You could be forgiven for thinking that Apartment Therapy isn’t exactly beginner-friendly. For as warm and inviting as the popular site is, it pretty much invented the genre of house porn. Each featured space is more gorgeous than the next, right down to the perfectly curated clutter and suspiciously well-groomed dogs.

That said, founder and “apartment therapist” Maxwell Ryan firmly believes that you don’t need a master’s degree in interior design to create a beautiful, inspiring space of your own. His latest book, “Apartment Therapy Complete + Happy Home,” starts at the very, very beginning – before you’ve signed a lease or written a down payment check, when hanging that gallery wall is the absolute least of your concerns.

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Want to go home to one of the swoon-worthy abodes featured in the book’s second section? Start by taking Ryan’s first-stage tips. 

1. Shop discerningly

Before you sign anything, pay close attention to the big picture, not simply the space itself. A big red flag for renters? When the apartment looks nice, but the building’s common areas are in disrepair. “This can mean that only the cosmetics of the space are being kept up, but the maintenance of what you can't see might be lacking and potentially cause problems,” says Ryan. If you’re buying, take a good, long look at both the block and the area. “Think about the health of the surrounding neighborhood, not just the piece of property you are considering,” he cautions. “How do the homes around the home you might buy look? Are there more than one or two for sale? Are the businesses close by ones that you would consider using? Do they seem like they are thriving?”

2. Move smart

Moving should be exciting, not panic-attack inducing. To cut down on the stress, plan ahead, and plan for the worst. “Take an extra day or two off from work right around moving day,” suggests Ryan. “Last-minute packing will be less stressful, and running errands for the things that you end up needing for the new place – that always crop up, no matter what – will be much more enjoyable when you aren't rushed or exhausted after a day at work.”

3. Decorate slowly

Although moving is a great opportunity to explore your personal style and create a beautiful living space, don’t rush anything. “You want to take your time and shop thoughtfully,” says Ryan. “It's always best to live in a place for a bit before making any major design decisions or purchases so you aren't tempted to start scooping up things impulsively that might not make you happy long term.”

The first 24 hours

Take it easy the night of the move. “Do not worry about cooking the first night in a new place,” says Ryan. “Splurge a little and order in something tasty to help celebrate your first night in a new home. There is plenty of time to break out the cookware and dishwashing detergent tomorrow!” The one thing you should attend to ASAP? The smoke alarm. Check the batteries before you even put sheets on the bed.

Modern, meet vintage

If the silhouette of your old couch and the age of your new place don’t quite add up, think twice before you go shopping. “The style of a space and the style of your furniture and decor can be opposites,” says Ryan. “In fact, sometimes the push and pull between eras is exactly what makes an interior interesting and memorable. Modern furnishings in a room with vintage architectural details is fabulous, just as antique pieces can be in a streamlined, crisp, contemporary home.”