"Come over to MY place" is a phrase said proudly by many people - once they complete the transition from their childhood home into their first apartment. However, making the transition is often a challenge - as the all-American dream of a spacious penthouse apartment with show-stopping decor and view often evolves into the reality of a small flat, complete with family hand-me-downs, an alley view and - roommates.

But, as three college graduates recently discovered, first-time decorating, even on a budget, can be fun and successful.The decorating experts from J.C. Penney and Seventeen magazine found the young women, amidst packed boxes and a few pieces of used furniture, ready to transform their new place into a home they'd be proud to call their own.

Carol Lott, Seventeen decorating editor, says, "The girls, fresh out of college, had just landed their first jobs in the city of their dreams - New York. But the city, famous for high rental rates, made living outside the city a necessity.

"After an extensive search in neighboring New Jersey, the girls found a small third-floor walk-up apartment, short on style, but long on potential. And, as is often the case, their decorating dreams were bigger than their budget."

So where did they begin?

"When you have roommates, two elements are key to the success of your decorating," says Anne Seymour, J.C. Penney fashion director. "First, discuss how you live - how important privacy is; how often you entertain; how housekeeping chores will be divided up.

"Secondly, talk about your favorite style of decorating. Leafing through magazines and pointing out what you like will help determine if you want to decorate in cozy country or sleek contemporary - or a mix of styles. What's most important is to honestly share your feelings and expectations BEFORE you begin to decorate."

Following that advice, the three roommates concluded that although they all liked for friends to visit, privacy was important.

As budget was a key focus, the rooms chosen for the first makeovers were the bedrooms. When sharing an apartment, the bedrooms really are the only haven of privacy, making them a priority to decorate in each person's specific style.

"There are tricks of the trade," adds Seymour, "that can help decorators stretch their budget with delightful results." For example, one of the roommates selected a romantic country look as the theme for her bedroom.

She began her decorating by covering a plain wooden screen with floral sheets, creating an eye-catching piece perfect for hiding boxes or a bike stand. She hung simple lace curtain panels. Used alone, they filter the light as well as help hide an unattractive view. She lined window sills with potted plants that peeked through cheerily. She mixed and matched floral and checkered bed-coverings for an interesting focal point.

She stained unfinished furniture with dye and waxed it to a soft sheen. She purchased several pieces of wicker furniture. New or old, natural or painted, wicker easily tucks alongside other items to break up an all-wood bedroom suite and softens the look.

One of the other roommates decided on a sleek, contemporary look in her bedroom. She selected a do-it-yourself canopy bed frame. She found it easy to put together; and it fit around an existing mattress, giving the bed a custom look. She then added drape fabric for a one-of-a-kind canopy.

For the windows, she decided on vertical-louvered shutters as a change of pace from traditional lined draperies. They provided both privacy and a pared-down look she wanted. When the "do-it-yourself" decorator finished the project, she was thrilled with the results.

"Most of all, decorate to please yourselves," Lott said. "If you keep that in mind and are willing to do some of the work yourself, you won't believe how much fun you'll have decorating."