renters can take the same approach with ugly countertops by covering them with large cutting boards or a butcher’s block, Davis said.

5. Removable Wallpaper

“Creating an accent wall with removable wallpaper is an affordable weekend project that can transform any home,” said Karen Hoxmeier, founder of MyBargainBuddy.com.

6. Curtains

Back on the theme of covering up stuff you don’t like, curtains can help hide your view of the dingy building next door or the dingy window itself.

7. Door Knobs

You can give your kitchen or bathroom an updated look by changing out the door knobs that came with the apartment. Just make sure you hang on to the originals so you can swap them back in when you move out, Hoxmeier said.

8. Cabinet Knobs

The same goes for the knobs on your kitchen cabinets. Landlords often opt for durability over style when picking products, noted Daggett of Rentec Direct. “Give your kitchen an instant update by replacing the hardware on your cabinets to create a more modern look.”

9. Flatware

A simple matching set of dinnerware and flatware can go a long way toward making your dinner party seem more fancy, Daggett said. “If your table settings consist of hand-me-downs and a hodgepodge amassed from yard-sale finds, it’s time to upgrade.”

10. Steam Mop

It should go without saying that your apartment won’t really be fancy unless it’s clean. Daggett said upgrading from a sponge mop to a steam mop can make your apartment look nice and make cleaning easier, which your landlord and guests will appreciate.

11. Shower head

Speaking of clean, an upgraded shower head could make getting ready for work feel more luxurious, Daggett said. Installing a new one might require permission from your property manager, but you’ll see the dividends pay off in your routine and possibly your water bill if you pick up a low-flow shower head.

12. Coffee & Side Tables

A set of coffee and side tables that match your style and room can help tie your apartment together. You can find deals at your nearest flea market, Daggett said.

Remember, overspending on decorating is one of many mistakes first-time renters make. Don’t buy a coffee table at the expense of making rent on time. Missing rent can leave a mark on your credit reports, not to mention make it harder for you to get an apartment in the future. (You can check two of your credit scores free on Credit.com). Make sure you know to avoid these other apartment errors as well.

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The Big Cities With the Most Affordable Rent Prices Are…

You'll be amazed at which fun-filled city is one of the best for renters right now.

Image: EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER

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My Old Roommate Didn’t Pay Rent & Now Debt Collectors Are After Me

roommate-didn't-pay-rent

You moved out, but your roommate didn’t pay the rent. Now debt collectors are calling, saying you owe them a few months of rent and fees. What do you do? What can you do?

The answer depends largely on what state you’re in and whether your name is on the lease.

Can a Debt Collector Come Knocking?

“A debt collector ‘can’ come after you for just about anything,” Alex Stern, an attorney with the Little Guy Law Firm, P.L.L.C. in Miami Beach, Florida, said in an email. “The question is will they be successful. If your name is in a lease agreement and rent is owed, you may still be liable for unpaid rent even if you paid your share.”

Now, if your name is not on the lease, the landlord or collection agency could have a tougher time getting you to pay back-rent. Still, “if the landlord can provide some evidence that you acknowledge responsibility for the rent, then you may be liable (e.g. a check from you every month for a certain period of time),” Stern said.

Stay Calm

The good news is, all hope is not lost for those who did sign on the dotted line or think they could otherwise be considered liable.

“Most states impose a ‘duty to mitigate’ on the landlord, so if someone abandons the lease, the landlord usually will have to make some sort of good faith effort to re-rent the property to someone else, and you wouldn’t be liable for the rent the new tenant starts paying (although you could be liable for the expense to re-rent the unit),” Stern said.

You also could benefit from your state’s statute of limitations on debt collection.

If your name isn’t on the lease, but you landlord still thinks you reasonably owe rent via an oral contract, “then generally speaking the landlord will have less time to bring a valid claim than if pursuing the case pursuant to a written contract,” Stern said. “If a debt collector tries to collect a debt from you after the statute of limitations has passed, then you could have a cause of action against the debt collector for violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in addition to state law causes of action.”

You can go here to find out what your state’s statute of limitations on debt collection entails. Here are some other things you can do to make a situation like this end in your favor.

Talk to Your Landlord

Remember, a roommate can’t simply sign you off of a lease, since it’s legally a contract between landlord and tenant. This contract should outline what steps need to be taken should someone want out or be looking to sublet, but it’s also generally a good idea to try talking to your landlord before you simply move and hope your roommate makes good on the rent.

“Usually the landlord will work with you if you give them enough notice for them to re-rent the property,” Stern said. “Also becoming more common in lease agreements are ‘liquidated damages’ provisions, which specify a dollar amount that will be owed when someone breaches a lease or moves out early.”

If the situation has progressed beyond that point, you could trying arguing in court that your roommate agreed to cover your share.

“Even if the landlord does come after you, you can always claim that you had an agreement with the other roommate that the other roommate would be taking responsibility for the lease,” Stern said. “It may not stop the landlord from coming after you, but it may help you in holding the other person responsible for some if not all of the judgment.”

Know Your Laws

You may have additional rights under local tenant laws. And, when it comes to any debt in collection, it helps to know your rights. Under the FDCPA, debt collectors are prohibited from doing certain things as they work to recoup what you owe, including calling too early or too late at night, threatening you with actions (like a lawsuit) that they don’t actually intend to take, and using obscene language. (You can learn more about your debt collection rights here.)

If you’re unsure of whether you’re liable for any debt in collection or you think a collector is in violation of the FDCPA, you may want to consider consulting a consumer attorney.

And, as you try to work this out, you may want to keep an eye on how the collection account is affecting your credit. You can get your free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, and you can get more frequent updates by looking at a free credit report summary, updated every 30 days, on Credit.com.

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

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Millions of Americans Are Spending Half Their Paychecks on Rent

spending-half-of-income-on-rent

With home prices rising and many people under 65 shying away from buying a home, renters are finding themselves spending more on that monthly payment than ever before.

The recently released annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found the number of renters devoting at least half of their individual income to rent hit a shocking all-time high in 2014 — 11.4 million. And 21.3 million people spent 30% or more of their paycheck on covering rent that year, another number at an all-time high. (Experts recommend you spend 30% or less of your monthly income on this expenditure.)

The report crunches numbers from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Indexes and Housing Vacancy surveys.

With the median asking rent for a “newly constructed market-rate multifamily unit built in 2015,” as the report describes it, reaching $1,381 per month, it’s no wonder so many Americans are forgoing a home purchase.

Meanwhile, those who do want to get out of the rental cycle face significant setbacks.

The report notes that down payments remain a challenge, as for many renters, the median value of all financial assets was just $3,000 in 2013, while a 5% downpayment on a median-priced existing home in 2015 cost $11,100. With low-income households becoming more common (defined as those with net wealth of $1,000 or less), the report adds, securing enough for a downpayment is merely a pipe dream.

Additionally, the report says the outstanding student loan service balance jumped from $10,500 in 2001 to $17,000 in 2013.

With these factors in mind, it’s no surprise the report says the national homeownership rate dropped by more than 5 percentage points, from 69% in 2004 to 63.7% in 2015.

Whether you’re looking to purchase a home now or in a few years, it’s a good idea to know your credit scores. Applicants with a good credit score may qualify for better mortgage terms. (You can use this calculator to see how much house you can afford here.) You can view your two free credit scores, updated each month, on Credit.com to see how your credit currently fares.

More on Mortgages & Homebuying:

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Minimum Wage Can’t Cover Rent for a 2-Bedroom Apartment in Any State

housing-wage

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that there isn’t a single state in the U.S. where a worker earning minimum wage can afford the rent for a two-bedroom apartment — or, for that matter, a one-bedroom apartment. You might be surprised to learn that there isn’t a state where renters earning average pay can afford a two-bedroom apartment, either.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition crunched the numbers recently and found that a toxic mix of stagnant wages and rising rents has made things really difficult on a wide swath of U.S. wage-earners. It calculated a “housing wage” by determining how much workers would have to earn hourly to afford a “fair market rent” apartment for 30% of their income. By that measure, the national housing wage is $20.30 for a two-bedroom unit and $16.35 for a one bedroom — both far above even recently increased minimum wages.

But in many parts of the country, the numbers are even bleaker. Near Washington, D.C., the two-bedroom rental wage is about $31 an hour. In New York, it’s $27. In Maryland, it’s $26. In fact, in six staes and D.C., the housing wage is north of $25 an hour, the report says.

Another way of expressing the same problem: Using the national rates, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would need to work 2.8 full time jobs, or approximately 112 hours per week, to afford a two-bedroom apartment. That renter would need to work 90 hours to afford a one-bedroom, according to the report.

“In only twelve counties and one metropolitan area is the prevailing minimum wage sufficient to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment,” the report says. Those regions are all in West Virginia and Washington state.

Meanwhile, the average hourly wage of renters in the U.S. is $15.42, which is $4.88 less than the two-bedroom housing wage.

“In no state is the mean renter wage sufficient to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate,” the report points out.

Here’s one example of the troubling numbers at work:

In Washington state, fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment is $1,203. That means a worker needs annual earnings of about $48,000 to afford that unit, or $23.13 per hour. Based on the state minimum wage, a worker would need 2.4 jobs full-time jobs to afford that. The real average renter wage in Washington is just $16.69, meaning a worker with an average-pay job needs 1.4 jobs to afford a two-bedroom place. In King and Snohomish counties, the region’s most expensive areas, the housing wage is much higher: $29.29.

Part of the problem is skyrocketing rents due to high demand and low supply. Vacancy rates are at their lowest levels since 1985, and rents have risen at an annual rate of 3.5%, the fastest pace in three decades, according to the housing group.

Another part of the problem I’ve written about before: Builders are less interested in constructing medium-prices housing at the moment for numerous economic reasons, preferring mostly high-end construction. This impacts availability of starter homes and rental units.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition says it is using a trust fund to help communities build and rehabilitate affordable rental homes.

“It is also critical to preserve and improve the nation’s public housing stock, expand the number of housing vouchers, and increase funding for other programs providing affordable housing to truly end this crisis,” the report says.

What is the housing wage for your state? You can find out on the map on this page. Remember that your earnings are only one of many things that determine your ability to find housing. Your potential landlord will probably look at a version of your credit report as part of your rental application, and bad credit rating or a history of payment problems could make it harder to find a place to live. A past eviction could be really problematic, as well, though it may not be a deal breaker.

It’s a good idea to review your credit before looking for housing, so you can check it for errors as well as be upfront about anything a landlord may find during a credit review. To keep track of where you stand, you can get a free credit report summary, updated monthly, on Credit.com.

More Money-Saving Reads:

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What to Do When Your Parents Kick You Out

moving-out

Moving out of your parents’ house, no matter what the circumstances are, is a step toward independence. However, once you’re out in the real world, you have a lot of responsibilities to consider that you may not have thought of while living under their roof.

Here are five financial goals to focus on as you make the transition. 

1. Set a Budget

Until now, Mom and Dad probably covered the expenses for the house you were living in, but now it’s your turn. When creating your budget, think about how much you can afford to pay for rent and cover the other things that come along with a home, which you may not have thought of. You’ll likely be renting, so you will need to factor in expenses like a security deposit, utilities and possibly renters’ insurance.

2. Consider All Your Expenses

Your budget won’t just include rent. Think about the other things you’ll need to pay for on a weekly or monthly basis, like health insurance, groceries, transportation (including car insurance), clothes and entertainment. If you’re on a tight budget, consider reducing your spending on fast food or entertainment, including in-home perks such as cable.

3. Put Money Aside

If your parents gave you any notice about moving out, saving up a bit of money before the actual date is a good idea. But even if you haven’t done that, you can hit the ground running on the job search and start putting money aside until you have a steady paycheck. Consider setting up one bank account for regular expenses and a separate account for unexpected financial strains, like a medical emergency or car repairs.

4. Pay Any Debts

If you have student loans, car loans, credit card debt or any other debt, think about how you can budget to get these paid off. Doing so can help you lower what you ultimately pay in interest over time and improve your credit score. Be careful about charging more to credit cards than you can afford to pay back — you don’t want to rack up additional debt, which can lower your score.

5. Build Your Credit

You may be renting a place for the next few years, but one day you may want to buy a home of your own. The habits you have now may play a role, as your credit score is a part of getting a mortgage. The five factors that make up your credit score are your payment history, debt usage, age of credit, different types of accounts, and new credit inquiries. To see how the choices you’re making impact your credit, you can view your free credit report card, updated monthly, on Credit.com.

More Money-Saving Reads:

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11 Ways I Saved Money By Leaving New York City

moving_out_of_city

It was a tough choice when I decided to leave New York City last year, just six years after I moved there. But, like a lot of people my age, I was seeing my future in New York as plagued with constant money frustrations.

The cost of the city isn’t easy to ignore. Every New Yorker (unless you make a seven-figure salary) talks about how expensive it is. It’s a conversation people have at every party, it’s a topic we’re constantly complaining about on Twitter, it’s a daily annoyance that permeates almost every decision you make. After all, you either have a monthly unlimited Metro card, stay in your neighborhood or pay $2.75 to go anywhere (that’s $5.50 for a roundtrip).

The tough part of leaving NYC wasn’t realizing it was outlandishly, unforgivably, unrelentingly expensive. The tough part was leaving the good friends — the family, really — I had in New York. But I knew certain dreams I had, like buying a home, were just not possible in a city where rent on a one-bedroom apartment within an hour’s commute of my office was continually edging closer to $2,000 a month. So I made the leap (or the drive, to be specific) and relocated to Richmond, Va.

Here are the big differences in cost I’ve discovered since leaving the big city for the South.

1. Housing Costs

I tell everyone this fact — my mortgage for a four-bedroom house (including taxes and insurance) is less than my rent for a one-bedroom apartment in NYC ever was. It may be the New Yorker in me (I wasn’t lying, everyone compares their rent price at parties in NYC), but I am still blown away at how much more I can afford outside of the city.

2. I Ended My Reliance on Seamless

Everything in NYC is just a little bit harder than everywhere else. It’s the same for other big cities, I’m sure, but every time I’d look at an elderly woman walking with her cart down the block to get groceries, I was reminded that there are conveniences other Americans are privy to that New Yorkers aren’t. One of those things is making food at home. I found it so hard to plan meals in advance and instead ended up relying on Seamless. I lived in Queens — one of the most diverse counties in America — and that diversity is reflected in the endless delivery options. Want a burger? There were at least four dozen places to get one. Sushi? Same thing.

The Seamless delivery options for my first apartment when I moved to Richmond? 11 total, mostly pizza places. And a few of them had a $9 delivery fee, making it an easy choice to stop ordering.

3. My Crock Pot Is My Best Friend

It’s hard to have a lot of appliances in your kitchen as a New Yorker. You’re lucky if you have enough counter space for a toaster oven, let alone a crock pot or a stand mixer or a juicer. Don’t get me wrong — people make it work, but it wasn’t until I moved to Richmond that I got appliances that have made spending less money on food easier.

My crock pot is a saving grace. I spend about $120 on groceries for a week and that provides every meal. I work from home, so I now wake up in the morning and, in the time I would have spent commuting in NYC, my husband or I get everything into a crock pot and turn it on. Dinner is ready hours later, and I don’t have to rely on high-cost but high-convenience options like fast food.

4. Drink Costs

Going out in a city where you drive everywhere naturally limits how much you drink while out. Also, instead of the average cocktail being $12, I’m paying $8 a drink. For a 20-something like myself, it adds up quickly.

5. Ubers/Lyfts/Taxis

A taxi ride home after a night out was my “splurge” in NYC. And by splurge, I mean all my discretionary income would end up going toward taxi rides. It was a vice. I have my own car now, so I drive everywhere. You might be saying, “but your car costs more than a monthly Metro card!” and you’re right. But when you add up what I spent on subway fares, cab rides and Ubers, I spend less every month on my car loan payment, gas and car insurance.

6. I Broke My Starbucks Addiction

I used to buy a venti skinny vanilla latte from Starbucks most days. Another vice. It was on the way to the office every day (in fact, there were two on my walk from the subway exit to my office door). Add it up — $5 a day (roughly) x 5 days a week x four weeks a month = $100 month. I make my own coffee now (Blanchard’s Dark As Dark, for any Richmondites). It’s $9 a bag and a bag lasts me and my husband a week. Total cost a month = $36. That’s a nice little savings.

7. Commuting

I work from home, I don’t commute. Monthly savings: $116.50 (price of an unlimited 30-day Metro card)

8. The ‘Walk From the Subway’ Splurge

Every now and then I’d walk home from my subway stop and see a really delicious-looking napoleon in a bakery window, or a sale sign on artisanal soaps or a new hair product that looked like it would make my hair longer, better, stronger, less frizzy. I’d stop and swipe my card. The daily temptation was hard to avoid, and it added up pretty quickly. When you walk by a store at least 10 times a week, it’s easy to stop in once in a while and justify it as a one-off expense.

9. Movie Tickets

A movie ticket in NYC was close to, if not more than, $15 per person. That means a night out with my husband was $30 minimum. In Richmond? Under $10 per person. A small savings, but we’re movie buffs and go to the movies often enough that it makes a small difference.

10. Buying In Bulk

Costco! I can’t tell you how much I love Costco. Granted, I’m a new devotee so the shine may have worn off for others, but I have really started to crunch the numbers and am figuring out how much buying in bulk can save me, especially for things I know won’t expire, like cleaning supplies. In New York City, I could’ve shopped at Costco, but I couldn’t store a massive pack of paper towels in my tiny apartment, so bulk buying wasn’t really an option.

11. Trips Home for the Holidays

I used to spend $600 a year getting a flight home to Ohio for the holidays. My husband would spend about the same to join me. Now, we can drive home. It takes a little longer, but with gas prices about $1.50 a gallon in our area, we drove home this year and back for less than $75 in gas costs. $75 in gas vs. $1,200 in plane tickets. It’s a big savings, especially around the holidays when everyone’s credit card balances are up (potentially hurting their credit scores — you can see if your credit scores are taking a hit for free on Credit.com).

Should everyone leave NYC? No! But leaving the city has its appeal.

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The True Cost of Living in America: Oklahoma City

true-cost-of-living-okc

Elle Adkins has lived in Oklahoma City all her adult life, so she has a different perspective on the once-sleepy, dusty capital city that’s become a boomtown. “It used to be dreadful, and now we have all this new and exciting stuff,” she said.

Credit.com recently wrote about the top 10 most affordable U.S. cities, defined by the percentage of owners and renters who would be considered “housing poor.” Oklahoma City was second on the list; only Pittsburgh, the subject of next week’s story, ranked higher.

Oklahoma City’s story isn’t that different from North Dakota or Texas: While the rest of the country was reeling from the recession, oil-rich, fracking-friendly parts of the country were thriving — and attracting outsiders. The Oklahoma City metro area, now home to 1.2 million, is consistently among the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the country.

Elle Adkins OKThe move of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team to Oklahoma City in 2008 — the team was renamed the “Thunder” — seemed to surprise outsiders.  Why would anyone leave the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma? But savvy observers knew the transformation of the old Dust Bowl state was well under way, and the city landing its first Big Four pro sports team was more a culmination of this trend than a coming out party.

Oklahoma City has a distinct advantage over other oil-boom places like North Dakota for obvious reasons. For starters, it’s a capital city, so it also enjoys the spoils of state government spending and the culture a capital brings. 

Perhaps not so obvious is that the city also began an aggressive urban renewal project back in the early 1990s, among the first of its kind, which has been a huge success at drawing a new generation of urban dwellers. At the same time, the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy of 1995 seemed to galvanize pride and development Downtown.

While population growth has slowed a bit in the past couple of years — and it’s an open question how Oklahoma will react to the oil bust — the most recent data suggest the changes are paying off for residents. Median family income has risen from $56,500 in 2010 to $64,600 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census.

But while jobs and affordable housing are plentiful in Oklahoma City, natives like Adkins will tell you it’s not perfect. “It depends on where you want to live,” she said. “There are areas that are less expensive. I just happen to live in the ‘best’ school district and that comes with a price.”

Ironically, one place Adkins dreams of moving to is the old home of the Thunder: Seattle. She longs for the region’s no-AC-required summers, “where you can do things outside without fear or getting heat stroke,” she jokes. Both her grandmother and aunt live in Emerald City suburbs. She visits often, but she’s aware of Seattle’s high housing costs, and knows a move there would be tricky.

Adkins and her husband are separated, and the couple used to have a $1,500 monthly mortgage payment. Even with two incomes, that was a struggle, she said. “Before we divided up our finances, we were having trouble making ends meet. So I guess it’s all relative,” she said.

She moved from the Downtown area to a suburb within city boundaries so her son could attend better schools, but she’s rethinking that now. Rent for two-bedroom apartments in Adkins’ neighborhood costs $900 per month, which sounds affordable to coastal ears but in reality makes things tight. Adkins works for a local university in accounting and earns about $41,000 a year — but takes home about $2,000 per month after taxes and insurance costs for her son. “I’m willing to move, though, and perhaps I will soon … to someplace more economical,” she said.

Do you live in other top 10 cities like Louisville, Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus or Cincinnati? We’d like to hear from you. (Write to bob@credit.com.)

Oklahoma City by the numbers:

Affordable Cities Ranking: Second

Housing Poor Residents: 28.4%

Median Home Sales Price: $157,175, per Zillow

Median household income: $64,611, per Fact Finder

More Money-Saving Reads:

Main image: iStock; inset image courtesy of Elle Adkins

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