My first apartment makeover: 5 renovation mistakes I learned the hard way, and how you can avoid them

What not to do in an apartment makeover and what to try instead

Two images from my apartment makeover. The left is a modern small bathroom with black fixtures, blue vertical tiling and wooden vanity. The second is a pale green bedroom with floating shelves and check throw cushion
(Image credit: Luisa Rossi)

If you're planning your first apartment makeover and are worried about making remodeling mistakes, I am uniquely qualified to comment as I have quite literally been there, done that, and learned from my renovation errors.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you undertake a renovation project. It’s expensive, messy, time consuming, but oh-so-worth-it. I renovated my first apartment between 2021 and 2022 and I made painful errors along the way, so I am sharing what not to do in your apartment makeover to save you time, tears and wasted cash.

Learn about what went wrong in my journey, from apartment decorating mistakes, to renovation project bloopers and what to do instead.

The 5 apartment makeover mistakes I made renovating my first apartment

Whether your first apartment needs a full-scale revamp, or you simply need to decide between wrapping kitchen countertops vs painting, there are a whole host of remodeling opportunities in an apartment makeover, and therefore bountiful mistakes to avoid. 

I embarked upon my apartment renovation journey with the level of naivety only seen in your early 20s, and the confidence of someone who had been flipping houses for years. There are many things I wish I knew beforehand and I've detailed them below to help you avoid them.

For any specific products I have recommended, the prices were correct at time of publication.

1. Rushing

Two images: bedroom with green walls and a white bed, living room with white walls and pink couch

(Image credit: Luisa Rossi)

Cutting corners and costs will only hurt you in the long run as you'll only wish you had upgraded your temperamental radiators to the best ones, invested in a more powerful shower head for that luxury hotel bathroom feel, or that you went for the more expensive real wood flooring instead of laminate.

One area I made a mistake was my kitchen. I was so desperate to move that I left it as it was and I have regretted that ever since. If I could do my reno all over again, I would spend a few more weeks finishing the kitchen off, or continue to work on it after I moved into my apartment.

It was the only area of the apartment that I did not touch because, whilst it may not have been to my taste, it was fairly new and in good condition. What I should have done as a middle of the road solution was painted the cabinets a matte taupe color , (the ALL-IN-ONE Paint in Taupe, on Amazon has great reviews) upgraded the door handles (if you're a brushed brass kind of person like me, try the highly-rated and budget-friendly 30-pack Plustool Gold Cabinet Handles, also from Amazon) and applied a peel-and-stick vinyl to the worktop

These affordable and effective fixes would have made a world of difference to the look and feel of my open-plan space and I would be left with zero regrets about my renovation.

white bathroom with a double shower, white sink, brass accents

(Image credit: Luisa Rossi)

I also worried so much about spending hundreds on a bathroom vanity unit, but in the end it looked phenomenal and I have not regretted having it.

Take as much time as you need to save for your renovation, even if having the patience to wait feels horrid, or compromise by doing work while you're living in it. Home remodeling is an expensive endeavor and it is part of the reason that my small apartment renovation took a year to complete.

Whether you are undertaking a full-scale reno project or scoping out renter-friendly bathroom upgrades, it's vital you take your time to achieve the best finish possible. 

This piece of advice feeds into all of the mistakes that first time renovators make and any regrets they have about their finished project. If you do not rush, you will not regret that paint color that was born out of a hurried decision, or skipping that renovation project you end up kicking yourself for every day.

2. Settling for design choices you don't like

Image one features a pink couch with blue cushions. Image two features a white Ikea dining table with rattan chairs.

(Image credit: Luisa Rossi)

If, like me, you are still not brave enough to go maximalist with your small living room color, consider a bright couch. My dopamine decor choice was a pink velvet couch. I’m a single girl in my 20s, with no children or pets, living solo in my first apartment. When else will I have the opportunity to own a pink couch? Just make sure that you’re prepared to clean your velvet couch as lighter color couches show dirty and marks much more easily.

During your apartment makeover, be bold with your design choices. Do not concern yourself with resale value because you aren’t renovating your apartment for the next owners, you are renovating it for yourself. If they don't like something in your pad when they buy it, they will change it themselves.

If you like the one I went for, try Wayfair's Everly Quinn 70-inch Upholstered Sofa in Rose Velvet. It has gold metal legs, space underneath if you want to slide a rolling storage box in there and make use of dead space, which is a must in small-space living.

3. Doubting your ability to DIY

My bathroom with floor to ceiling tiled shower area crittal black frame shower screen and tiled backsplash

(Image credit: Luisa Rossi)

Do not doubt your ability to learn DIY skills. Whilst I was renovating my space, my mantra was ‘trial, error, and YouTube tutorials.’  

Do not discount your ability to complete some renovations yourself as often enough, DIY is not as difficult as you imagine. I went from DIY zero to DIY hero in the space of a year and, before renovating my apartment, I barely knew how to use a screwdriver (I was 23 years old, please don’t judge). 

However, the internet is a wonderful resource with experts in every single field. Our How to guides are pretty nifty if we do say so ourselves. So, you want to know how to fit baseboards or how to smooth walls without plastering? There’s a guide for that and someone more experienced to tell you how to microcement your kitchen.

Believe it or not, a novice like me managed to gut an entire bathroom without messing up the plumbing. The previous owner had ever-so-helpfully tiled over the top of an older tile, so there were two layers of the stuff to get through. But, with the help of dust masks, protective specs and one very industrial mallet, I managed to remove it all successfully.

My apartment is a Victorian-era home, so prepping the walls for a few coats of Lick's White 06 was a little tricky. I did not have the time to learn how to plaster a wall myself nor did I have the funds to call in the pros, but it was nothing that some patience, medium grit sandpaper and some Poly-filler could not remedy.

4. Thinking you can do it all

Three images of a bedroom being remodelled

(Image credit: Luisa Rossi)

Whilst embracing your capacity to master DIY, do not think you can do everything yourself. All first-time renovators are guilty of thinking of this, including me.

I am not mathematically minded and desperately struggled to measure, lay, and fit my oak-topped wooden flooring. After a few months of back and forth, I finally gave up and called the professionals to come (where was our guide on how to lay flooring when I needed it?)

Upon chatting with the pros, I found out that every door needed to be removed and the baseboards had to be cut at the bottom for a flush and professional finish, which is not something I ever considered. If I had not called for professional help, I would have wasted even more time and, potentially, more than $700 of wooden flooring.

After that, I learned my lesson and called a plumber for the bathroom. I was not about to play around with fitting a brand new shower, potentially wreaking havoc, leaks and water damage on the apartment below me. I called a family friend who specializes in fitting bathrooms and was super pleased with the quick turnaround and sleek finish, which is certainly not something I could have achieved on my own.

If you need to call professional help to fit your new shower or rewire your lighting, ensure that you call on someone you trust via a recommendation from a friend or family member. Alternatively, be vigilant in looking for signs of spotting a cowboy builder.

5. Forgetting to have fun

Three images, one of a person covered in paint, one of two friends on a break from renovating and one of a person sat on a pink sofa, smiling

(Image credit: Luisa Rossi)

Home remodeling is a long and exhausting process, believe me and it can be so easy to overlook the fun bits, or fail to find joy in any of it. Call in your friends and family to help you along the way so you don't want to pack it all in and cry into your coffee every morning.

There were certainly a few times when I questioned why on earth I had take the project on, with the seemingly endless flooring struggle being one of them. It was also freezing cold during the winter months as I did not have the new radiators installed, which added to my frosty feelings towards the project during this period. 

Part of the reason the renovation took so long, despite me owning an apartment that is made of just three rooms, is that I was cold, tired and, quite honestly, sick of being covered in dust and paint with no end in sight and an ever dwindling bank balance. 

The DIY support and assistance of my very capable family members, particularly my mom, pulled me through. As well as finally accepting a 1-0 defeat to the flooring and calling the pros.

However, the finished product was worth all of the dust-covered, messy hours spent knocking through bathroom tiles, fixing up ‘landlord specials’, and painting over old-fashioned magnolia walls. 

The satisfaction of completing such a huge project is unparalleled and when I look back, the journey was not so bad either. I learnt so many practical skills along the way, whilst creating something that felt so completely mine. Also, when else do you get the opportunity to blast music and full-body-swing a mallet at a bathroom wall? Such fun!

I also loved documenting the renovation process on Instagram and TikTok as both a visual diary for myself and for my out-of-town friends and family to follow the remodeling journey. Everyone loves a remodel before and after, after all.

Try to find pockets of joy, take problems on the chin, take a break when it threatens to overwhelm you and give yourself some credit for everything you're doing right and succeeding in.

Are you taking on your own renovation project? Be sure to exercise your patience (trust me, you'll need it!) and remember that your hard work will be worth it in the end. 

For even more DIY and design mistakes to avoid, make sure that you aren't committing these kitchen cabinet errors and are well versed in the tricky task of painting your ceiling. The Real Homes team has rented over 20 properties, giving us 33 years of renting experience between us. Our tips for renting your first apartment aren't to be missed.

Luisa Rossi
Social media editor

Hi! My name is Luisa, and I’m the Social Media Editor at Real Homes. I live in a rented home in the city with my three roommates and I are always looking for renter-friendly ways to personalize our space. We also have a small but unruly garden, which we spend our spring and summer weekends working on. Previously, I renovated my own tiny apartment in my hometown, where I learned how to DIY from scratch thanks to trial, error and YouTube tutorials. My interior style primarily hinges on which pieces of mid-century furniture I can thrift and I center my aesthetic around staple vintage pieces and eclectic art.