WASHINGTON - Margaret Carter was looking for a short-term relationship: Interior designer, formerly of Colorado and so over log cabins and antler chandeliers, ISO charming rental to make over as home, office and design lab.

While scrolling Craigslist a year ago, she spotted this: "Great 4BR/3.5 BA four square farm house."

Carter, an old-fashioned New England girl, loved the look of the 1919 house in Arlington, Va., with its wraparound porch, heart-of-pine floors and high ceilings. It had tons of potential, but then there was the beat-up linoleum kitchen floor, cracked plaster walls and dated bathrooms. She knew she would have to whip out every design trick in her portfolio to make the "as is" house a home and a calling card for her business. She moved in last April.

"It reminded me of a frat house," says Carter, 45. "But I fell in love with it." She envisioned the spacious rooms polished and filled with furnishings in her decorating style, which she describes as "London chic with a bit of Connecticut barn."

The landlords, who lived in the house with their three small children and had little time for fixing up, were intrigued by the possibilities Carter proposed. They negotiated a plan to recognize the investment Carter would make in the house: The owners agreed to plaster and paint the walls in colors chosen by Carter, take down light fixtures and remove mismatched cabinets. Carter would use her own contractor to upgrade bathrooms, install lighting, restore wood floors and paint cabinets.

"It's important to me that I live in a place I can be proud of," she says. "This recession is not an excuse to live in an ugly environment. Dated light fixtures and ugly oak ceiling fans can really bring you down."

Carter hadn't lived in a rental property in 20 years. She grew up in Wilton, Conn., in a home made of two converted barns. Her parents, who collected antiques, also took the family to England to live. In 1997, Carter moved to Boulder, Colo., to start her own antiques business and wound up spending a decade in Colorado decorating mountain homes and condos. In 2007, she sold her interior design business and home in Telluride and headed east. After taking a year off, she settled in Washington, where she had spent summers working for a flower designer. She had fond memories of the area's old houses.

When she returned here just as the country was slipping into a recession, she knew she had to use her nest egg to start her business, not invest in real estate.

"It all was a crazy gamble in this economy," she says. She settled into the freshly painted house with a long to-do list and spent $12,000 on immediate improvements: Siding was power-washed, windows professionally cleaned and 1970s linoleum floors ripped out. She remodeled the bathroom, painting walls melon, laying a yellow Marmoleum floor, installing a modern medicine cabinet, repainting the claw-foot tub and adding a glass doorknob from Anthropologie.

"I can't justify $5,000 window treatments for this house," says Carter, who prefers to save for something she really wants. So, except for a few Roman shades, windows are bare, showing off period moldings, not silk curtains. There aren't a lot of rugs, and she misses having a headboard. "Like everyone else, I can't do it all. The bed I want by Dessin Fournir costs $11,000. I'll wait," she says.

Now, the upstairs offices bustle with her staff of two plus several interns.

Is she anxious about how long she'll be able to stay? "If I live my life wondering when I'm going to get kicked out of here, I'll drive myself crazy," says Carter. "My lease goes until the fall. Right now, I'm enjoying every day."

Frugal ways to

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