My college town was full of beautiful old houses in various stages of decay, and I lived in a few of them. They were overpriced, the landlords were negligent, but damn, did they have some fine crown molding.
Unfortunately, they also had other kinds of molding, and my school’s dorm shortage left me with only expensive apartments, cheaper apartments that were a lengthy hike from campus, or the old, crumbling houses that had somehow managed to remain standing through decades of ragers.
After living in—and attempting to salvage—a few of those formerly gorgeous but currently dumpy houses, I’ve learned a few things about how to make them more palatable. As a renter, you aren’t able to make the structural changes that the houses really need, but you can do a lot to make things better.
THE OLD HOUSE SMELL
You know what I’m talking about. It’s musty, it’s funky, it’s possibly indicative of insect or rodent life. You will likely battle the smell for most of your time in the house. It will become your constant, invisible enemy. One day, you will be sitting in class and realize that it has attached itself to your sweater, and you will rush home and throw everything you own into the wash. But the smell definitely gets easier to deal with over time, and not just because you get used to it. Regular, thorough cleaning is the only way to truly keep the old house funk at bay, and there are a few things you absolutely must do immediately upon moving in to jumpstart its exit.
- Open all the windows. As long as it’s not too humid outside, crack all the windows and try to get some cross breezes going to push the smell on its way. If your windows are painted shut, I pity you deeply, but prop the doors open to let air waft through. Just make sure to close and lock them if you leave or go to sleep.
- Burn some candles. There’s nothing worse than a funky smell that’s covered up by an aggressively scented candle, so you’ll want to go with scents that are clean and fresh. Eucalyptus, sage, cedar, and lavender are all solid choices—stick to things that are subtle and natural. It’s also important to choose soy candles that are scented with essential oils so that you won’t be adding artificial, harsh smells to an already smelly situation.
- Identify if you have mice or insects. If you see droppings or places where something has nibbled the wood, call your landlord immediately and document the areas with photographs. You will need to get an exterminator or traps, but your landlord should be the one to take responsibility. Read your lease and double check your city’s website to see what action you’ll be able to demand.
- Mop hard floors and vacuum/shampoo all carpets. If you don’t have a shampooer or know someone who does, and if you’re not willing to rent one, simply vacuuming 5 or 10 times will likely suck most things up. But if there are crusty, funky things on the carpet, you should wash that sucker. I once moved into a bedroom that contained an ancient ice cream sandwich and a used tampon applicator, and I spent a couple hours with a friend’s Bissell Little Green sucking that shit out before I was willing to touch the floor without wanting to shower. (If the carpet is moldy, that’s another landlord issue.)
- Invest in a dehumidifier. This is so important if you live in a high-humidity state like Virginia. I have terrible allergies, so I have a dehumidifier that plugs into the wall and sucks moisture from the air; in the summers, it would suck at least a gallon of water from the air every day. They can be pricey though, so try a dehumidifier that uses crystals and place one in every room.
- Declutter. If you obtained your house through a pass-down lease, the landlord won’t come in to clear out all the random shit people will leave behind. Be ruthless when clearing this stuff out—if you’re not going to use it or consume it, donate or trash it.
- Dust the hell out of everything. Whether you’re allergic to dust or not, it’s best to use a damp cloth or paper towel to prevent dust from flying up into the air like an explosion of particles. The only way to get rid of dust once and for all is to use a damp cloth or paper towel to trap it down and obliterate it.
- Hunt the smell where you least expect it. That layer of grime on top of the microwave? That film on your windowsills? That pile of ratty clothes left behind by a previous tenant? Get rid of them immediately. The smell will try to survive in these remnants, and it’s your job to zap its chances of lingering.
Keep up this routine for a week or two, and you’ll notice a significant difference. But you must remain vigilant! Or the smell will creep back in and hunker down again.
CLEAN YOUR AIR CONDITIONING UNITS
Unless you’re very lucky, your old house probably doesn’t have central air. But what most people don’t realize is that you need to take air conditioning units apart periodically to clean them. Wipe down the outside of the unit thoroughly, lay down some plastic, and then pop the front grill off and remove the filter inside (it looks like a screen). You should be able to pull the dirt and dust away in a thick, disgusting layer. Then you can wash it with mild dish soap in the sink or bathtub. Dry it thoroughly before putting it back in the unit, and the air will be much cooler—and cleaner.
They are a zone with the most potential for disgusting surprises, but also the most necessary, so pull on your vinyl gloves and get these out of the way early on in your stay. If your old house is anything like the ones I’ve lived in, there is probably a sticky layer of hairspray, toothpaste, and soap covering most surfaces. Spray everything down with a multisurface cleaner (preferably a vinegar-based cleaner that won’t smell so harsh and chemical) and then waiting 3-5 minutes before going in with a scrubby sponge and a roll of paper towels.
You will continue your battle against the smell while completing this task. Be aggressive. Clean things you have never thought of cleaning before. Replace the shower liner with a new one and hang up a freshly laundered shower curtain. Throw away old cosmetics, shampoo bottles, or other items that previous tenants may have left behind (unless you want to use them up, in which case put aside your own things until you do so). Throw away any moldy rugs and replace them with ones that are easy to wash. Bathtubs can be the hardest area to clean, so just accept the fact that you’re going to have to put some elbow grease into it. Wipe down the inside of cabinets and the tops of shelves.
Be safe, though! Make sure that you have the fan running, because no one wants to inhale a mist of corrosive chemicals. Be careful not to mix bleach (Chlorox) and ammonia (Windex), too, because the fumes can cause dangerous chemical reactions.
My last place of residence had a tiny bathroom that also contained a washer and dryer. When we first moved in, I washed a pile of rags, threw out a broken shelf, and wiped down several mostly empty jugs of laundry detergent and gradually used them up as I washed communal towels and rugs. I also wiped down the baseboards and the dusty base of the toilet. The difference was startling; by attacking those small problems, the room began to feel bigger and brighter.
Grab a ladder and wash those windows. You’ll be simultaneously horrified and pleased by how much accumulated dust and dirt you will be able to wipe away, and by how much brighter your rooms will look afterward. Even if you just wipe down the inside, any extra sunbeams you score will help you illuminate your space and solve the age-old problem of making old, dingy rooms feel light and fresh instead of floodlit by a horrible overhead light.
SCUFFED WALLS & SINKS
Nothing cleans a kitchen sink or a scuffed wall better than Mr. Clean Magic Erasers (the generic brands work just fine, too, and are a fraction of the cost). Load up on them and shine up your kitchen sink—it will strip away water spots and mineral buildup in minutes. In my last college house, years of partying had left a gallery of black drippy stains on all of the walls. It took a few days of keeping an eye out for stains and approaching them as I spotted them, but within a week the walls were clean and white again. I also washed a built-in bench in our kitchen with very little effort, clearing a hash of gray scuff marks away to uncover the sweet old feature.
Another shockingly effective tactic: Wipe down all of the doors. You won’t realize how dingy doors become until you begin to wash them and wipe away the grime, and then the brightness of them will dazzle you and fill you with pride for your beautiful home every time you reach for a doorknob.
BE ASSERTIVE AND PROACTIVE
Remember when I told you to read your lease and your city’s website to see what you can make your landlord fix? Actually do that. And when you move in, make a list of every single thing that is leaky, creaky, or cracking. By sending assertive emails and befriending a nice woman in our rental company’s office, we were able to have a cracked ceiling replaced before it caved in and a drippy faucet tightened. In another rental, the previous tenants left a mountain of trash for us to deal with and we were able to refuse the unfair removal bill that was left in our mailbox. Learn to be polite but firm. It will serve you well for the rest of your life.
Instead of shrugging your shoulders and telling your mom that “it’s just college,” take charge of your space and invest a little time into turning it into a lair you’ll enjoy inhabiting. You have the power to disrupt the years of damage caused by parties and lapsed chore charts, and healing an old house can help you seize control of your space and your destiny. Regardless of whether you care about shelling out money for elaborate decorations and furniture, or whether your house becomes the scene of wild parties or intense study nights, everyone deserves to live in a clean space, and all it costs is a little soap and some time.