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`IT’S ONLY A SUMMER RENTAL’ IS NO EXCUSE

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It's summer and the living is supposed to be easy. Try telling that to summer renters accustomed to the comforts of home.

Summer rentals are notoriously Spartan. No reading lamps, no scatter rugs, no towels. Lots of bare walls. A "fully-equipped kitchen" means odd pieces of tableware, drinking glasses with the jelly labels washed off and a couple of dented cooking pots. And just try to find the can opener!Not to worry.

Bring along some color and comfort in bed and bath linens from home. Then go shopping for kitchen fill-ins and a few inexpensive lamps, a couple of floor mats and a new shower curtain. Most renters head for the discount stores, but true shoppers make a beeline for the flea markets and yard sales.

"For $200 or $300, a rental can be gorgeous instead of grungy, and at the end of the summer you can put it all in a carton and save it for the following summer," says Teri Seidman of New York.

Linda Barnett of Evanston, Ill., preaches the same gospel.

"The few hundred dollars that you spend often is no more than you would pay for one or two nights in a hotel. And amortized over the length of the summer or over several summers, it's negligible," she says.

Barnett leads seminars at Chicago-area stores such as HomeGoods and T.J. Max on how to decorate with inexpensive ready-mades. But she says her greatest accomplishment was a spectacular make over of a house on a Greek island without electricity or heat. After she bought a few creature comforts in town and rearranged the furniture, she and some friends spent two comfortable weeks there.

"I bought coarsely-woven bedspreads, rag rugs, inexpensive unprocessed wool handbags and candles in various sizes and shapes," Barnett says.

She made throw cushions from the handbags by cutting off the handles and stuffing the cushions with pillows found in the house. She threw the bedspreads over the seating and improvised slipcovers from bedsheets in the closet. Total cost was about $200.

"It was worth it to have some creature comforts and something visually pleasing," Barnett says. "I can't have a good time in an ugly place."

Seidman, co-author of "Decorating for Comfort" (Villard, $14.95), fixed up a beach rental on New York's Long Island in the early 1970s. It was her baptism into the decorating business.

She rearranged the furniture, made some judicious purchases and did a little painting - with the owner's permission. She enjoyed the summer, but the greatest reward came at the end.

"The owners asked me to leave it all and even paid me for the stuff I'd added," she recalls.

Over the years in other houses, Seidman has moved lamp tables into bedrooms as night stands, hidden unsightly wall decor and covered "yucky" carpets with small area rugs.

She has turned a camp trunk into a coffee table, spray-painted milk cans to hold cut flowers, covered tables with floor-length cloths, and lit candles at night.

She now owns a house at the beach, but Seidman enjoys doing summer make overs for others. In late spring she was fixing up a small cottage for her mother.

"From a chain store we bought a `Bed in a Bag' that includes sheets, dust ruffle, pillow shams and comforter; a lamp; place mats; and a chest and table in white that you put together yourself. We bought a recliner from the Salvation Army for $50."

Seidman and Barnett have plenty of other ideas for redoing a summer rental quickly and cheaply.

"You can do a lot with sheets," Barnett says, "for example, rigging up a curtain by running a curtain rod through the heading of a twin flat sheet."

Use fabric glue to hem the sheet, or let it puddle on the floor. If there's no rod and you don't want to make holes, buy a tension rod that fits inside the window frame.

To cheer up a dreary room, buy crepe paper flowers and arrange them in a pitcher. Buy a colorful kite and hang it on the wall.

Seidman's must-have list includes inexpensive lamps, baskets, throw pillows and mirrors; colorful dish towels, potholders and place mats; candles and candle holders; and cotton throws over threadbare sofas.

Besides discount stores, she checks out local thrift shops and yard sales.

"Anything you buy, you can spray paint," Seidman says, "and some people would consider this kind of shopping and refurbishing part of the fun of a summer vacation."