Expat-friendly tips to turn your apartment into a space you love


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US expat Jessica Stanton (@thejessination) doesn’t live in Beijing. However, after you see her Chongqing apartment renovations, you’ll understand why we asked her to share some home decorating tips with our community.

Her interior design advice is expat-friendly, cost-conscious, and useful no matter which city you reside in. Below is Jessica’s renovation story and tips for creating a space that feels like home.

During my first 6 months of living in China, I had one foot in and the other out of the door. I bought the bare minimum in terms of decorating in my first place because I didn’t think I’d stay.  My job was frustrating, the language barrier was difficult, and the staring… just so much staring.

About 9 months in, I decided the benefits of living here outweighed the negatives so, I signed a second-year teaching contract. My next step was finding a second-year apartment.

I hated my first place. The location was ok, but the unit was old and dark. It was the best thing I could find though after 9 days of living in a hotel. My company changed locations around the same time my lease was ending, so that gave me even more reason to look for a new place.

My new place was almost perfect from the start. It was modern, had a great view, located in a newer building and within walking distance to my job. However, it was missing a TV and a wardrobe/closet. That’s how the makeover began.

The previous tenant in this studio used a projector onto a blank white wall. That was a cool space-saving set up, but that wasn’t going to work for me. I asked for either the rent to be lowered or that a TV be purchased and installed.

The landlord opted for the latter and offered to buy a wardrobe as well. The TV he chose was great, but his idea of a wardrobe looked more like a circus tent.

I decided with the amount of money I was saving by moving to a less expensive place, I could afford to get the one I wanted from Ikea myself.

Once I moved in, I headed to the store with my measurements and designed it. I LOVE how helpful everyone is at the Ikea in Chongqing. They happily set up the delivery and installation. I was shocked when only one person showed up to put this giant thing together, but he did it, flawlessly.

Including labor and delivery, it was about 4,000 RMB. It’s the most expensive thing in the apartment, but worth every yuan.

Soon after it was installed my landlord came by and saw it. He and his wife both loved it and I could see the ¥ signs in their eyes. I’m sure they know they can rent this place for much more now. They were visiting at my request to remove the uncomfortable sofa and a clothing rack.

As far as permission goes, I asked if I could change the wall decorations at the lease signing. The previous tenant left some framed prints, 2 metal hooks screwed on the wall and a large panda sticker. I did not ask if I could install wallpaper. That’s way too specific! Plus, I had no intention of doing that initially.

When they had no issue with me removing the sofa and adding the wardrobe, I knew they’d be ok with whatever I wanted to do.

Inspired by murals I’ve seen in my travels, I decided to search for some on Taobao. I contacted a seller who had a style I loved, and he set the whole thing up. Through Wechat translation, he told me how to measure the walls and arranged for someone to install it.

In total it was 1,160 RMB. Not bad at all considering I had the entire length of one wall, floor to ceiling done, plus two doors. My request for the wallpaper to be added to the doors was discouraged by the installer, but I’m so glad I didn’t let him deter me.

One door reveals the bathroom, the other is the kitchen and both looked more like they led to hospital rooms. He was afraid the glue wouldn’t last because they are opened and closed frequently. 6 months later, it’s fine.

I was elated about the wallpaper, but then another issue arose. The trim of the doors now stood out hideously. This led to the most labor-intensive thing I’ve done in the apartment. Painting.

First I had to find a store that sells wall paint. That was much more difficult than it sounds. Once I found B&Q, <by asking in a Wechat group “Is there a store like Home Depot or Lowe’s here?”> I had to choose a paint swatch from the hundreds available and explain I only needed a quart; not the huge gallons they were trying to sell me.

The mural had so many pretty shades I could play off which made choosing ONE shade impossible. So, I left the store with three. White, and two different blue/green turquoise/teal shades.

After sanding and prepping the trim, I painted it white. Too safe, too boring. I was glad I got the other shades. I ended up using both. One on the outer trim, one on the inner.

This took weeks because many coats were required, and I’m probably the only one who notices the subtle depth the two shades provide, but everyday I look at it with heart eyes. Totally worth it!

My Tips:

Ask first: If you find a place you like but it’s missing something or needs a paint job, ask if the landlord can make the changes before you sign the lease. They are much more willing to make improvements quickly when a years’ worth of rent is on the line.

But do it anyway: Unless given explicit instructions to not alter something, all is fair game. I’ve viewed/visited at least 50 apartments here and more than half had some sort of weird/ugly/ridiculous thing(s) left behind from previous tenants.

Whatever you decide to do will likely only improve it. The worst that can happen is you lose your deposit when you move out.

Taobao vs Ikea: My first year here, I didn’t understand the Taobao hype. I thought it was just for clothes. I spent a lot of time and money in Ikea. A year wiser, I need a Taobao addiction support group. Searching for things by photos changed my life.

I’d go to my favorite home store websites, screenshot, and tada! Every time what I wanted came up for a fraction of the price. Much like all apps these days, Taobao starts to curate things you might like, and they appear every time you open it.

90% of what I have came from there. Sofa, rug, bar stools, bedspread, aquarium (not the fish but those are on there too), and even some of my plants. Almost everything is much less expensive than Ikea. Hello addiction.

Honorable mentions – The stores OCE, and NOME, have reasonably priced housewares. Muji & Zara Home are great if you want to splurge.

Wechat groups: Your city has an expat group. Join it! You may also have a group for buying and selling used items in your city. That’s an excellent low-cost way to get some things for your new place and possibly make some new friends.

Is it worth it?: YES. Even if I decide to only stay here 1 year, it was worth it. Living in China can be quite trying at times. It feels great coming home to a place of peace, and the one thing in this crazy world I can control. It’s highly possible I’d stay here another year just because I love my apartment so much!

Useful home decorating Taobao links

Wallpaper:【北欧清新文艺叶子5d手绘树叶3d电视背景墙壁纸8d客厅沙发壁画】https://m.tb.cn/h.eMvUD18?sm=6fcd5a 点击链接,再选择浏览器咑閞;或椱ァ製这段描述¢VhLRYoQGEay¢后到

Couch: 【美式三人绒布拉扣沙发客厅样板间简约后现代金脚轻奢北欧皮艺沙发】https://m.tb.cn/h.eMvgboG?sm=d9f6f4 点击链接,再选择浏览器咑閞;或椱ァ製这段描述₤1qCGYoQuoh5₤后到

Jessica Stanton is a US native living and teaching English in Chongqing, China. Outside of teaching, Jessica is an avid traveler, Blogger, and Youtuber. 

To learn more about Jess connect with her on social media. 

Instagram: @thejesstination

Blog: TheJesstination.com 

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCchQzJbSm1hh0vJ87j4Ov9g


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