Great Gifts for Every First Apartment

‘Tis the season for … gift lists. And if someone on your own list has just moved into a new apartment–especially a FIRST apartment–there are probably some things he or she could use but hasn’t yet procured.

Let’s assume that there’s already been the obligatory shopping spree at the big three purveyors of first-apartment goods: Craigslist, Target, IKEA. There are things to sit on, to sleep on, to eat from, to cook with. Moving past those essentials, though, here are some other things that may not be in place but would be most welcome.

1.) Safety First!
Let’s get the boring factor out of the way first: this is a decidedly uncool gift, not unlike socks or paper clips. There might be a slight eye-roll accompanying the recipient’s tepid “Thank you.” But safety is sexy, too–and, you know, just a bit important.

A full-fledged first aid kit may not seem like a necessity … until it is. At which point, they’ll be glad you got them the Easy Care Home + Workshop First Aid Chest for $12.99, which has all the bandages, ointments, and instructions you should need for minor first aid. Or, taking safety and preparedness to a higher level, get the American Red Cross Emergency SmartPack Modular System for Basic Preparedness First Aid Kit for $39.99, which has pretty much everything you’d need to get through any disaster short of a direct hit from an asteroid.

A good flashlight–not the little keychain kind but something that can light up an entire room–is also a necessity if the power goes out. Get one that is hefty and durable, like a $14.99 Rayovac’s Indestructible.

A carbon monoxide detector will keep your apartment-dwelling friend safe from this odorless, colorless, killer gas. The best option is one that plugs in but has a battery backup such as this $46.00 Nighthawk  available from Home Depot.

If security is a concern, a battery-powered door alarm provides easy-to-install and low-cost peace of mind. For example, RadioShack’s Door Alarm runs just $13.99 and offers instant or delayed alarm settings.

2.) A few good implements for the kitchen and the table
Second-hand dishes and silverware can have a certain funky charm, especially if they’re passed down from grandma or otherwise have some family connection or retro appeal. But it’s also nice–especially when guests come over to see the new apartment–when the items on the dining table all match. And there are a few kitchen necessities for which there simply is no substitution.

First and foremost, a good knife. When I asked my Facebook friends for their suggestions for this article, this was the most popular offering, and I agree. For my own first apartment, an office colleague gave me a Wusthof Classic Hollow Edge Santoku Knife, which I still use every day, for pretty much everything. It feels cozy and comfortable in my palm, like shaking the hand of an old friend who just so happens to also be able to slice a tomato into parchment-thin sheets. A really good knife can be pricey, my Wusthof goes for $69.95 on sale, so look around for deals. A good paring knife or two will also come in handy day after day.  For more great first apartment kitchen items check out this post by Sam.

A full set of matching dinnerware, silverware, and glasses, minimum of four each (preferably more). Even TV dinners or frozen pizza will look better on matching plates; they’re a must-have for entertaining company. Same goes for silverware and drinking glasses and, if appropriate, wine or beer glasses. No need to break the bank here–Target offers 16-piece dinnerware set (four mugs, four bowls, four large plates, four small plates) for $29.99, a 20-piece flatware set for $19.99, and a 12-piece drinkware set for $19.99.

3.) A toolbox and a few necessary tools
Not a Leatherman, not a Swiss Army Knife, not just a roll of duct tape and a container of WD-40. Real tools. The necessities: a hammer, wrenches, pliers, a tape measure, and a drill. These will get any apartment job done in full–and I speak from experience when I say that a rolling pin and a stapler simply are not adequate substitutes for a hammer. Your local hardware store or Home Depot are the go-to places and sell the tools separately and in ready sets.

4.) Art beyond posters 
The fastest way to get see a person’s interests and personality is often to look at his or her walls. Are they covered with a hand-crafted graffiti mural? Tasteful black-and-white photos in perfectly square frames? Intricate Japanese woodcuts? Because it so subjective, so personal, art can be a somewhat risky gift. But if you’re confident that you know the recipient’s taste, help him or her expand beyond Star Wars or Starry Night.  Check out  20×200, which offers limited runs of interesting art, starting at $24, or for higher-end but still affordable art by well-known artists visit

5.) A reminder of home
With new digs come new pangs of homesickness. Ease the transition and make the new apartment feel like it’s truly home by giving a memento from their roots. Go to Etsy and search for the particular place and item you want to find, like “Minnesota maps.”  For wearable hometown pride,  Neighborhoodies offers people the chance to emblazon their ‘hood on their apparel.

6.) A gift card for a local hangout 
Roots are important, but so is moving on and adjusting to new environs. Help the process by getting your friend out of the apartment and into the new neighborhood, meeting new people and learning the ways of this territory.  Do some research–ask others you know in the area, look at newspaper listings, or check Yelp–to find a coffee shop or restaurant nearby, then call or head to their web site to buy a gift certificate.

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Author My First Apartment

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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Comments (1)

  1. Avatar megan

    When it comes to gifts for someone with an apartment, I love the idea of art as it can bring life to their living space.