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How to clean cigarette residue in your new home

6 min read
29 Sep 2020

Say you’re looking to buy a new home. Maybe it’s your first home, or perhaps you’re ready to downsize. After much house hunting, you find one that seems to tick all the boxes. There’s just one problem:

The previous resident smoked, and there are residue stains on the floors, walls and even the ceiling.

So, do you pass the property up and look for somewhere else, even if it’s otherwise the perfect place?

In this article, we’ll explore whether second or third-hand smoke is something to worry about, and what you can do if you decide to buy the home and want to clean it up.

Let’s get started.

Is cigarette smoke residue dangerous?

a man exhaling cigarette smoke

It’s now well understood that smoking cigarettes is dangerous to the user,[1] and to others in their vicinity (known as second-hand smoking or passive smoking),[2] but what about after the smoker has moved out of their home?

Studies have found that the toxins in cigarettes can be absorbed into surfaces and remain for months afterwards, even after the home was cleaned and the smoking resident has moved out.[3]

Third-hand smoking refers to this residue that stays behind on surfaces, such as clothing, furniture, walls, ceilings, dust and other objects. The vapours can still be inhaled well after the smoker has left.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, it’s difficult to tell how long the residue will last, as this can change based on how heavily a person smoked and how well ventilated the room or building was.[4]

Third-hand smoking contains a lower amount of harmful chemicals compared to first or second-hand smoking. However, third-hand smoking could still cause health issues, whether the vapours are inhaled or absorbed as a physical residue.[5]

This can be a serious concern, particularly if you want to buy an existing home with smoke residue and you have children or plan to soon. While passive and third-hand smoking can be harmful to anyone, those most at risk are unborn babies, infants, children and those with breathing problems.[6]

Yellow-brown stains

A dead giveaway of cigarette smoking, these slightly sticky yellow-brown stains can be present on walls, the ceiling, blinds, curtains and even on appliances.

cigarette stained wallpaper in a stairway
Acrid odour

The smell of cigarettes can remain for some time, though the strength of the odour will gradually fade.

a top-down view of a white ash tray on a table with black soot in it
Burn marks and soot.

There may be small, gritty black bits of soot from an ashtray, or burn marks if the smoker put the cigarette out on a floor or benchtop

a cigarette burn on the carpet

You can also ask the real-estate agent selling the house, when you are inspecting the property, if the previous owner or resident smoked. It’s against the law for real-estate agents to lie to you about the condition of a home.[7]

How do you clean cigarette stains and residue from your home?

If you’re set on a particular house that has smoke residue, there are a couple of ways you can deal with the situation.

1.      Clean the home yourself

This method involves some elbow grease. Depending on the size of your home, cleaning could take a solid week or two of work.

It’s recommended to use an industrial or commercial grade alkaline detergent with warm water to clean the home’s surfaces. It’s also recommended to not just clean the surface once, but three times, as noted by the Government of Western Australia.[8]

It isn’t just smoke-stained walls that you’ll need to clean. As residue can seep into walls and absorb into the carpet, some light renovation work will be needed if you want to ensure most (if not all) cigarette residue is removed.

You’ll need to (with the correct protective gear):

  • sand and repaint the walls
  • replace the carpet
  • apply a new coat of polish on your wooden floorboards.

Doing it yourself could be a good option, if you can afford the time it takes before moving in to get the house cleaned up, as it will be cheaper than hiring professionals. However, some steps, like laying down fresh carpet, will require a certain level of skill on your part to do it properly.

2.      Hire professionals

professional painter sanding ceiling and wall to clean cigarette smoke residue

If you don’t have the time to do it yourself or were planning on a professional renovation anyway, you can hire some cleaners and tradesmen to sort out everything; this will come at a cost, however.

Also, while a team of cleaners and tradespeople may work faster than you could on your own, it will still take time. You might need to find somewhere temporary to stay while the work is done, depending on your situation.

3.      Negotiate with the seller to include cleaning and painting in the sale price

When you make an offer on a home, you could negotiate with the owner selling the property to include the cost of cleaning, painting and new flooring in the sale price.

You might end up paying a little extra for your home, which could affect the amount of money you may need to borrow. The advantage is that the work will be done, handled by professionals and the house will be ready for you to move into once the deal is settled.

Alternatively, you could use the fact that there is cigarette residue or smoke damage to the home to try and negotiate a lower price for the house. You can then put the savings towards cleaning or any renovation work that may be required to remove the smoke residue.

Beyond negotiating the sale price of the home, don’t forget that you could make some extra savings in other areas. Comparing home loans is an easy way to see if you could find a cheaper interest rate, lower fees and better loan features. With a more competitive home loan, you may find it easier to put money into making your house a home – and creating a worthy investment.

Sources:

[1] What are the effects of smoking and tobacco? Department of Health, Australian Government. 2020.

[2] About passive smoking. Department of Health, Australian Government. 2020.

[3]Adrian Burton. “Does the Smoke Ever Really Clear? Thirdhand Smoke Exposure Raises New Concerns,” Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 119 Issue 2 Pages 70-74. 2011.

[4]How long do the harmful elements of secondhand smoke linger? United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Government. 2019.

[5]Campbell MA, Ford C & Winstanley MH. Ch 4. The health effects of secondhand smoke. 4.3 Thirdhand smoke. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria. 2017.

[6]About passive smoking. Department of Health, Australian Government. 2020.

[7]Real estate. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Australian Government. 2020.

[8]Interim Guide for Remediation of Low-Level Illicit Drug Contamination. Department of Health, Government of Western Australia. 2018.

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Written by James McCay

James is a devoted husband, father, animal lover and history buff (particularly medieval history). He studied Creative and Professional Writing at QUT, and is often buried in a book. James also enjoys historical re-enactment, spending time with his dogs, and making furniture out of reclaimed wood. He hopes to make a positive difference for readers through his writing.

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