How to Get Rid of Bad Smells Tenants Leave Behind

Getting rid of bad smells after a tenant moves out is one of the unpleasant parts of being a landlord. But, if you don’t take the time to do this, issues with funky odors or a foul stench can severely impact your cash flow. That’s because, after a tenant vacates the rental unit, you typically want to rent it out to a new tenant as quickly as possible. If there’s a rotten smell when you open the door, though, you will find it tough or impossible to land a suitable tenant for your unit. And that can cut into your profitability significantly if you let the issue go unresolved over a long period of time.

As such, you’ll want to get rid of the stnch before you lease out the unit to a new tenant. And, that’s true whether the bad smell was caused by normal wear and tear to the apartment—like cooking foods with certain spices or ingredients—or by other things that the tenant did that violated the lease. Here are some tips for getting rid of smells in your rental apartment or unit. These tips will help you do that effectively—no matter what’s causing the stinch.

Related: Security deposit deductions list

The bad smells tenants may leave behind

Some bad smells that tenants cause are part of the normal wear and tear of the unit. For example, ridding the unit of cooking smells or cleaning stinky drains are both a part of the regular cleaning you should do between tenants. And, if you allow pets in the apartment, chances are that you will also need to eliminate pet odors.

However, other smells could result from lease—including things like cigarette smoke, marijuana odors, or the stench of rotten caused eggs by methamphetamines. Let’s suppose the nasty smell is because the previous tenant violated a lease clause. In that case, you can deduct the cleanup cost from the security deposit.

But whether it’s from normal wear and tear or something else entirely, the issue has to be dealt with. So what do you do if a foul odor hits you when you open the front door? Here’s what you should know.

Start by sanitizing the unit and tackling the carpet

Deep cleaning a rental unit in between tenants will often take care of most lingering smells. Start by sanitizing all hard surfaces to get rid of bacteria and lingering causes of odor, like old food, cooking oils, and other messes.

After you’ve sanitized, it’s smart to shampoo carpets, rugs, and upholstery to clean out any lingering odor-causing bacteria or other messes. You may also want to replace air filters and clean any mildew in the bathrooms, windowsills, or other potentially damp areas.

Doing this can help get your rental property smelling like new. But it doesn’t stop after the first round of sanitizing. It’s always a good idea to return the following day to see if the smells have gone for good—or if the unit needs more attention than just the basic sanitizing method.

How to get rid of cooking smells in a small apartment

Smells from certain foods and spices can linger in the unit long after tenants have vacated the property. For example, pungent spices, like cumin and curry, can permeate soft furnishings, like drapes, chairs, carpets, and couches—especially if they were used regularly. What that means is that in a small apartment, these types of cooking smells can seep into every room.

If you need to get rid of overpowering odors leftover from cooking, it will typically require you to scrub all hard surfaces in the unit. That’s because things like oils and spices can permeate the air and land on surfaces throughout the unit—and you’ll want to wipe them off of every surface to get rid of the smell.

Once that’s done, you may need to use professional-grade cleaning equipment with deodorizing chemicals that can neutralize smells in upholstery—especially if the rental unit is being rented as a furnished unit. Depending on what you’re trying to clean, though, it may be easier and more cost-effective to simply replace the item. For example, it may be cheaper and easier to replace the drapes than to spend the time and money cleaning the current ones in the unit.

How to get rid of musty smells

If you’re dealing with musty smells, it can be tricky to get rid of them in an empty rental unit. The source of the stale air could be due to the prior tenant not opening the windows and airing out the apartment. Or, the musty odor could be due to mildew or mold issues in the unit.

Opening the windows and letting fresh air into the unit should be the first step to eliminate musty smells left by the prior tenant. Ventilation fans, a dehumidifier, or electric fans can also be useful to increase airflow and remove damp, stale air. However, if the musty stench remains after you’ve employed these methods, you may have to check the apartment for mold growth being caused by water damage.

And, it’s also important to remember that breathing in mold spores is a health risk. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), you should fix plumbing leaks and water problems to avoid these types of issues—or stop them from happening again if they’ve already occurred.

It’s also extremely important to dry the surfaces throughout the home. However, mold can get into porous materials, so if you have a problem with mold or mildew, it may be necessary to replace these materials or surfaces. And remember, you may be able to remedy minor issues with mold, but with more widespread or serious mold cases, it’s important to call professional mold remediators to remedy the issue.

How to get rid of cigarette smell in apartments

If you find your prior smoked tenant in the unit, you’ll need to get rid of the lingering scent of smoke in the unit. That said, getting rid of cigarette and nicotine smells can be incredibly challenging. The smell of cigarette smoke gets everywhere—and it can be problematic when trying to rent out your unit to a nonsmoker.

But, it’s not just the stale of stale smoke you have to contend with. Cigarette smoke odors contain nicotine residue, which can create serious health issues associated with third-hand smoke. That’s true for any tenant but is especially true for children or adults with severe allergies or other preexisting health conditions.

A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that third-hand smoke contains carcinogenic substances. These can remain on carpets, clothes, furniture, walls, drapes, and flooring well after the smoker has vacated the property. And, if you don’t take steps to remove the substances leftover from the smoker, the new tenant or tenants’ health will be at risk because the toxic substances can be inhaled in dust, absorbed through the skin, or accidentally ingested, as normal byproduct of living in the unit.

To completely get rid of smoke odors after a tenant has left, you may need to completely replace the carpets, drapes, and furniture in the unit. However, dry-cleaning drapes or upholstery may be enough in some cases. Repainting the unit may also be necessary, as it’s the only way to stop cigarette odors from affecting the air quality.

How to get rid of pet odors

If the tenant had a cat or dog in the apartment, pet odors are expected to linger—and are just part of renting a unit to a pet owner. That said, you’ll still want to get rid of the smell before renting out the unit to a new tenant.

For example, carpets are notorious for harboring bad pet smells because pet dander and urine are difficult to remove from the padding and carpet pile. If you want to get rid of the pet stench in the carpet, the most straightforward approach is to sprinkle baking soda on the carpet, let it sit for a few minutes, and then vacuum it up.

But what if you do that and the pet smells are still noticeable after you’ve cleaned the carpet with baking soda? In that case, you can use a blacklight to find where old pet urine stains are located. Once you’ve surveyed the damage, you can decide whether spot cleaning, steam cleaning, or replacing the carpet makes the most sense.

Related: Should you rent to pet owners?

How to prevent bad smells in your rental unit

The best way to reduce vacancy time and maximize cash flow is to prevent bad smells from permeating the unit in the first place. Preventative measures may involve some investment, but you will save time and resources related to deep cleaning after the tenant moves out.

For example, it can be pretty costly to clean or replace carpets, soft furnishings, or upholstered furniture—but if you don’t take preventative measures, you’ll likely have to do so at some point. Likewise, repainting walls to remove unpleasant odors takes time and money. And hiring a professional cleaning crew will eat into your profits.

Of course, thoroughly screening prospective tenants is one way to prevent cleanliness issues or look after the rental unit. But even when you screen your tenants, these types of issues can occur. As such, here are a few tips on preventing the foul smells that are difficult to remove.

Conduct bi-annual or annual inspections

You should always have a clause in the lease that specifies your right to carry out regular inspections of the unit. These inspections allow you to address any issues in the apartment before they are completely out of control. For example, you will typically be able to detect bad smells from issues like pets, garbage buildup, smoking, or illegal activity, like drug use.

Regular inspections also encourage tenants to clean the place thoroughly before you arrive. During the inspections, you can also check for maintenance issues like dripping plumbing, poor ventilation, or blocked air filters, which will help you to further reduce these types of issues.

Spell out policies in the lease

It is also vital to include pet policies and smoking policies on the lease to provide guidance for tenants on what you expect. If you’re going to allow pets, make sure you have the right guidance for your tenant in the lease. And, you’ll want to make it clear what the smoking restrictions are for the unit, too.

Change the flooring

Carpets tend to retain smells from all types of sources. As such, getting rid of the carpet and replacing it with good quality vinyl laminate floors can help cut down on the lingering bad smells in a rental unit. While a vinyl floor may not have the sound-dampening properties of carpets, it is easier to clean and maintain.

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Final thoughts

Eliminating smells from a rental unit is typically part of the normal clean-up routine between tenants. However, you may also have to deal with foul, stubborn odors from time to time. Removing the source of the stench, using the right equipment and chemicals, or replacing some of the items in the unit can typically get rid of the smells and help get the unit ready for the next tenant.

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