NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- As students head back or head off to college, aside from the countless boxes of clothing, electronics and storage bins, students and their families may take the extra step to creatively improve the look of a dorm room. That no-frills room with basic furniture, fluorescent lighting and bare walls isn't as hard to transform as you might think.

Many residence halls have strict rules as to what students can and cannot do to the rooms, but these aren't an impediment to selective design improvements. “We encourage creativity with items like bedspreads, posters, lamps and plants. The basic common sense rule is to avoid doing anything that may damage the room, doors, walls, furnishings, ceiling or floors, since you will be held responsible for any damage to your room,” says Andy Plumley, assistant vice chancellor of housing services at the University of California, Riverside.

Keeping this in mind, MainStreet asked the design pros to share some simple and inexpensive ideas to add style and warmth to the dorm room.

1. Headboard

While dorm rooms are already equipped with a bed, chances are the bed’s headboard is styled via a traditional wooden frame.

“A simple and inexpensive way to create a fun headboard is to cover canvases with fabric,” says Philadelphia area interior designer Ani Semerjian. Here are the steps to follow:

1. Purchase canvases from your local art store
2. While you’re at the craft store, pick out some fabric that suits your tastes (you can even use an old tablecloth or sheet!)
3.  Cut the fabric to fit the canvas. With a stapler or glue gun, pull the fabric against the canvas and secure the fabric to the wood frame on the back of the canvas.

4. The finished canvas can hang on the wall behind the bed to add a more striking look to the bare wooden headboard that typically is attached to a dorm bed. Attach an adhesive hook onto the wall and most canvases have a hook on the back, which easily attaches onto the wall’s hook.

2. No-sew curtain panels

Especially for dorm rooms that have adjoining rooms or even closets without doors, hanging curtains is an inexpensive way to add privacy to the room. We turned to HGTV Design Star finalist Cathy Hobbs to share some steps for adding curtain panels to the room.

1. Purchase fabric double the width of your enclosure opening
2. Purchase a grommet gun -- these both punch holes and insert grommets (A grommet machine works similar to a hole punch. You place the top and bottom of the grommet into the machine and clamp down -- the hole is created and the grommet inserted simultaneously. A good rule of thumb is about 5 -7 inches between each hole.
3. Fold the fabric on the bottom at the desired length -- add tiny weights if desired
4. Place fusion tape in between your hem
5. Use a steam iron (on steam setting) and place on top of hem, causing the fusion tape to melt and create your closed hem

6. The best way to attach the curtain is to use an adjustable (and removable) tension rod

3. Toss pillows

When it comes to bedding, the sky’s the limit as to how you can design a striking appearance. Hobbs adds these suggestions for creating decorative pillows using scarves.

1. Take two scarves of equal size
2. Face your scarves toward each other with the side you want to expose on the inside
3. Place fusion tape around 3-sides
4. Use a steam iron (on steam setting) and place on top of hem, causing the fusion tape to melt and create your closed hem
5. Stuff your pillow with batting or with a down insert
6. Close the fourth side by using a hand stitch

4.  Personalized pillow cases

Make your current pillow cases stand out with a personalized style. Kirsten Nieman of Restored Style shares these steps to creating a unique pillow case:

1. Gather your supplies (fabric paint, fabric paint brush, stencils, pillowcases and painter’s tape) and wash the pillowcases in advance
2. Carefully lay out your stencils and piece together your letters -- it’s common to paint the letters of your name onto the pillow
3. Tape together your letters with painter's tape and then adhere your letters onto the pillowcase with tape. Make sure the tape is on tight, since the stencils should feel secure
4. Use the fabric paint and a fabric paint brush to very carefully paint on the letters
5. Apply a second coat of fabric paint
6. Let dry for 6-8 hours

5. Vintage picture frames

When it comes to walls, expect unsightly white paint or walls of cinder blocks. And don’t try painting the walls in your room, since most residence halls don’t allow this.

Semerjian tells us about a creative way to spruce up the dorm room’s bare walls -- using old record covers:

1. Find an LP cover that you love.
2. Cut out a space for a personal photo you intend to use, 4x6 or 3x5.
3. Mount the photo underneath the cover and tape the sides in the back

6. Bulletin boards

The quintessential dorm room accessory -- a bulletin board. Whether you need to remind yourself of an upcoming essay that’s due or attach important notes or cards, Hobbs offers these tips for creating a fancier bulletin board:

1. Purchase an existing cork board
2. Wrap cork board with batting
3. Cover in a bright, bold fabric
4. Criss-cross your favorite ribbon using an alternating pattern
5. Add upholstery tack pins
6. Hang -- using an adhesive-backed wall hook  --  it’s that simple

7. Stylish framed chalkboard

In addition to a bulletin board, having a chalkboard in the room is another inexpensive design idea – especially helpful for reminding your roommates that it’s their turn to clean the bathroom.

Celebrity designer, TV personality and expert Courtney Cachet offers these simple steps for making your own chalkboard:

1. Purchase a framed mirror or pick up an old one at a thrift store (Make sure the mirror is small and lightweight. This way, you can easily hang the finished mirror onto the wall using an adhesive-backed hook.)
2. Buy a small can of chalkboard paint to turn the mirror into a chalkboard (You now have a trendy piece of wall décor to be used for drawing or a message board)

To prevent the mirror from cracking as you write on the chalkboard, Cachet suggests adding two or three coats of chalkboard paint onto the mirror.

8. Framed wallpaper

While painting and even wallpapering a dorm room are off-limits, hanging framed pieces of wallpaper helps add color to the room and hide any existing cracks or damage to the wall.  “Nearly all retailers that sell wallpaper allow potential buyers to take home free samples. The sample sizes are usually always substantial in size and perfect for framing,” Hobbs says.

Hobbs shares these simple steps for using your favorite piece of wallpaper as a decorative wall accent:

1. Purchase an affordable frame
2. Take a piece of sample wallpaper -- cut it down to the size of the frame
3. Feed the paper into the frame
4. Hang the piece onto the wall

9.  Lighting from umbrellas

Don’t expect any fancy lighting fixtures in the dorm -- you’ll typically find a basic fluorescent light. Semerjian offers this creative lighting project, which involves umbrellas:

1.  Cluster umbrellas in different sizes and colors
2.  Purchase a light socket kit with a cord from your local hardware store
3.  Determine the amount of kits to purchase, based on how many umbrellas you want to illuminate
4.  Place a small hole in the top of the umbrella and fish the cord through the top to hang the cord from the ceiling (bulb is towards umbrella handle)
5. Wrap the cord around the handle with the light bulb on the end

10. Lighting ideas

Especially if the view from your dorm room doesn’t attract much sunlight, you’ll need to bring some additional lighting fixtures to add a brighter look to the room.

“Few lighting methods are as engaging as candles. Chances are, universities ban the use of candles in their dorm rooms, making flameless candles a great alternative,” says Sean Murphy, DIY specialist at

“These flickering, battery-powered gems are available in multiple shapes and sizes, and you can find them with popular features like LED lighting and remote controls,” he adds.

And assuming your residence hall allows the use of draping a chain of mini-lights, which are commonly used during the holiday season, these lights are a popular choice among students for dorm lighting. “Using some packing tape or even hooks which don’t damage the walls (especially hooks with an adhesive backing to stick to the wall), can offer a decorative brightness that’s ideal for any season,” Murphy adds.

More DIY ideas:

10 DIY projects for renters

10 DIY projects for the backyard

10 DIY projects Under $100

--By Scott Gamm

Gamm is the founder of the personal finance website He has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, MSNBC and CNN.  Follow Scott on Facebook and Twitter.