Rental owners are all-too familiar with the smell of cigarette smoke, and the way it lingers even after you’ve tried to eliminate it. Now that weed is legal, we’ll start to have issues with weed smoke, as well. Whether you allowed the tenant to smoke, or you prohibited smoking and the tenant did anyway, or you’re buying someone else’s property to fix it up, you need to know this best way to remove smoke smell from an apartment completely.
Read this whole article before starting. Make sure you are committed to removing all the smoke smell. This is the best way to remove smoke smell, but it will require effort.
Step Zero: Don’t Bother with Quick Fixes
If you search online, you will lots of misinformation about how to remove smoke smell. They say things like, “open the windows” or “buy an air freshener.” Don’t bother! The smoke smell is coming from the residue left on the ceiling, walls, and flooring. Changing out the air or covering over the odor will do nothing.
You cannot show an apartment with a Febreze air freshener and smoke smell. It will make the place smell like all too many smoker apartments, a Frankenstein odor of raspberry menthol.
Step One: Soft and Disposable
Anything that is soft, like curtains, or replaceable, like smoke detectors or mini-blinds, should be removed and thrown away. Replace the smoke detectors now, replace the rest later.
Step Two: Duct-work and Heating
If you have central air, hire a duct cleaning company to get in there. Change your filters.
If you have forced hot water, it is not necessary to clean the fins inside. Just wash the baseboard surface. Yes, the fins will have residue on them, but no, you won’t notice after all else is done.
If you have a ductless mini-split, let us know what works. These are new, and we aren’t sure whether or how to clean these after a smoker. Since the interior components have plastic, it’s conceivable that they will be yellowed or otherwise permanently odored. They may have to be replaced.
Step Three: Wash the Walls with quasi-banned Miracle Cleaner TSP
Tri-sodium phosphate is a base sold as a powder in Massachusetts stores. A 1% solution has a pH of 12, which is almost as basic as bleach. Lemon juice or vinegar are sometimes recommended as smoke cleaners, but those are acids, at the other end of the spectrum, and like bleach, they all have their own smell. TSP is odorless. Also, TSP can be safely mixed with bleach to remove mildew in the bathroom. This way you can kill two birds with one stone. Vinegar cannot be mixed with bleach or you will create toxic chlorine gas.
Wearing latex gloves (better: rubber butyl gloves) and safety glasses (better: splash goggles), prepare a dilute solution of TSP in a bucket. You will need no more than four tablespoons of TSP for every two gallons of hot water.
If you are planning to save the flooring (see below), cover the floor with a drop cloth. Starting from high to low, use a sponge mop to wash the ceiling first. Then wash the walls and all wood casings. If you had a heavy smoker, you will see the water turn gray and then black. Dump the mix down the drain and make a fresh batch every time you start seeing black dribbles on the walls. (Gray is still okay.)
Once ceilings, walls, and casings have all been TSP’d, get more hot water, but this time don’t mix in TSP. Rinse the ceilings and walls as if you were washing them all again. Change the water as often as necessary to keep it a light gray or clear.
If your walls or ceilings are textured, this will be an annoying process. The texture will eat away at the sponge and leave fuzzies everywhere. Buy multiple sponge mops. As the sponges get destroyed, throw them away. Once the walls are dry, use a brand-new broom to sweep the sponge fuzzies onto your drop cloth or floor. Removing fuzzies will help enormously when repainting.
Aren’t Phosphates Bad?
TSP was banned in some regions because it leads to algal blooms and fish die-offs in streams. Use has declined since the 1960’s. In MA, we believe our only restriction on phosphates is our ban on needless fertilizer. (If you know otherwise, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If you are environmentally conscious you can use a Phosphate-free version of TSP. Despite the misleading citation in the Wikipedia article above, which says TSP substitutes are not as effective, phosphate-free TSP will work to remove smoke smell. Although phosphate-free TSP is technically not TSP, but a substitute, it is still a strong detergent.
After the TSP wash and the final rinse, you will have eliminated 90% of the smoke odor.
Note also that TSP (with phosphates) will degloss your paint. This brings us to the next step.
Hold that Thought: What About Cabinets?
Your cabinets like your walls may have absorbed odor. If they are cheaper MDF or exposed wood inside, you may need to paint or replace. Try washing the outside with phosphate-free TSP, which will avoid deglossing, and leave the inside alone. If you still smell smoke later, you can come back to the cabinets.
Step Four: Repaint
After removing all the tar and cigarette build-up from the walls, you are ready to repaint. You have also cleaned the walls and deglossed any eggshell or satin enamel. This will ensure that any regular paint will bond firmly. There is no need for odor-blocking paint.
Cosmetic considerations may lead you to prime the walls first, for instance, if you are switching from a dark color to a light color. Some new paints claim to mix color and primer in one. After deglossing, there may be nothing special left to be done with the walls or ceiling. Just read the label and paint however you normally would, or hire a pro painter.
Note that you should not skip the final rinse when washing the walls, above. If you leave TSP residue on the walls, your new paint may dissolve before it bonds.
Step Five: Flooring
If you have carpet, the surest bet is to rip it up and replace it. You might be able to get away with steam cleaning. Don’t bother with a Rug Doctor, which will be time-consuming and not very effective. Hire a professional company with a truck that backs up to the building and runs hoses in through the window.
If you have cigarette burns in a light carpet, you may be able to clip the burned fibers and/or apply OxiClean. Before getting down on your hands and knees, remember that replacement carpet will look and smell new, and should last for many years. What is your time worth? How much are you losing in vacancy costs while you’re OxiCleaning every last patch? We advise you get a new carpet.
If you have hardwood or vinyl, you may be lucky with little smoke smell having penetrated the surface. You can use something like Murphy’s Oil Soap to wash the floors. Your apartment should then become odor-free. Use whatever cleaner the floor manufacturer recommends. Be careful with hardwood and click-flooring, which can’t be exposed to a lot of water.
Step Six: Check Your Work
No matter how bad the previous smoker was, you have by now found all of the accessible smoke residue. If you still smell smoke, return to your cabinets and try washing the insides down. You may also need to repaint the outsides, or worst case, replace them.
If you took down miniblinds, remember to replace those.
The Best Way to Remove Smoke Smell
All of the above steps will work, but as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Consider using our phone screening prompt sheet to screen out smokers, even folks who say they don’t smoke inside. There is nowhere else to smoke but inside during the winter on days when it’s zero degrees.
Also, make sure to use our no-smoking addendum. Some of the costs of removing smoke smell may be recoverable from the tenant’s security deposit (always consult with an attorney).
The same process, incidentally, will also work to remove vape residue and to remove weed smell.
Now you know how to remove smoke smell from an apartment. May you never have to. Happy landlording!
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