Cleaning a Disgusting House

RetroactiveJune 12, 2003

I'm buying a 2 story house (living area second floor only, garage below). The upstairs has the original wood walls from the 50s, think fishing cabin, plus wood floors in most rooms. A couple rooms have carpet which I'm tossing.

The previous owners were pat racks and slobs. They have a feral cat living downstairs in the garage squalor to help keep the mice and rats out. This is a cat who didn't use its box but used discarded carpet they kept downstairs. One pet dog upstairs is not very well housebroken, and their other dog is always filthy and smelly. They also have a cat upstairs with an overflowing litter box. Both owners are smokers, too. Whenever I've been inside the house it reeks, I mean, literally reeks of animal smell.

I have no idea how hard it's going to be to clean when they leave, but does anyone have any suggestions for getting the odor out? Will Simple Green and Mr. Clean do the job, or do I need something stronger?

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It sounds like you have a serious 'project' on your hands! Here's what I would do if I were facing it:

1. Throw out every single thing that the previous owners leave behind after the closing
2. Hire a local cleaning company to come in and do a whole-house cleaning. They will get rid of the major stuff and then you can see what remains to be dealt with.
3. Pull up the carpet and look at the wood floors. If the floors have black-stained areas, that is from pet urine. It will never come out even if the floors are refinished. If there are only a few areas you may be able to get away with having the wood (assuming they are hardwood) floors refinished; if it's a lot, it will be easier and healthier to rip up the entire floor(s) and replace with something (anything!) else.
4. Paint all the walls (wood and sheetrock) with a sealing primer such as BIN or Kilz. I think BIN works better but it stinks worse. Open every window in the house and wear a mask too.
5. If they smoked in the bathroom, the smell is probably in the tile grout. To find out, run a tubfull (or shower for 10 mins) of HOT HOT water, with the bathroom door closed. Then open the door. If you gag, you will probably want to plan on ripping out the tile.

I honestly don't know if Simple Green and Mr. Clean will be strong enough. You will need ammonia and lots of it to get rid of the smells that you have. But in areas like the wood floors, woodpanelled walls, and tile grout will never completely be rid of the smells; only totally hard impermeable surfaces (like tile and glass) are really clean-able to the point where the smells are completely gone.

Good luck!!!

    Bookmark   June 12, 2003 at 8:27PM
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Thank you, Lainy. The visible parts of the wood floor look pretty good. There's only one area that looks pet stained and it honestly does not look bad. In the rooms with carpet, I'll pull that up and then probably put in new floors.

With regard to the whole house cleaning, any idea what something like that might run for a 1300 sf house?

    Bookmark   June 12, 2003 at 8:57PM
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To be honest, I don't know because I've fortunately never had the need for a "SWAT Team" - which is probably the best way to approach the house that your sellers have been living in! ;-) You might try looking in your local Yellow Pages and calling a few of the local companies just to ask that question, and to get an idea of what the going rate is. They may charge by the hour (like a cleaning lady would do) or if it's an entire vacant house they may charge by the sf.

I'd suggest that you pull up the carpets so as to give the resulting clouds of dust (yechh) a chance to "settle" for a couple of days before the cleaners come in. Then most of it will probably be on the floors, windowsills, etc waiting to be vacuumed up rather than still flying around in the air. Wear a disposable mask, and disposable gloves when you pull up the carpet. It will be nasty. I once bought a house where the owner had a dog and the carpets were really nasty. The padding underneath was so deteriorated that the fibrous ones practically fell apart when lifted up, and the rubber ones literally disintegrated into dust when touched. Bleah.

If you decide to do all the cleaning yourself, see if you can rent a "drywall shop vac" rather than use your regular house vacuum cleaner or a standard shopvac. The drywall vacs have special filters that keep the fine particles from blowing back into the air like most shopvacs do. I actually bought one just to vac my remodel after all the sheetrock work, sanding, etc. It worked GREAT. Much better than any standard shopvac I have ever owned. It is meant to be used for things like drywall dust and fireplace ash.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2003 at 11:01PM
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I wonder if you should consider contacting one of the companies that cleans up a house after a fire and get a quote from them for sanitizing? I don't think Merry Maids, etc. is who you need.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 1:16AM
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Nancy, funny you should mention this. I was at a consumer product fair last weekend and there were some Hazmat people there. I jokingly talked to them about the house I was buying. The got a laugh out of it and said exactly what you did...there are people who specialize in going in and cleaning up after floods, fires, etc. He said they might be a better choice than a maid service. So I'm going to get a few bids. In fact, it may even be more cost effective to go this way, from what I understand, because they use special equipment that lets them use fewer people.

Thanks for all the advice.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 7:14AM
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Good idea! Let us know how it goes (bids and results). When are you closing on the house?

    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 8:53PM
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Thanks! I close on 6/30. This weekend is the termite tenting. If you're really feeling brave, you can look at the page of exterior "before" shots below.

Here is a link that might be useful: Before - Exterior

    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 10:37PM
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I forgot to include the yard shots. This will give you an idea of what is inside for me to deal with.

Here is a link that might be useful: Yard shots

    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 10:45PM
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good luck Retro,
by the way, if the floors are stained they can be bleached where there are dark spots, special wood bleach.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2003 at 10:19PM
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I've also heard of an ozone machine that the heavy-duty cleaning companies can use to get out odors. Seems to me like someone once said that it cost about $100 to have professionals come in and use the machine, but that it got out the smells that nothing else could. Good luck!

    Bookmark   June 23, 2003 at 2:36AM
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Stella, I wish I'd known about the wood bleach. I had my oak floors redone just before moving in, and the person (I won't say "refinisher", simply because of the horrible job they did!) never even mentioned this possibility even though there were clearly dark waterstained areas. And of course, there still are! Too late now though.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2003 at 8:02AM
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Some people who do hauling can come in and just take away the "stuff" - then I would get some specialized cleaning people in. That might be more cost effective than paying the specialists to haul away trash. Look in the phone book under rubbish removal or trash removal. (I would definitely get quotes both ways, though). Good luck!

    Bookmark   June 23, 2003 at 3:18PM
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Retro -
I used to be a slumlord ... even crack houses are fixable. I assume you are getting all new appliances.

1. Remove all trash, starting in the closets and working your way out.
2. Remove all carpeting and padding.
3. Remove appliances and cabinets.
4. Seal up all scat holes and cracks, except for the front door. Open up all access hatches, closets, cupboards, etc.
5. Get several of the water-activated RAID insecticide foggers and set them off inside. Minimum of one in the kitchen, one in each bedroom, 2 in the garage and one UNDER the house if possible. LEAVE!

When you come back, be prepared to be TRULY disgusted at the dead vermin. And repeat the treatment in 2-3 weeks because eggs will have hatched.

Then you can do the surfaces. Scrub walls and ceilings with TSP, patch holes and prime with KILZ (spray garage interior with KILZ too.

Scrub floors with TSP and a floor buffer's scrub pads, them wipe down with mineral spirits and see what they look like.\

From here it's a straight rehab ... paint, refinish, etc.

OH! make sure you treat the plumbing with some anti-clog stuff, prefreablke the slow-acting overnight stuff.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2003 at 8:42AM
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Thanks. The house was just tented, so anything living is now dead. I know to plug up the holes and re-treat until we get things under control, and I know and plan to do most of the things you've listed, with the exception of removing the cabinets. That's not necessary. The homeowner is very disorganized on the inside of the home, but she's not truly filthy as far as leaving food out, etc. It's mostly just animal and smoke odor we'll have to deal with, and the walls are wood paneled, so I just wasn't sure about how to do a deep cleaning to get rid of these smells.

As far as the outside goes, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they'll clear the property as promised, and if not, we'll try to hold some $ in escrow for removal.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2003 at 9:24AM
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KMC Construction or Servicemaster is the name of the company in our area that does disater clean up etc.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2003 at 3:51PM
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Please be sure to post the "after" pictures! I'm looking forward to it!
Lots of luck to you!

    Bookmark   June 27, 2003 at 1:00PM
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Servicemaster is a national franchise -- they do crime scenes, homes sales (esp after elderly tenants move out), apt complexes, etc. My bil uses them once a year -- he has a so so cleaning lady 1-2 times a month and isn't really bad (tidy, etc.) but has Servicemaster come in once a year to do thorough cleaning -- they clean every surface, even take down and clean the blinds....says they are very reasonable - esp considering the amount of labor required. They usually send in a team of folks, so get done fairly quickly.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2003 at 4:13PM
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the links aren't responding for me...

but since I can offer no advice that hasn't been covered, I'd just like to include a prayer of thanksgiving that there's a family out there willing to take on that kind of rehab work...

    Bookmark   July 11, 2003 at 9:47AM
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Thanks chinacat_sunflower. I took the pages down the other day because we've already started restoring and the place looks so much better already, just with all their crap gone. We're prepping the outside for painting which will start next week. The idea is to get the outside done first, then move inside for work on the plumbing, electrical, A/C, and then finally on small details and refinishing the floors. Then we should be done.

With regard to the inside, here's some info that I'll share that might help someone else. Most of the smell was gone from the house after the carpets were removed. To get rid of the rest of the smell, we are cleaning out the air conditioning duct work, plus having the hardwood floors refinished. It's really remarkable how much better the place smells already, just without their junk and with the carpet gone. The garage area downstairs no longer has any smell now that it's had a chance to air out. What I've decided to do is wait until the very end to scrub the inside walls and clean thoroughly, after the floors are refinished.

This is a very exciting project. I am looking forward to taking the after pictures, because the difference will be quite stunning.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2003 at 11:17AM
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" What I've decided to do is wait until the very end to scrub the inside walls"

Get that white stain covering stuff with the bullseye on the label ... BIN or Zinnser? It covers almost everything, and it's used for smoke-damaged areas. It's way easire than washing and leaves you with a nice white base for painting.

    Bookmark   July 17, 2003 at 5:22PM
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listen i just bought a house and painted all the walls with 50 dollar a gallen paint. I had my contracter remove the tile floor through out the house, but he need to buff out the grout but when he did that it layed a fine dust over all my newly painted walls. The dust is extremly hard to take up and i am out of ideas. I really would not like to repaint any sugestions

    Bookmark   June 2, 2008 at 3:07AM
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Repainting won't get rid of the dust. As mentioned above, try a drywall vac to catch the fine particles. Otherwise, a damp microfiber mop may clean most of it from the walls.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2008 at 11:56AM
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i did try that but the walls got marred

    Bookmark   June 2, 2008 at 8:28PM
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Retroactive - it's utterly amazing how much odor a carpet can hold, isn't it? like it's got ten times its weight in funk?

and oh, gods - older carpet padding! if it's not melted to the subfloor, it's decomposed into stinking orange coffee grounds...the kind of stuff you need a shop vac for, and a t-shirt to use as a pre filter, because if any of it gets in to the filter, it will stink for months afterwards!

you really are brave folk :)

    Bookmark   June 3, 2008 at 12:16PM
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What are "vermin"? Are they bugs in general or something worse?

    Bookmark   June 3, 2008 at 12:27PM
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This is so funny this thread was revived after five years!! I had so much fun restoring this house. I learned a lot and it was very rewarding.

The house came out great. In fact, it was even featured in January 2005 on HGTV's "Before and After" at the end of the show. I've attached a slideshow at the bottom here if you'd like to see. It may take a minute or two to load but I think it's well worth watching ;-)

busymom, vermin are disease-harboring animals, like rats or mice.

Here is a link that might be useful: Transformation Video

    Bookmark   June 3, 2008 at 12:49PM
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That is an amazing transformation Retro. I love the kitchen, the floors, the paint, the decorating. It really took vision to make all of that happen! Thanks for sharing.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2008 at 7:54PM
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A couple of my friends had a whole house cleaning done and it was $300. This was in Vermont.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2008 at 7:36PM
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What a fabulous job! I love the retro look! I was happy to see that you were able to keep the wonderful pink and burgundy tile in the bathroom. Love the exterior colors too. Thanks for posting.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2008 at 11:42AM
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What an amazing video! I'll be the first to admit that I would have passed on that house and said, "are you CRAZY?" Good thing there are people like you who have the time and patience and vision to stick to such a big project. I sure hope you are enjoying the house now. BTW, where (approximately) are you? I noticed a banana tree in the yard and spanish moss hanging from a tree. I'm thinking Florida....

    Bookmark   July 28, 2008 at 9:59PM
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Amazing job! Good for you!!! And I suspect that your neighbors are thrilled.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2008 at 11:56AM
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Thanks for the kind words! Yes, this is in Florida on the sw coast, a mile from the Gulf just about a mile north of the island of Venice. It is a seasonal rental property so if you know anybody who wants to vacation here this winter, let me know!! I've put a link to the website about it below.

I've since upgraded the appliances and gotten some new furnishings so it looks even nicer now. I also had to get a new a/c system and do some additional plumbing repairs, so the thing is still costing me $. But it's a great house and I'm happy to have it.

One benefit I forgot to mention from the original pictures. If you notice there were a lot of used red bricks around the unfinished house fashioned as ersatz-planters. I saved all of these bricks in a big pile and was able to find enough to make a really nice hexagonal shaped brick patio at my house which I've enjoyed every single day since I put it in four years ago.

It's so interesting reading my original posts. Now in retrospect I can't believe I was brave and or crazy enough to tackle the project.

Here is a link that might be useful: Casa Lotta Money ;-)

    Bookmark   September 1, 2008 at 12:59PM
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