How to make a temporary place feel like home when you’re a digital nomad

My living area.
My living area.

So far this year I’ve lived in Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, and Seattle. And that’s only from January – May!

Sometimes people ask me if I get tired of moving so frequently. So far, the answer is no. I love it! It’s been fun to experience various locations for more time than I would on a typical vacation. I love exploring cities and neighborhoods that are new to me.

Living full-time in Airbnb rentals

If you know me, you know that one thing I’ve always loved is decorating my space. I love bright colors and I spend time reading blogs like Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, and Houzz. But, when you’re living in other people’s spaces, you don’t get to spend much time decorating.

I deal with this in a few ways.

First, as you may know, I usually find places to live on Airbnb (where locals rent out homes and apartments). The great thing about that is that you can get a sense of what the space looks like before you rent it, or even arrive in your new city. They usually have several big, bright photos, and extensive descriptions, ratings, and reviews of each space. Hosts on Airbnb can ask for Airbnb’s professional photographers to come take pictures of their space, and most do. One downside of that is that they usually make the space look bigger, better, and brighter than it is! (wide-angle lenses, etc). But after you take that into account, you can get a pretty good idea of what kind of space you will get.

I enjoy browsing their site and choosing a place that I like the look of. Instead of picking out each element of my design, I’m choosing a whole design at once.

An Airbnb apartment I stayed in in Omaha for a few days.
An Airbnb apartment I stayed in in Omaha for a few days.

My favorite place that I’ve lived in so far (design-wise), was the little bungalow in Echo Park, LA. It was decorated with modern furniture and bright colors — just like I would do myself! That was fun to stay in. There is something about beautiful aesthetics that matters a lot to me – especially in my living space.

Green living room in Echo Park Bungalow
My favorite Airbnb rental so far. In Echo Park, LA, where I lived for the month of February.
Click through for more photos.

Here are some photos of the Airbnb places I lived in this year.

Airbnb apartment in downtown San Diego.
Airbnb apartment in downtown San Diego for first half of March.
Airbnb apartment in Portland for half of March.
Airbnb apartment in Portland for second half of March.
Airbnb apartment in Portland for the month of April.
Airbnb apartment in Portland for the month of April.

A few of my own items travel with me

Another tip, when I’m staying in other people’s places, is to bring a few small items of my own with me. For example, I have two iced-tea spoons that I love to use. I bought them at Tealuxe in Cambridge, MA quite a while ago and it makes me happy to use them in each place I live. Unfortunately, I accidentally left them behind in San Diego, so I bought two new ones in Portland.

I also have a kitchen towel with yellow, green, and blue stripes that I bought at Crate and Barrell a while ago – I bring that with me and use it in each place.

kitchen towel
My favorite kitchen towel comes with me.

Moving things around

Also, I don’t hesitate to move things around a bit, such as switching bedside tables from one side to the other. If there is something I’m not going to use (like a coffee maker), I tuck it away in a cupboard or cover it with a cloth I bring with me (I covered the TV in one place, since I knew I wouldn’t be using it). This makes the environment feel clutter-free and calm.

Little things like that make me feel at home, even when the place I’m in was decorated by someone else.

Customizing my audio environment

I also care about sound and music, so I use my little Bluetooth speaker, along with several iPhone apps to make my audio environment pleasant.

HMDX Audio JAM Bluetooth Speaker
HMDX Audio JAM Bluetooth Speaker – tiny, with great sound.

I use TuneIn Radio or the NPR News app to listen to local public radio stations. I use Stitcher to listen to some of my favorite podcasts. And I use Pandora for most of my music listening, along with my own music that’s loaded on my iPod Touch.

I also bring practical things like extension cords, power strips, and over-the-door hooks.

NPR News and Stitcher iPhone apps
Listening to a local station in the NPR News app. Podcasts in the Stitcher app.

When I’m in a place that’s potentially noisy (windows on a busy street), I turn on a white noise app at night while I sleep. My favorite one is Ambiance, and my favorite sound is “hollow wind” – the sound of a windmill with nature sounds in the background. With this app you can browse a huge list of ambient sounds and download and save your favorites to play offline.

Ambiance for iPhone - white noise generator
Ambiance for iPhone – white noise generator

Renting my own apartment for six months

I’ve decided to stay in Seattle for a total of six months (May through October). Staying longer means that it makes more sense to get my own apartment, because it’s cheaper than staying in Airbnb rentals for six months. The upside is that I can decorate my own place! The downside is that it costs money and time to do that, and I will need to find a way to get rid of everything when I leave at the end of October.

Luckily I found a “micro-apartment.” I looked at all kinds of places, but the micro-apartments made the most sense to me as a digital nomad.

What are micro-apartments?

Micro-apartments (also known as micro-lofts or micro-studios) are a housing trend that involves building small, usually eco-friendly units, in neighborhoods of major cities where the rent is usually very high. They cut back on cost by cutting back on space. These are aimed at people in stages of their lives when they don’t have many possessions. They often appeal to students, or young professionals who want to live in the city and haven’t accumulated many possessions yet. They are also appealing to “empty-nesters” or others who have downsized, single people, and anyone who wants to live in a simple way that doesn’t use too many resources.

One of the best features for me is that they allow short-term leases. Also, they usually come partially furnished, with at least a bed, desk, and chair. So that means less furniture to buy.

Another good thing about micro-apartments is that they tend to be in neighborhoods where it’s easy to get around without a car. I’ve been car-free since 2005 and would like to stay that way.

The rents for micro-apartments are cheaper than traditional rentals, since they are so small. (This is true in Seattle and several other cities, but not true in Boston – their so-called micro-apartments are expensive! If you want a better deal for micro-apartments in New England, try The Arcade in Providence.)

Space is the one thing I’m happy to give up for the advantage of being in a great neighborhood, in an eco-friendly building, partially furnished, with a short-term lease.

Seattle is known for having lots of micro-apartments. I wanted to look at some of the ones from Calhoun Properties (known as “Apodments”) because many of them are in good locations and the prices are very low (between $550-$900/month). But they required so much paperwork up front to even show me a unit, that by the time they got back to me, I had already found another place.

I also looked at some traditional studio apartments that I found on Craigslist, in cute, vintage buildings with hardwood floors and interesting built-ins. I liked these, but they just couldn’t do a short-term lease for me. And I would have had to buy more furniture to fill these slightly bigger spaces.

Why a micro-apartment is perfect for me right now

I ended up finding a place I like (LOVE!) from Footprint Properties. I looked at three of their buildings. Some of the units were so tiny (with no view), that I couldn’t imagine being happy there. Others had a loft bed with a ladder for climbing in and out. That seemed too inconvenient for me.

Room with a view

Micro apartment with sunlight
Lots of light comes in the large windows.
Floor to ceiling windows and lots of trees.
Floor to ceiling windows and lots of trees.
View of downtown Seattle.
View of downtown Seattle.
Windows from outside
Yes, the windows open and have screens and shades.

The unit I ended up with is just right. It’s slightly larger than their smallest units, has a double bed (not in a loft), and the killer feature is floor-to-ceiling windows on a corner, with a beautiful view of downtown Seattle (and of giant trees across the street). It’s on the 4th floor (with no elevator) and I can use the exercise. Being up higher means a great view. Having these huge windows with a beautiful view makes the tiny space feel large and airy. It also has a roof deck one floor up, with a great view of Seattle and a grill for cooking out.

View from the roof deck
View from the roof deck

Everything is included

Also, these micro-apartments include all utilities and internet (hard-wired ethernet and wi-fi, but you can also set up your own router). That makes it easy for me — I don’t have to set up utilities in my name, since I’ll only be here for six months. So far the internet is working really well (fast), unlike the when I was in Mexico last year and had many connection problems.

The total cost of this unit is cheaper than a traditional studio apartment. Having utilities included and not needing much furniture makes a big difference.

Micro apartment
The room is just a rectangle with a full bed, a desk, a closet, a small counter with a sink and a small bathroom.

A walkable neighborhood

I love my neighborhood (Capitol Hill). I can walk to everything. Two grocery stores (one just a block away), a food coop, a Trader Joe’s, a branch of the public library, five or six good coffee shops with free wi-fi, a tea shop, a technical bookstore that reminds me of MIT Press bookstore (and it’s also a cafe), a large indie bookstore, movie theaters, yoga studios, hair salons, doctor’s offices, thrift stores, drugstores, good restaurants, parks, small interesting shops, and frequent bus service to downtown and other neighborhoods.

It couldn’t be better for a walkable location and I’ll write more about the neighborhood in a future post.

Living with few possessions

Since I got rid of most of my possessions when I left Boston last year, I had to buy things like towels, sheets, dishes, and some furniture. So I went to Target, Bed Bath Beyond, Dollar Tree, a Goodwill store, and enjoyed finding just a few beautiful items for my six-month use. I decided to make green and light blue my main colors because it echoes what I see out the window — blue sky and green trees. (There have been more sunny days than not since I arrived in Seattle this month, but even the cloudy days are beautiful – it’s fun to watch the sky change out my window).

View of trees
The green trees and blue sky became my indoor colors.

When you live alone in a micro, you don’t need much — I bought two mugs, two glasses, two plates, two bowls (all at Dollar Tree for $1 each), 2 knives, 2 forks, 2 large spoons, 2 teaspoons (at Cost Plus World Market where they had good quality pieces sold individually), flexible cutting board and two small lamps (at IKEA), a hot-pot for heating my tea water, a small desk fan (Walgreens), a bath towel, hand towel, and washcloth (Target), bath rug, shower curtain, micro-fiber dish dryer mat, throw pillow (Bed Bath Beyond), bedspread (Nordstrom Rack), sheets and bed pillows (TJ Maxx), 2 small wastebaskets, large plastic bowl for mixing salad in, ice cube trays (local hardware store).

Dishes from dollar store
Dishes for $.99 each from the dollar store.
Thrift store finds.
Thrift store finds.

I already had a small rice cooker with veggie steamer on top (ordered on Amazon while I was in Portland), and a sharp knife (purchased in Portland to replace the one I had been carrying for over a year).

Why I don’t need a full kitchen

Small sink, half-height fridge under the counter.
Small sink, mini-fridge under the counter.

One thing I forgot to mention about this apartment: it doesn’t have a full kitchen. For some that would be a deal-breaker, but not for me. What it has is a counter with a small sink that serves as both bathroom and kitchen sink (the bathroom has only the toilet and shower), a mini-fridge under the counter, and a microwave up on a shelf. It’s nice to have a full counter as my bathroom area when getting ready in the morning. The mirrored medicine chest is big and deep, so it holds all my bathroom items.

I don’t like microwaves, so I moved it to the floor and covered it with a cloth. I use the shelf as a place to put my dishes (since there are no cupboards). There is a shared full kitchen on the ground floor of the building, for times when you want an oven or stove or to cook with other people.

I’ve never been into cooking a lot, and I have a habit of making a green smoothie for my breakfast every day. I carry a small travel blender with me to all my locations. Works great! For lunch I always have a big salad, and sometimes rice crackers and hummus, or something like that. So that’s two meals with no cooking needed. (I’m vegetarian and like to eat as much raw food as possible).

Rice cooker
I love my little rice-cooker and veggie steamer.

I do like cooked food for dinner, so I used the little rice cooker to make rice and use the steamer unit that came with it to steam veggies and possibly a veggie burger. Other times I don’t make rice, but just steam potatoes along with the veggies. I use different sauces to make it taste great (toasted sesame oil, for example). That’s my favorite way to eat. If I want something different, there are tons of great, cheap food places within walking distance. Or I could use the shared kitchen downstairs to make something in the oven.

I’m using the desk that came with this place as my kitchen storage. It has a cupboard underneath that has become my pantry, and two drawers for other kitchen items. I bought a different desk to use as my working space.

The cupboard in this desk serves as my pantry.
The cupboard in this desk serves as my pantry.

So it works for me. I’m happy to be in such a great neighborhood for a reasonable rent.

Not all micro-apartments have such a tiny kitchenette

By the way, some other micro-apartments that I looked at had more extensive kitchens. Here’s a photo from a place called Pladhus. It has a bigger fridge, convection stovetop, lots of cupboards, and around on the side (not visible) is a microwave/convection oven. I liked this better kitchen, but the neighborhood wasn’t quite as convenient. It also had a murphy bed, which was interesting, but I didn’t want to pull my bed out of the wall every time I wanted to lay down. It didn’t have a view at all, so it felt much smaller. And it was much smaller than the photos on their website.

Micro-apartment kitchen
Nice kitchen for a micro-apartment – not the one I ended up renting.

Furniture shopping at IKEA with my TaskRabbit

After I got set up with my basic housewares and the included bed, desk, and chair, I wanted a bit more furniture. I decided to use the included desk as my little kitchen eating area. So I needed a living area (with an easy chair or two), and another desk for working. I figured that IKEA would be the lowest cost option for small furniture items, so I posted a job on TaskRabbit to get someone to drive me there, bring the furniture home, and assemble it.

If you haven’t used TaskRabbit – it’s great! You can post any type of job (physical or virtual), and TaskRabbits bid on your job. You can pick the person with the best ratings and reviews, or you can have the system automatically accept the lowest bid. It’s available in several cities and I used it a couple of years ago when I was moving from my condo to a studio apartment in Boston. I love it because you can define any type of task you want and find a reliable person to do it. They get paid through the system and TaskRabbit takes a small cut. They also vet the workers. TaskRabbits I’ve met said they like it because it gives them flexibility to do odd jobs on their own schedule.

My TaskRabbit helping me at IKEA.
My TaskRabbit helping me at IKEA.

My TaskRabbit for this job was great! He picked me up, drove me to IKEA, walked around the store with me and was fun to chat with about which pieces to buy. He kept track of everything and retrieved the items for me, let me use his family discount card, loaded everything in his truck, and back at my place, lugged it all up the 4 flights of stairs and assembled everything in record time! What would I do without TaskRabbit? It’s great. I will probably hire him again to help me sell and donate things when it’s time to move out.

I ended up getting two easy chairs instead of a sofa or love-seat. I also got a very nice, small desk that I like as a place to plug my laptop directly into the ethernet when I’m at home. I spend most of my work time in coffee shops, though, since I like being out in public, around people. Somehow that’s the most productive environment for me.

All the things I no longer need

A closet full of cubbies provides more than enough storage.
A closet full of cubbies provides more than enough storage.
Huge drawers under the bed on both sides. The mattress is thicker than it looks because it's seated inside the bed unit
Huge drawers under the bed on both sides.
The mattress is thicker than it looks because it’s seated inside the bed unit.

The apartment includes big storage drawers under the bed, and a closet with cubbies for storage — all of that is more storage than I need.

As I was shopping for items, I kept wanting to buy things because they were cute, or beautiful, or colorful! Things that I didn’t need. Whoever came up with the idea of making housewares in bright colors was a master marketer! Luckily, since I knew that I didn’t have much room and wouldn’t be here long-term, I resisted buying too many things.

When browsing at Bed Bath Beyond I was really struck by all the things I no longer need that I used to buy — storage containers, complete sets of kitchen gadgets and bakeware, multiple sets of towels and sheets and dishes, etc., etc. I’m so much happier with fewer things in a small place — focusing on experiences more than things.

Eco-friendly building

One thing that appeals to me about these micro-apartments is that they are usually built according to eco-friendly guidelines. This building is rated “Green 4-star” and many of the newer buildings are Certified LEED Platinum. The Green 4-star rating includes things like using eco-friendly paints and surfaces, attention to water use with low-flow fixtures, using energy-efficient fixtures and lighting, and doing eco-friendly landscaping for the grounds (native plants, etc.).

I’ve noticed that in my building all the common area lights are motion-activated, and my ceiling lights are on a dimmer. LED lights are in use everywhere. It’s a non-smoking building, and there is sound-proofing between floors. Energy-efficient washers and dryers are included in the basement level.

Enjoying my new place

My living area.
My living area.

So now that I’m set up in my micro-apartment, I can relax and enjoying living here for six months. I am actually looking forward to being in one place for longer than a few weeks. I can focus on my work (which I enjoy), and on meeting people and having fun. I’ve got a few “friends of friends” that I’m going to meet here and I’ve been enjoying the Seattle International Film Festival, which is going on until June 8.

The only decorating left is to put something on the walls. I’ve got some posters on order. I’m also considering Copygram’s service of making a big poster out of your Instagram photos. I could roll that up and take it with me, or mail it to my next location.

Watching shows on my laptop while the sun sets out my window.
Watching shows on my laptop while the sun sets out my window.
Storage bed with mattress came with the apartment.
The mattress and bed that came with this place is quite comfortable.
The included desk is now my eating area, with the cupboard serving as my pantry.
The included desk is now my eating area, with the cupboard serving as my pantry.
Living area items
IKEA lamp, fresh flowers, thrift shop doily, posterboard on window for privacy from next-door top floor porch. Later I’ll get a piece of semi-transparent Japanese rice paper for this spot.
Small desk from IKEA.
Small desk from IKEA.
Making dinner in my micro-kitchen.
Making dinner in my micro-kitchen.

I’ll post more photos that show the whole room after I have something on the walls.

That feeling of home

One thing I’ve noticed from living in all of these different places for only a few weeks or months at a time, is that it doesn’t take long for a new place to feel like home. Even when I was house-sitting for friends in Boston (which clearly wasn’t my home and I knew it as their home), it began to feel like home very quickly (my friend who shared it with me agreed about that).

It only takes a few days to put your minimal stuff in order and start new habits — like picking up your toothbrush or the kitchen towel without thinking. Having a routine and a few of your own items in use makes it feel homey.

Every time that I leave a place for the next one, I feel a pang of missing it — I think, “I’m going to miss this place!” It’s the same feeling you may have had when you moved out of a place you lived for a long time. I always take a few photos as a way to say goodbye.

It’s kind of amazing to me that I’m enjoying this nomadic life so much. I remember thinking (a few years ago before I left Boston) that I could never leave my beautiful condo in Somerville, MA. I loved that place, enjoyed decorating it, and had many happy memories there. But now I don’t have any regrets at all.

It’s really fun to live so well without needing to own much or spend much.

Enjoying the light on my wall as the sun sets.
Enjoying the light patterns on my wall as the sun sets.

More about Airbnb, micro-apartments, and living small

2 thoughts on “How to make a temporary place feel like home when you’re a digital nomad

  1. Darcy Duke

    Nicole, you can always become an interior decorator! It’s amazing how great you made that place look where you are only going to be six months!

    1. Thanks! The process of making a beautiful environment makes me happy! Also, taking it apart and starting over somewhere else gives me a chance to do it again :)

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