The Ultimate Extreme Cleaning Guide: How to Clean a Really Dirty House

From time to time, situations get out of control. This can be especially true of housekeeping. People get crazy busy, stuff starts to pile up, dust accumulates, and the cobwebs take over. Maybe the bathrooms or the kitchen haven’t been cleaned in a few months, or even years. It does happen.

Maybe you’ve been sick for a while, or maybe you leased your place to someone while you backpacked through Europe, only to come home to a pigsty like you would have never imagined. Whatever went wrong, the issue now is that you have a huge mess to clean up.

Unless there’s been some kind of plumbing disaster or someone kept livestock in the living room, the problem is fixable. It will take a commitment of time and some serious elbow grease, but you absolutely can get the house cleaned up.

Right off the bat, here are a couple suggestions:

Don’t try to tackle it all in one day. What you don’t want to do is set the bar too high, run out of steam on the first day, and get discouraged. Like any big job, it should be broken down into smaller parts to keep it manageable and yourself motivated.

Next, prioritize. Decide what your main objective should be. Is the house just dirty but not messy? Is it just messy but not dirty? Is it both?

If you’re not sure what the difference between messy and dirty is, I will explain. Messy means there’s stuff all over the place: disorganized paraphernalia that belongs in drawers or hung up in closets or filed away somewhere is piled haphazardly on counters or in corners. Messy is clothes on the floor, cracker boxes on the coffee table, shoes and socks kicked under the sofa, toys strewn all over the house. You get the picture. It isn’t pretty.

Dirty, on the other hand, means a sink overflowing with unwashed dishes that are stinking up the kitchen, a sticky film on countertops, inch-thick dust everywhere, old pizza boxes growing mold, cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, toothpaste residue all over the bathroom sink, soap scum coating the tub like a layer of paint.

Figure out what you’re dealing with and then make a game plan.

If the house is both messy and dirty, your job has two phases: removing clutter, then cleaning the dirt. If it’s just messy, your job will be to eliminate and organize. If it’s just dirty, go straight to cleaning.

If there’s a lot of outright trash or stuff to get rid of, tackle that job first house-wide. Get as much clutter picked up and out of the way as possible. If it isn’t trash, but it’s in the way, box it up for now and store in the basement, the attic, the garage or a closet.

Organizing

Organizing a house full of clutter can be a daunting chore. The first thing you want to do is get rid of as much unnecessary stuff as possible. Be merciless. Toss out trash, recycle what you can, donate anything you don’t need, have a garage sale.  (For garage sale pointers, check out my post De-Clutter Your Home: A Guide to Hosting Your Own Garage Sale.)

basket with papers

Have a “giving-away” party: invite friends and neighbors over to help themselves to anything they can use. Place ads on Craigslist and Facebook. If you’re allowed to do so in your neighborhood, put good, usable stuff out by the curb with a “free” sign (don’t put out trash or old electronics). Get creative and do what you have to do.

After purging as much as possible, focus on grouping remaining items wherever they theoretically belong. For example, clothes in their closets or dressers, food and dishes in the kitchen, toiletries in the bathroom, linens in the linen closet or bedroom, etc.

Keep moving things around until you can start to see some sort of organization taking shape. If you’ve still got more stuff than space, get rid of more stuff.

From this point, it’s a matter of designing or refining your organizational system. If you need organizing advice, look to my post Home Organizing Guide.

Cleaning

After you’ve gotten clutter out of the way by tossing trash, purging, organizing, and/or packing stuff up to sort out later, you are ready to begin cleaning.

Assemble Your Cleaning Supplies and Equipment

You’ll need some stuff with which to clean. Here’s a list:

  • Vacuum cleaner and extra bags, maybe even a shop-vac if there’s significant dust or a lot of dirt.
  • A broom and dustpan might come in handy.
  • A dusting tool for cobwebs, one that’s telescoping or long-handled if you need to reach high spots.
  • Microfiber cloths or rags, sponges, eraser-type sponges.
  • Cleaning agents: all-purpose cleaner or ammonia or vinegar, degreaser for the kitchen (dish detergent is fine), glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner for tub and sink, baking soda, cleansing powder.
  • A bucket, mop, toilet brush, scrub brush, nylon scrubbers, possibly steel wool.
  • Trash bags and some boxes for temporary storage of small items that you’ll need to get out of the way (if applicable).
  • Rubber or latex gloves, face mask if there’s a lot of dust, dirt or foul odors.

gloves

To begin, if it’s possible, open windows or doors to let the fresh air in. Don’t use any fans, including ceiling fans, to circulate air if there’s a lot of dust.

Next, if there’s substantial dust or loose dirt, you may want to make quick, crude pass through major passageways with a vacuum or a broom, both to cut down on tracking dirt back and forth and to reduce the recirculation of dust.

Plan to work either room by room or divide the house into sections.

Clean Each Area Or Room

Here’s a quick run-down of what to do. Modify as needed.

  • Remove small objects and either set aside in a box or wash (if they need it).
  • Pick up small rugs and wash or air outside. If they’re really dirty, you may have to toss them out.
  • Take down curtains and blinds that need to be washed. You can also take them down and air them outside, or vacuum them where they hang.
  • Dust from the top down: ceilings, ceiling fans, walls, light fixtures, wall sconces, chair rails, baseboards, baseboard heaters, air vent covers, all furniture, shelves.
  • If there’s lots of dust on furniture or shelves, it’s better to remove it with your vacuum cleaner than with a cloth or dusting tool. Vacuuming traps dust instead of allowing it to re-circulate.
  • Move furniture as much as possible to get into the corners and areas than you can’t reach otherwise.
  • Once the cobwebs and dust have been eliminated, begin washing woodwork as much as is necessary.
  • Wash windows and any glass doors.
  • Vacuum furniture and clean upholstery if necessary.
  • Vacuum floor/carpet.
  • Wash floor/carpet.

Extreme Floor Care

Don’t try to use a lightweight floor cleaning tool on a floor that’s extremely dirty; this approach will only spread the dirt around. Use a string mop and a bucket containing a cleaning agent diluted in water. The cleaning agent can be specialty floor cleaner, all-purpose cleaner, vinegar, or ammonia. (Don’t use vinegar or harsh cleaners on stone.)

When you’re mopping an extremely dirty floor, expect to change your mop water repeatedly. If the water reaches the point that it’s gray, drain it and get a fresh batch.

You can spray an all-purpose cleaner straight from the bottle onto a floor that’s extremely dirty, mopping in sections. Be sure to rinse thoroughly so there’s no cleaner residue left on the floor.

mopp

To remove scuff marks from flooring, try using a pencil eraser, eraser-type sponge, thick baking soda and water paste, toothpaste, WD-40, nail polish remover, or a nylon scrubber with a degreaser.

To clean grout that’s extremely dirty, use oxygen bleach mixed with water. Working in sections, spray or sponge your solution onto the grout and let it soak for ten or fifteen minutes, scrub with a stiff brush, then rinse the area with clear water.

Wood floors need special care. If you have to wash a wood floor, use as little water as possible. If the floor is extremely dirty, resist the urge to saturate it. Keep going over it with your mop until it’s clean. As you wash the wood floor, use rags to dry it so that there’s no water left standing. This step also helps remove leftover dirt. If the rags come up dirty, keep repeating the entire process.

For tough carpet stains, call a professional carpet cleaning service. In some cases, the carpeting may be beyond redemption. If you have a carpet shampooer or steam cleaner and the rugs aren’t too dirty, you can attempt it yourself. Vacuum thoroughly first, pre-treat stains, then have at it.

Extremely Dirty Windows

If your windows are too dirty to see through, you don’t want to tackle the job with a wimpy bottle of glass cleaner and some paper towels. This method would be an excellent way to waste paper towels, glass cleaner, and a quantity of your valuable time.

If windows are extremely dirty, get a bucket of warm water, mix in some ammonia or vinegar (1/2 cup to a gallon of water), and use a cloth or a sponge to wash the window. Keep wiping the glass and rinsing your cloth until the window is clean. Then use a dry cloth to buff the window surface. Switch off your drying cloth as it gets damp; your cloth should be as dry as possible to eliminate streaking.

  • If your windows repeatedly streak or have any kind of haze, wipe with straight vinegar then buff clean.
  • To remove gummy gunk of or dried on residue from glass, use a glass scraper.

clean a window

Wood Furniture and other Wood Surfaces

If somebody has done really bad things to your wood furniture and you feel like it needs to be washed,  wipe it down with a very lightly dampened (not sopping wet!) cloth. Rinse and repeat until you’ve achieved the level of desired cleanliness. Don’t leave any standing water on wood surfaces.

You could also apply a thin coat of beeswax or lemon oil and then buff with a soft cloth.

These same methods apply to wood cupboard doors, wood shutters, wood paneling, shelves, or anything else made from wood.

Any kind of laminate furniture or plastics can also be wiped down with a damp cloth. Don’t use any of the wood cleaning products mentioned above on laminates.

Walls

Washing walls is not a lot of fun. It’s not a little fun. It’s the exact opposite of fun. If it needs to be done, however, here’s how:

  • Clean all dust from the walls by vacuuming or using a dust mop. Don’t skip this step unless you would like dust smeared all over your walls.
  • Use a little bit of mild cleaning agent such as ammonia, vinegar, or all-purpose cleaner in a bucket of water (a quarter cup of cleaner per gallon of water). Don’t use too much cleaner; any residue left the surface will attract dust and dirt.
  • Also use a bucket of clear water to rinse your work area as you go.
  • Start at the top (do the ceiling first if you are washing the ceiling, too). Wipe back and forth horizontally, rinsing as you go.
  • Never spray any kind of cleaner directly onto dirty walls; it will streak. You will wish you hadn’t.

Cleaning an Extremely Dirty Kitchen

An extremely dirty kitchen takes a little time to bring up to code. Since it’s the room where you store and prepare food, you’ll want to do a thorough job.

Before you get too far into the project, check the oven. If it contains any baked-on messes, sprinkle baking soda generously onto the burned areas, then spritz lightly with water so a paste is formed. Let the paste sit to soften up the mess while you clean the rest of the kitchen.

Begin as in all rooms by removing rugs, window treatments, etc. as outlined above.

Do a thorough top-down dust and cobweb removal, as outlined above for all rooms, starting with the ceiling, ceiling fans, walls, light fixtures, etc. Don’t forget the tops of cupboards and the top of the refrigerator.

After you’ve removed as much dust as possible, wash woodwork, doors, cabinet doors, baseboards, window frames.

Wash the windows.

Put some water and all-purpose cleaner or dish detergent in the sink or in a pail and, using a sponge or rag, start cleaning everything that needs cleaning, inside and out. Change your water as necessary.

Refrigerator

Clean outside thoroughly, then inside. Wipe down shelves, side walls, remove drawers and wash in your soapy water. Wipe gaskets. Clean door shelves. Also wipe out the freezer with a sponge moistened in warm water. Use a narrow dusting brush or yard stick with a rag tied securely around it to dust underneath.

Microwave 

Clean outside, paying special attention to fingerprints on the keypad and handle. Wipe clean the inside and remove the glass tray at the bottom to wash in the sink if it’s dirty. If there’s any kind of dried-on-gunky situation inside the microwave, heat a glass bowl or measuring cup of water to create a steam bath. This will loosen up the gunk so you can wipe it clean. You can even place a sliced-up lemon in the water if you want your steam to deodorize at the same time.

Range Hood

Not all kitchens have these, but for those that do: clean on top of the range hood using a degreaser. Remove the vent fan filter, if possible, and wash in hot, soapy water.

Stove Top

If it’s the type with drip pans, take it apart and wash the drip pans in hot, soapy water. If the drip pans are extremely dirty with cooked-on, blackened stuff, you can buy shiny new replacements. Sometimes scrubbing with steel wool pads, scouring powder, or baking soda will get them clean. Or you can try applying a baking soda and water paste onto them and letting it sit for a while to soak up the cooked-on mess.

If you’ve got a glass or ceramic cook top, remove any cooked-on messes with a plastic scraper. Apply a thick paste of baking soda and water to any residue and allow it to loosen up the mess.  Wipe clean with a soft cloth and follow up with glass cook top cleanser, if necessary.

Oven

Go back to the oven and wipe up as much of the baking soda and burned-on goodness as you can remove. This may require more attention at a later date. For more info on oven cleaning, see my blog post Kitchen Cleaning Bonus Jobs.

Countertops

Use specialty cleaner on granite, marble, or other surfaces that call for special treatment. Otherwise clean backsplashes and countertops with a solution of dish soap and water, all-purpose cleaner, or a stronger degreaser if necessary.

Clean countertop appliances, and shift small appliances side to side so you can clean the countertop underneath. Use a nylon scrubber or eraser-type sponge to remove any dried-on messes. Tackle stains with either an all-purpose cleaner containing chlorine bleach or an oxygen bleach and water solution.

wiping a counter

Dishwasher

Clean front, especially keypad and handle. If the inside is in need of attention, wipe clean whatever you can and then sprinkle a little bit of baking soda onto the bottom and allow it to set for a while. Then run the dishwasher on a hot cycle to rinse.

Wipe Out Cupboards and Drawers

Use your vacuum if there are crumbs, mouse droppings, spilled flour, oatmeal, cereal, sugar, or anything else that would vacuum up more easily than wiping with a damp sponge.

Kitchen Sink

Clean with all-purpose cleaner or a little dish detergent. Scrub stains with powder cleanser.

Some additional hints in the kitchen

  • Degreaser is your friend in the kitchen. If you start wiping down cupboard doors or trying to clean the countertops and run into a sticky film of any kind, try using a strong solution of ammonia and water, dish detergent in water, or any all-purpose cleaner specifically labeled as a degreaser. Spray it onto the surface and wipe clean. If that doesn’t do the trick, try scrubbing with a nylon scrubber
  • Deodorize your garbage disposal by running a chopped-up lemon through it.
  • Clean the garbage can. If it’s really dirty, take it outside, spray with bathroom cleaner, let soak, then hose off later.
  • To clean inside the toaster oven: first unplug, then de-crumb, remove racks and wash, wipe down the inside. To clean residue on the glass door, apply a thick paste of baking soda and water and allow it to sit for half an hour, then scrub and wipe clean.
  • Pulling out the fridge and stove to clean under and behind is an optional job. The fridge might be on casters, the stove probably isn’t. Be careful not to hurt your floor or yourself. You can also use a long, narrow duster to get underneath or wrap a rag securely around a yardstick.
  • Remove the cutting wheel on an electric can opener and wash in hot, soapy water.
  • Clean coffee or spice grinders by grinding up a slice of plain white bread.

Cleaning An Extremely Dirty Bathroom

The toughest room in the house to clean when it hasn’t seen any recent attention is the bathroom. As in all other rooms, first de-clutter, remove rugs, textiles, window treatments, etc.

Take down the shower curtain, if applicable. If you wish, try washing it in the washing machine on gentle cycle with a couple of towels in warm water and a little bit of detergent and some vinegar. Don’t dry a plastic or vinyl shower curtain in your clothes dryer, however. Air dry only.

Dust the bathroom from the top down, including any furniture, shelves, etc. Clean woodwork, windows, light fixtures, etc. as in other rooms.

Sweep or vacuum the floor. Do this step before tackling the shower. No matter how careful you are, cleaning a shower usually results in water splashes on the floor. It’s easier to sweep dry dust and dirt.

Next, tackle the tub/shower. Make sure to ventilate the bathroom by opening a window or turning on the vent fan. Then generously spray some tub and tile cleaner on your tub or shower walls and use a nylon scrubber or eraser-type sponge to scrub the areas you sprayed. Rinse thoroughly.

Alternatively, use cleansing powder and a non-abrasive scrub brush to scrub your tub/shower.

  • If your shower is made of Granite or other materials, use a product specifically made for your surface.
  • If you have mold or mildew, use a cleanser containing chlorine bleach. Alternatively put some 3% hydrogen peroxide into a spray bottle and spray onto the mildew areas. Allow to sit for an hour, scrub and rinse.
  • Remove rust stains with an eraser-type sponge or apply a thick paste of baking soda and water, allow to sit for an hour, then rinse.

Clean your sink with the same product you use on your tub.

clean bathroom sink

Remove tough toilet stains with a pumice stone.

To remove a film on your bathroom mirror, spray with vinegar then buff clean.

Your bathroom should be in good shape at this point, with nothing left to clean but the floor. If it’s a small room, and the floor is extremely dirty, it might be easier to scrub it by hand, which allows you to reach into corners and clean the baseboards more easily.

For more bathroom cleaning tips, see my post The 7 Day Deep Clean Challenge: Bring Your Home Up to Par in a Week, Day 5 Bathrooms.

Finishing Up

Once you’ve gotten everything in the house clean, replace any objects that you packed away, replace scatter rugs, re-hang curtains or other window treatments. Vow to never again allow an extreme cleaning situation to occur, because that was a lot of work. Whew!

Want more house cleaning tips and ideas? Check out my book Clean Like A Pro: Tips and Techniques for Cleaning Your Home Like a Seasoned Professional, available on Amazon.

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