BOOK EXTRACT: Thoughts on Renting

As the 19yo tries to find a student flat to rent in north London for the next year of his degree, our thoughts have turned to that sector of housing and I thought I would share an extract from the book today.  

Home: The Way We Live Now small home, work from home, rented home by Kate Watson-Smyth
Home: The Way We Live Now small home, work from home, rented home by Kate Watson-Smyth

“The details are not the details. They make the design.”

Charles Eames

Renting, in the UK at least, has long suffered from the stigma that somehow it’s not quite as good as buying. There is an assumption, which seems to be lacking in the wider parts of Europe, that all renters must be saving for a deposit.

Perhaps we can blame Sir Edward Coke when he, in 1604, declared that “the house of everyone is to him as his castle”. Somewhere down the centuries this became synonymous with the British desire to own your walls rather than rent them – even if doing so is financially crippling.

But, with house prices showing no signs of falling and borrowing remaining expensive, renting looks set to be the future for millennials and Gen Z, particularly those in the UK which is the 5th most expensive country in Europe for a two-bedroom flat. The average price is £254,000 (correct as of April 2020) while the most expensive is Switzerland (£501,000) and the cheapest Moldova (£43,000). Across the continent this averages out to £154,000 – marginally more than the global average of £148,000.

So, with mortgages out of reach of so many it seems baffling that attitudes against renting remain so harsh.

In France the law is structured so that your mortgage payments cannot exceed 30 per cent of your income. Many people can’t make those sums work so they rent. Happily so. In the UK, successive governments have whittled away tenants’ rights to favour landlords which has increased the levels of unhappiness and frustration among renters.

But attitudes are changing. Amara Hasham is married to an air force pilot and has lived in rental properties for years. She shares rental hacks via her Instagram account at @ThePajaamaHub, and says:Now there are so many of us who have that ‘temporary’ phase in our lives when we have to hunker down in rentals whilst establishing ourselves in life. Newly marrieds, young parents, students living in dorms, renters or those who are on a journey to discover their interior style.”

With three young children and no end to living in rented accommodation in sight, Amara has embraced the challenge of coming up with clever ideas without damaging her rental magnolia walls.

serial renter amara hashem @thepajaamhub has a series of ingenious rental hacks
serial renter amara hashem @thepajaamhub has a series of ingenious rental hacks

“There used to be a real stigma to renting with people feeling embarrassed to mention it because others would think they can’t afford to get on the property ladder or think they’re a low-income earner or maybe a single parent,” says Kerry Lockwood, blogger and long-term renter, who has developed a strategy for working with landlords for both sides’ mutual advantage.

But Katherine Ormerod, a journalist and social media influencer, who found herself renting when her house sale fell through, has struggled with the attitude to renting – her own as well as other people’s. She and her partner are both self-employed and need two years of tax returns before they can get a mortgage. So, she found herself at 37, a mother of two, renting and subject to a barrage of messages on Instagram – both helpful and abusive – when she started spending money doing up her new home.

“It had been lived in by students and was really grotty. People could understand me painting furniture and things I could take with me, but they were outraged at the idea that I might want to paint a wall or change something that I would leave behind when we move,” she said.

vintage butcher's block via @kerrylockwood_
vintage butcher’s block via @kerrylockwood_

“And yet in Germany, where my father has lived since the 1970s and rented for 20 years it’s expected – not only that if you take on a rental you will be there for 10 years – but that you might well replace the kitchen. That’s how landlords keep their properties looking good enough to rent again.”

Katherine feels that in the UK people are aghast at the idea of painting something that you can’t take with you. Of, what they call, lining the landlord’s pockets and spending your money to benefit someone else.

Katherine Ormerod has made over her rented kitchen using vinyl, paint and new shelving.
Katherine Ormerod has made over her rented kitchen using vinyl, paint and new shelving.

But she, along with long-term renter Anna Jacobs, who has transformed her beige rental to a vibrant and colourful home, is adamant that good décor leads to good mental health.

Katherine says: “When I was looking for a place to rent, I needed four bedrooms as my mother lives abroad and needs to come and stay for a month at a time otherwise she won’t get to know her grandchildren, so while it was about price per square foot it was also about light and space. I knew I could change the décor up to a point and I also knew that it would be crucial for me to do that.”

Anna spent eight years in a “beige and cream” rental when her marriage broke down and, as she never expected to be there that long, she never made any changes. An artist by trade, colour is crucial to her sense of well-being and after becoming both “depressed and oppressed” by her surroundings she eventually moved on and found a landlord who would allow her to make changes as long as she undertook to put things back to neutral when she leaves.

He has since been round and vowed to take some of her ideas back to his own – mortgaged – property.

zig zag walls by Anna Jacobs Art
zig zag walls by Anna Jacobs Art

Emily Henson, an author and interiors stylist has rented four homes since moving back to London from LA. She was happy to rent until her children left school and has now bought a house in Margate, by the sea.

“Having lived in the US for many years I had been exposed to different attitudes towards renting. Over there it isn’t uncommon to paint and adapt, sometimes quite extensively, a rental (with permission). I know people who have put a lot of money into their rentals, for some it’s because homeownership is impossible so they choose instead to enjoy the home they rent. Whereas in the UK it seems a lot of people don’t make much of an effort improving rentals and landlords/ladies freak out if you even put a nail in the wall.”

Her advice is simple: “You need to decide on your long-term plans so you can work out if it’s worth investing in cosmetically improving a rented home. Can you imagine saving enough for a deposit to buy or do you see yourself as a long-term renter?

incorporate the tv into the decor says Emily Henson
incorporate the tv into the decor says Emily Henson

“If you plan to save every penny for a deposit then you can work miracles with well-considered lighting and the addition of decorative pieces that you will take with you and – unoriginal but still true – plants to breathe life into a space. All things you can take with you to your new home, but which will add personality to your temporary home.”

So, whether you are renter by circumstance or choice, there are dozens of ways you can personalise your home without losing your deposit from changing your lightbulbs for a warmer ambience to creating false walls and headboards. All is revealed in the book which is full of lots of tips and advice to help you make your rented house a home. It also includes advice for owners who are renting out as well.



Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. I am a long term renter. I have never wanted to own my own house, I just don’t see the attraction to be honest, however we rent in rural Perthshire and that’s a very different tale to renting in central London or even Perth.
    We have suffered the “no fault eviction” that the Scottish short assured tenancy agreement allows, when our farmer landlord just announced “I’m needing the cottage for a man” (i.e. farm worker). We’ve also rented some pretty grim places over the years. However we have never had to suffer terrible damp or mould….a viral level of mouse infestation and a few pretty poor houses as far as quality of interior was concerned but nothing horrific.
    We were extremely lucky with both the time that we arrived in this area and the people we knew; we found fairly good landlords initially and we have now lived in this little wooden shack on top of a hill for over 20 years and are blissfully happy here having worked hard over the years to build a really great relationship with our landlord. We are allowed pets – a cat here is a necessity for the mice and a dog is something that most rural landlords round here understand. We pay a very reasonable rent based on the fact that we improve and maintain the property and self factor and in turn we can decorate (within reason) in any way we see fit (we are actually decorators so we will always leave a good standard behind us). We have a private water supply so there have been years where we’ve had low or no water for up to 10 weeks at a time; the road up to the house is so bad that even the Jehova’s Witnesses don’t visit never mind canvasers for local politicians; we are a little remote so we have had to cope with snow that has stopped the oil truck getting to us for the central heating – one year we had no oil for a month, then our water froze at the collecting tank, then the snow brought the power lines down and not only that we had to walk a mile every day because we couldn’t get our vehicles up the track….but hey ho, that’s rural life for you. And again it’s bearable because of a reasonable rent and an amazing location.

    However I agree with a lot of others in this conversation, there should be more regulation within the rental sector. There should be a minimum condition and landlords should, I believe, require a licence for every property that they rent out, renewable every year.
    Currently there are only really strict reg’s round HMOs and these are so ridiculously restrictive that 3 students or friends wanting to share a house can no longer do so because it puts the honest landlords in a crazy expensive situation and in turn putting people on low incomes into another crazy situation of not being able to share accommodation with others to reduce their costs. Dishonest and greedy landlords flout the law and fill their shoddy homes with immigrants. Short assured tenancies leave people with huge insecurity and all the time social housing is whittled away, while the private landlord rakes in money from housing benefit that should be ploughed back into the social system. Peter Rachman lives and breaths and all the while Ben Parkin must be turning in his grave. I could say SO much more on this subject because I am a PASSIONATE supporter of social housing – but I won’t. That’s a subject for another place and another time.

    As I said we are extremely lucky but we have worked hard to be great tenants and in turn we live in a wonderful place (albeit in a wooden shack upon a hill). When we arrived here the colour scheme was vinyl silk Play Bus…the kitchen was non-existent, the carpets threadbare, the garden a wilderness. Should our landlady ever return from Italy and want it back she will come back to a home.

    Can I also address the snobbery of being a “renter”. When you buy a house with a mortgage you don’t “own” it the bank does (or the building society or whatever”. I couldn’t give a tuppeny what anyone thinks of me renting but I have experienced the sneering of my peers. I think it’s funny.
    A tree falls down and crashes through the roof (never happened, but could) – landlord’s problem; boiler packs up – landlord’s issue; dry rot/wet rot/nail rot/leaks/ broken radiators – alllll the landlord’s problem, not mine. All I have to do is pay my rent. So hey you house (part) owners, dream on….I love being a tenant.

  2. I think we need to be more forthright about the reason renting is not popular in the UK.

    The cost of renting is higher (at least where I am) compared to owning. Landlords do not maintain their properties(and frankly they don’t have to) – mould, damp, broken sanitary ware and the cheapest (& typically most unreliable) of white goods is standard even for flats at 3k a month. It is not about painting walls; it is about the basics: your possessions being destroyed by mould, appliances not fit for purpose, repair requests ignored for weeks, poor insulation, having to run expensive dehumidifiers 24/7 to fight the damp, rats, slugs, flies., and the cherry on top – the no fault eviction!

    It is miserable. I have owned and rented in the last 5 years.

    Renters have no rights – ask for basic repairs and you get an eviction notice. This is not limited to cowboy landlords or the cheapest properties. The British obsession with owning your own home is perfectly rational. The stigma is that renting is precarious, expensive and demoralising. I think FT said (in 2023) something like 25% of rented homes have mould and damp… you cannot keep painting over the damp. I don’t mean to be negative but I think we need to stop suggesting that renters in Britain are overly attached to magnolia walls. British attitudes reflect reality. I am pleased the renters you spoke to have dry, attractive and long term rental properties – but this is not the norm and they are very lucky.

  3. My mother has owned a 4 unit apartment building in a small town in Michigan for 30+ years. She has changed out bath fixtures and kitchens as the tenants changed making it nicer. This resulted in tenants staying for 8-10 years instead of having churn. Making improvements to this building greatly benefits her also with reducing her tax liability. When we last rented the private landlord said he would not replace the in window air condition unit, it would sit there all winter leaking out the heat we paid for, it had been that way since the 1970’s! I find most are like this guy and not like my mother. If you can find a situation where the owner realizes making improvements benefits everyone that’s a great result. But I’m in my 60’s, not 19 so I have higher expectations, especially having been a homeowner.

  4. Genius offering. So many well-considered points of view. Annnd factual up-to-date information. And happy decorating ideas within the parameters of ‘renting’. Yesssssssssss

  5. In 1964 my parents moved with four kids under 5yrs , from a room and kitchen above a shop in Glasgow, to rent a brand new Council house in a different town. It had three bedrooms , a front and back garden , underfloor heating, and inside bathroom. Mum bought this house when widowed in 1988 . When she died last year the family sold the house back to the Council so that a family on the long waiting list could get the chance to rent a good home. I knocked on the door one day and the workmen gave me a tour of the refurbishment . New windows /doors /heating system / new kitchen / new bathroom suite / re-wired / re-decorated.Last week I knocked on the door again and was invited in by a lovely young family who had been waiting in cramped conditions for a good home – I met their 4 kids under 5yrs old including baby! Mum and dad will be so pleased – a secure roof whether rented or bought is like a lottery win!

  6. This all makes so much sense. As an accidental landlady I find the notion of not being able to put things on the wall downright absurd. I have always maintained my property to a good standard but if the tenant wanted to change the decor I would have no issues with it. I’d even go and help. I have open honest dialogue with my tenant and if they’re not happy with something then they let me know and if they are there for a long time and they wanted to change things up why the heck not. Then when they left, i would change it back as a maintenance job. It all needs decorating between tenants anyway!
    It’s sad there is such negative attitude towards renting and that will only change with tenants being made to feel that their space is their own. You change up commercial spaces all the time when they’re rented.

  7. I always said that I would rent forever if the freedom and standards were improved. Too often we’ve seen questionable properties (damp, health & safety issues, etc), or not-great landlords/agents, and sub-par maintenance. It frustrates me that pets are out-right refused without discussion. Even children are sometimes refused, in favour of “professional” types, whatever that means. It’s very hard to find a rental that checks the boxes that doesn’t cost way more than a mortgage for the same size property would cost. All this to say I’m in the south east where it’s all ridiculous. I’m also from a family that _heavily_ pushed for buying a property, as if all my worries would disappear when I owned my own home.

    However, I’d love to see a set of decent standards applied to all rental properties, such as kitchens/bathrooms/heating/electrics no older than x years, children & pets allowed everywhere, more freedom over deposits and contracts, more long-term contracts, etc.

    1. Jo you have such a healthy attitude to your tenants. We have a similar relationship with our landlady. We have vastly improved the property for her, she in turn has done some major improvements that we suggested such as double glazing her wooden house as single glazing was causing deterioration due to condensation. And as she constantly tells us, our long term tenancy has saved her thousands and thousands of ££££s. She never has to suffer months without rent as tenants come and go, she has saved on maintenance due to bad tenants, saved on managing agents who would have charged her for everything and saved on trades that have worked on the house as we have a good network of trades that we work with regularly ….being in construction ourselves. Having bad tenants can be very stressful.
      I love being a tenant, I’ve never wanted to own my own house and while initially our relationship with our Italy based landlady was sticky, over the 20+ years we have lived here we have been blissfully happy and we now have a great relationship.

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