During the summer of 2020, Imani Keal felt like the walls were closing in. Her Washington, D.C., studio apartment felt even smaller than it was. To decompress from pandemic-induced stress, she would stroll around the Georgetown neighborhood, picking up knickknacks, items discarded by fleeing students and left on the street.
She’d also wander into Ace Hardware just because. “I would be at Ace Hardware two to three times a day buying things I did not need because I did not have anything else to do,” said Ms. Keal, a content creator and a lifestyle blogger.
She took her social media friends on a journey with her during her hunts for trinkets, painting walls — first green, then gray — and staining her Ikea Gjora bed frame with Minwax. Soon, hundreds of followers on TikTok and Instagram turned into tens of thousands.
What began as therapy and an exercise in the limits of creativity became a $10,000 investment in her roughly $1,400-a-month rent-controlled apartment. She put in new light fixtures and received a new faucet worth $6,000 for the kitchen sink from a collaboration with a sponsor, updates she considered an investment into her rental apartment. But her interior design hobby became the ultimate work-from-home gig: She estimates she’s made more than $80,000 from her apartment content through brand deals with companies such as Ikea, Walmart and the alcohol delivery platform Drizly — enough to quit her job as a project management associate for a kitchen and bath company.
Homeownership has long been held up as an investment toward a wealthier future. But some renters — particularly those in big cities where homeownership can prove elusive — are making their rentals as homey as possible. And others are turning their rentals into moneymakers, cashing in on social media algorithms that favor so-called “aesthetic” apartments, often with picturesque views from floor-to-ceiling windows, white, cloudlike sofas and minimal, beige décor. Apartment dwellers who want their spaces to shine on social media platforms — and potentially lead to brand deals — should follow this aesthetic, says Ryan Serhant, a New York-based real estate agent.
“It’s gotta be light, bright, with big views, or it’s gotta have character,” said Mr. Serhant, who also hosted the Bravo show “Million Dollar Listing New York.”
Earnings can range from a few thousand dollars to sums in the low six figures, according to managers who broker deals between influencers and brands. Many influencers prefer monetizing their content through Instagram or YouTube, which allows creators to earn money through advertising revenue, over TikTok, which pays through a pooled creator fund.
Apartment dwellers willing to post their home décor and design on social media can also rake in money simply by showing off a rug or kitchenware gifted to them by a brand. (Companies, like Ruggable and the home fragrance company Pura, are known for working with influencers and content creators.)
Sometimes the payoff comes as a discount, like comped or discounted rates for an apartment move through well-known moving companies like Roadway or Piece of Cake, which offers a 10 percent commission when a person books a move using their referral link.
The money is a relief for some renters. The median rent in New York City is $3,350, and $2,600 in Washington, D.C., according to the real estate marketplace website Zillow. Buying a home in a large city isn’t much easier, with the median asking price in Manhattan topping $1.6 million earlier this year, according to StreetEasy, and nearly $1 million across all boroughs. Most millennials and Gen Z’ers are renters, with about 39 percent of people under 35 owning a home, according to census figures.
Sharing your home life with the world isn’t new or exclusive to social media, said Kelly Killoren Bensimon, a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman and a former cast member of “The Real Housewives of New York City.” Shows, such as “MTV Cribs” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” became cult favorites, giving access into the lives of celebrities, from where they slept to what snacks they kept in the fridge.
“Everybody wants to know where people live and how they live,” Ms. Bensimon said.
It turns out some celebrities were faking it for “MTV Cribs” — just starting out or simply renting someone else’s home.
As fast as the trend of “aesthetic” apartments has risen, a backlash has emerged. Units that aren’t brand-new or don’t look staged have taken off among some creators on TikTok and YouTube, promoting “normal” or “realistic” apartments, an alternative some have called “de-influencing” or “nonaesthetic.”
Yosub Kim, a Brooklyn-based marketing professional looks to platforms such as TikTok but doesn’t subscribe to specific aesthetics, in favor of a more “lived-in” apartment. That means everything is on display — from skin care to Wi-Fi routers.
“It is my space — I have lived here,” said Mr. Kim, who splits a $3,400-a-month, two-bedroom in East Williamsburg with his partner. “I want people to feel like it’s an actual home, and not like a setup or a place where it has to be photographed perfectly.”
Simi Muhumuza, a Brooklyn-based stylist, is the creator of a TikTok sound that, she says, asserts her place in the home décor space without “identifying with specific aesthetics.”
The sound, in which Ms. Muhumuza proclaims, “one thing about my house, it’s gonna be a vibe. Period,” is as much a bat signal to people with “regular apartments,” as it is a meticulously-curated space with bright colors — including a green velvet sofa — and an accented wall in the living room.
“I sometimes think aesthetics can promise a version of a life that, maybe, isn’t real,” she said.
“I wanted to reemphasize that your home is valuable and worthy of being celebrated despite not having those things,” Ms. Muhumuza said, who has since moved from the apartment showcased on TikTok to a brownstone in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, where she pays about $6,500 a month.
There are also drawbacks to putting your home in front of a global audience. Strangers have intimate views into your personal life. In recent years, some creators have said they’ve been harassed by fans, while others say internet sleuths have deduced precisely where they lived based on cues from their neighborhood or even inside their apartments. Some creators said their dream apartments came at the expense of their happiness.
Others, who have pulled back on putting their homes out into the public, say they are re-evaluating how much of their lives they shared online with strangers at the beginning of the pandemic.
Taryn Williford, a former editor for Apartment Therapy, launched an online video series in which her apartment often took center stage.
While she enjoyed helping people figure out cleaning routines during the pandemic, she noticed her job shifting from editing stories mainly behind the scenes to “showing my home and my face to people.” That led to meticulous planning, a three-times weekly video shoot at her Atlanta apartment and worrying about online critics.
“I had a lot of knowledge that I loved sharing with readers,” Ms. Williford said, who shared videos on Instagram and Apartment Therapy. “But there was this conflict between what I was telling readers to do about how to take care of their homes and how I was treating my own home life.”
The idea of sharing your space with the world — how much you pay, the throw blankets on your couch, even the dishes in the sink — is likely to stay in the age of social media. Today’s influencer, Mr. Serhant said, is yesterday’s ‘Sex in the City,” — a nod to the show that inspired a generation of people to move to the city seeking a space like Carrie Bradshaw’s fictional Upper East Side pad whose facade was actually in the West Village.
“Everyone wanted to be next to Magnolia Bakery in the West Village,” Mr. Serhant said. “Today, where are the influencers living? Right in the city — they’re in sky rises, have huge views, and have insane amenities. People are watching that and saying, ‘I wanna go where that is — I want the skyscraper.’”