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I Have Covid 'Nesting Fever.' But I Hate Fixing Up a Rental Apartment

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At first, I felt inspired by the wave of amateur interior designers taking over my Instagram feed. I watched as they painted their kitchen cabinets, refitted light fixtures and added new dimensions to their suspiciously well-lit apartments.

But as this “nesting fever” has moved beyond these influencers, and taken off among the masses, I sometimes feel like I’m one of the few people who hasn’t followed through on her home-improvement dreams, who isn’t flocking to Home Depot and Wayfair. With the pandemic continuing to keep many Americans inside—using their living spaces as home offices, restaurants, gyms and art studios—more and more people are interested in upgrading their newfound multiuse spaces.

“We’re apt to spend more where we spend more time, and so for those who’ve been experiencing cabin fever or feeling the isolation, the redesigning and the spending money to renovate as a coping mechanism is definitely apropos,” says Dak Kopec, associate professor of architecture at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

Personally, though, I’ve found it difficult to reconcile my pandemic-era budget with possible home upgrades. I total up the potential prices of all these dream-home projects, copy and paste them into a Google doc and then immediately close the tab in horror.

That’s because I rent my apartment, and while I identify as a maximalist when it comes to interior design, for all of 2020 I have yet to update a single piece of home décor. I find myself balking at the very idea of putting money toward what many people see as necessary Covid-time purchases, like a desk, computer stand, comfy work chair or other workspace materials that fit my current apartment. Since moving to working remotely in March, I’ve remained hunched over my kitchen table, straining my shoulders and vainly waiting for the go-ahead to return to my Manhattan office.

Figuring out how much money to invest in a rental is tricky—and a perpetual dilemma for many of my millennial generation. In my friend network, most people don’t have the savings to buy a house. Others are prioritizing paying down debt. The one thing we all have in common: We’re grownups now, and we don’t want to live like college students.

So we feel stuck, and never more so in the pandemic.

Plunking down thousands of dollars to make cosmetic changes can make landlords richer as you spend your own money polishing up their property (although it can also anger them if they don’t appreciate that you tore down a wall without their OK). But other millennials tell me that feeling comfortable and proud of your space—especially in a stressful year like 2020—is worth it. Finding the balance between a worthwhile investment in your home life and a foolish gift to your landlord’s portfolio is sometimes harder than it looks.

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According to Prof. Kopec, people my age might be spending more money on their rentals precisely because they can’t afford to buy a home yet. While we’re all stuck in this pandemic-era limbo, we’re looking to channel that frustration into sprucing up our spaces.

“A lot of young people haven’t been able to afford homes as easily as the generation prior, so I think what we’re seeing is that Covid-19 has provided them an opportunity, and many are embracing it,” Prof. Kopec says of the increased traffic to home-goods stores and the heightened popularity of online shopping.

Chloe Atwater, a 25-year-old lawyer living in Lexington, Ky., says she was initially wrestling with the same dilemma: how much to spend on semi-permanent changes to her not-permanent home. She is renting a house in Lexington for the duration of her partner’s medical-school residency, and while the couple briefly considered buying a home in the area, they ultimately decided to rent and pay down their credit-card debt instead.

They have been living in their house for the past two years, but once the pandemic upended their normal routines, they picked up way more home projects. Suddenly—like millions of other Americans—they found themselves searching Pinterest for hardware hacks and eagerly waiting for certain IKEA items to come off the back-order list.

Ms. Atwater weighed the pros and cons of larger projects, like outside dining tables and chairs that her partner built by hand, or the kitchen-storage makeover they finished earlier last month.

”It all comes from this desire to be cozy and nest, to feel comfortable in our space,” she says. “This has been our refuge. We want to love it and treat it the way it needs to be treated. I feel more emotionally attached to it than I did before Covid, probably because I just don’t leave it.”

Ultimately, Ms. Atwater says she found it easier to make big purchases once she and her partner committed to being in Lexington for at least the next few years. “Knowing we’re going to be here for a while made it easier to make big choices,” she says.

I spoke with another friend who estimates that all of the money she otherwise would have earmarked for travel, entertainment and going out has been channeled to home-decor items and trips to the hardware store. In fact, she admits, she may even be spending more on these things than she once thought: almost $3,000 since the start of the pandemic, including painting a mural for one of the walls. In March alone, she spent $1,000 outfitting her apartment.

Now she’s in between apartments while traveling, and had to sell some of her furniture and put some of it in storage. But she says she doesn’t regret the purchases. The projects helped make her space more comfortable and personal in the midst of a super-scary time (and, she says, having a focus helped chase away some of the pandemic-era fear, thanks to a little retail therapy).

I also don’t think I’ll be in my apartment forever—or even for the next year. Since moving in four years ago, our landlords have steadily increased our rent, and seeing friends move into cheaper rentals with more space, I’ve started to wonder if it’s time to open Zillow and explore something more permanent.

But in addition to that feeling, there is another Covid-era truth I have struggled to accept: For now, those two spaces—work and home—have collapsed into one, whether I like it or not. And that’s not changing soon. “We have to make financial decisions today based on the knowledge we have today,” says Charlotte Geletka, managing partner at Silver Penny Financial, a financial-planning firm.

After talking with Ms. Atwater and Prof. Kopec, I realized there was something else bubbling underneath my hesitancy (beyond my usual frugality). I wasn’t yet ready to accept that by investing in an at-home workspace, I’d be acknowledging something bigger: that we’re going to be doing this for a while. I won’t be returning to the office soon, and my pre-pandemic routine will remain forever changed. Maybe it’s time to join the line at Home Depot and find some inspiration.

Ms. Carpenter is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. Email her at julia.carpenter@wsj.com.

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