I might wish the family business had been millinery or artisanal cheese production, but (grumble, grumble) I know growing up with landlords was good for me. At the very least, my early acquaintance with wet paint, crusty stovetops, and grout taught me useful skills and cured me early of any princess-y squeamishness I might have been disposed to.
My mother bought her first rental property—a duplex we occupied half of—when I was in elementary school. She taught me, and then my younger brother, that helping out with “turnovers” and renovations was part of our responsibility to the family. I took pride in my early specialization in wallpaper removal. Later, I was allowed to paint, grout, pull up carpets, and even refinish hardwood floors.
Cleaning was the most consistent part of the work—it was a rare tenant who left their apartment ready for the next. When I was 19, I became the live-in manager of my mother’s 20-unit converted Victorian fixer-upper, perfecting my apartment-cleaning skills and only occasionally abusing my power with parties that spilled out onto non-code parts of the roof and shook the ceilings below (it helped that I had moved my then best friend into that apartment).
Having evaluated the cleanliness of many an apartment and done the dirty work required to get it into shape for a new resident I know how to ensure nothing gets overlooked.
In 12 years of renting (from people other than myself), I have been refunded every penny of every security deposit. I’ve also frequently volunteered knowledge and labor to help friends with their end-of-the-month cleaning sprees, and through this, have discovered that a lot of people find cleaning a whole home overwhelming and don’t know where to start.
The single most important part of getting your deposit back is not cleaning, but paperwork. Before you move in to a new place—when you can still see things like stains in the corner of the carpet or a broken curtain rod—you need to fill out a comprehensive “move-in report.” If your landlord doesn’t offer one, you can find a template online. Some landlords will do a “walk-in” with you, others will let you fill out the form on your own. Just make sure you get their signature as soon as possible so you can protect yourself from paying for pre-existing damage later.
Be thorough in your assessment—is there a dent in the wall from where a door handle keeps hitting it? Is the oven clean? Are there scratches in the wood floor or stains in the carpet? Take your time, take pictures, and retain copies. It will pay off if you ever need proof that you weren’t responsible for that weird stain in the tub. On to the cleaning!
You will need these tools, at minimum:
• Old toothbrush
• Sponge with green scrubby
• Abrasive powder like Bon Ami or Comet
• All-purpose cleaner
• Windex (or white vinegar)
• Paper towels
• Rubber gloves
• Oven cleaner
• Broom, dustpan
• Mop and/or vacuum, depending on your flooring situation
• Bitchin tunes to get you in the cleaning mood
Also useful: This cleaning checklist
Let’s assume we’re cleaning a two-bedroom, two-bath house or apartment. Order is vital if you don’t want to have to retrace your steps; you should always proceed from high to low and from low-traffic spaces like bedrooms and private bathrooms to high-traffic spaces like living spaces and kitchens. I’ve seen too many people sweep dust bunnies from ceiling fans onto already-swept floors and clean sinks they then dirty again wringing out sponges and mops.
Maybe this all sounds like a drag, but I promise you an efficient and thorough cleaning can be deeply satisfying—and if not the post-clean beer and pizza will be.
Start high: Wipe down ceiling fans, closet shelves, and the tops of door and window frames. Ninety-five percent of the time I check these on a move-out inspection my finger accrues a thick layer of dust—on the rare occasion it doesn’t, I know the whole place was cleaned thoroughly. I like to use rags because they have more surface area but a sponge works fine too. Check for cobwebs in ceiling corners and on walls and sweep them away.
Now go vertical. You can use a wet rag/sponge on semi-gloss surfaces like windows, doors, and baseboard trim. Any other painted surfaces can be wiped down lightly with a damp rag. Wipe down any fingerprints on doors or plastic bits like light switch and outlet covers.
Open up the windows and clean the tracks. If they’re filthy, you’ll want to first spritz them generously with all-purpose cleaner and mop it up with a sponge (better for getting into crevices). Close and Windex/vinegar. Once your paper towel comes back clean go over once again with a clean towel to get a streak-free finish. If you have dirty/dusty mini-blinds DO NOT waste your time cleaning them by hand. Pull those babies down and soak them for an hour or two in a tub filled with warm, soapy (dish soap is fine) water. Drain, rinse, hang to dry and you’re good.
Finally, down low, wipe the baseboards and sweep and/or vacuum the floor. Do not proceed to this final step if you are still using the room. After I do the floors I close the door to a room and take a few seconds to bask in completion. The closed door also serves as a “do not enter” sign for any fellow cleaners.
If you have a spare bathroom clean it now using the directions below – just make sure not to use it again. Otherwise wait till the end.
NEXT: Common Areas (living room, hallways, hall closets)
High –> low: Proceed from ceilings (cobwebs?) trim (dust over the doors?), to vertical surfaces (dirty little fingerprints on light switch plates?), then finally to baseboards and flooring. Wait until later to do the floor if you expect more foot traffic.
Closets provide the most satisfaction for the littlest labor: Sweep the ceiling and walls, wipe down any shelves, sweep/mop, and you’re done. Shut that door good.
AFTER THAT: The Kitchen
Order isn’t too important here so long as you leave the floors and sink for last and defrost the fridge several hours before you plan to clean it. Make sure to at least glance at the oven early on. If the gunk is thick and really cooked on you’ll need time to allow the oven to work through it or to treat it 2x. Follow the directions on the oven cleaner, making sure to put a layer or two of newspaper or plastic under the oven door to catch any leaks. That shit is caustic and can damage linoleum or wood floors. Don’t forget gloves and ventilation.
For the rest of the oven: if you have drip pans or other removable parts likely to have accumulated grease take them out and soak them in hot water with dish soap (it breaks down oils!) before scrubbing and replacing them. A scrubby and some abrasive cleaner is usually enough for the stovetop. For stubborn gunk spray a bit of oven cleaner and let it sit for a while. Make sure to look high (oily goobers on the range top?) and low (nasty broiler?) before you check the stove off your list.
Cabinets and drawers should be cleared of crumbly bits and wiped down with all-purpose cleaner. If you have a dishwasher open that up and do a thorough inspection—if you haven’t been attending to it there may be mold that needs cleaning.
The fridge. Is. One of. My favorite. Parts. No other part of the job gives me such a sense of satisfaction and completion. Start on the outside, wiping or scrubbing down the exterior as needed. Depending on how close the fridge is to the stove it may have accumulated a layer of grime that will need a light abrasive scrubbing—just be careful not to scrub off the paint. Don’t forget the top!
The freezer is easy. There may be some sticky stuff but a little soapy water will take care of that. The door gasket (the rubber stuff on the inside of the door) should be attacked with a toothbrush and a bowl of soapy water. For the final go over use a clean rag or paper towel.
Now get into that fridge and gut it. Pull out all the shelves and drawers, wash them with soap and water, and set them out to dry. Grab your toothbrush again for the door gasket then wipe down the sides and shelves of the fridge door. Now go nuts on the inside of the fridge, working from top to bottom. Wipe it all down with a clean rag or paper towel before replacing all the bits and pieces. Holy Carp what a beautiful fridge.
Finally, wipe down the counters and wash the floors. You can clean the sink now if you promise not to use it again, otherwise save it till after you’ve done the bathroom.
LAST: The Bathroom
Starting from the top can be a bit nasty here—bathroom ceilings are popular places for mold to grow and spread. A wipe-down with some all-purpose cleaner should do the trick, and you can always use a mop if you’re squeamish and/or want to work your triceps. Scrub down the shower/tub surround, starting high and moving down. I like to use Bon Ami and elbow grease; you may prefer to let one of those spray-on cleaners start the job for you—just know this is rarely enough. If you have tile you’ll have an easier time with the surfaces, but you’ll want a toothbrush and maybe a cream cleaner with some stick-itude to get into the grout. Finally, scrub down the faucets and the tub/shower floor.
Open up any cupboards or drawers and wipe them down well. A vacuum cleaner hose is useful if you have a lot of bits and pieces of mystery grit.
Move to the walls and windows. Bathroom paint should be semi-gloss so you can get it wet (but do not scrub it or use any abrasive cleaners or scrubbers). Clean the mirrors.
Clean the toilet from top to bottom. I find the base of the toilet to be the most disgusting part of all so I like to hose it down with all-purpose cleaner, wipe the wet grime up with paper towels, then go over it again with sponge or rag attending to the nooks and crannies.
If the bathroom is small I recommend cleaning the baseboards and floors by hand (it’s not worth getting the mop out), just make sure you leave yourself a path out. Let the floors dry then go back in for the countertops and lastly, the sink. Close that door! Bar any and all from re-entering! YOU’RE DONE!
Now back out slowly, surveying your handiwork. If you have reason to distrust your landlord (or if you know folks will be coming in to paint, make repairs, etc., and may make new messes), it’s not a terrible idea to take some pictures. Revel. Enjoy a beverage or two.
A final word about landlords and their bad reputations: Some landlords are dicks, no doubt, but even the jerks don’t want to clean your toilet/oven/fridge any more than you do. It’s a hassle and expense to organize cleaning and repair crews. The vast majority of landlords will be delighted to enter an apartment ready for a new tenant and happy to refund all your money. If you’re unlucky enough to have one that isn’t, you have my permission to paper the walls with The Communist Manifesto, leave the grime untouched, and start afresh somewhere new. Just make sure you fill in the move-in report.
Erika Kuever just signed a lease for a one-bedroom in Odense, Denmark.