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Last minute guests? This is the one thing you should clean in every room

A room-by-room game plan to make your house look cleaner than it really is.
Counter space and cooking utensils in modern kitchen
Need to clean the kitchen quickly? Get any dishes into the dishwasher, or in an extreme emergency, throw them under the sink.Spaces Images / Getty Images

Quick! Unexpected company is coming and your house is a wreck. You only have a few minutes to do damage control and don't even know where to start. What do you do first?

There are so many scenarios where this can happen, said Rachel Hoffman, author of "Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess" and an upcoming guided journal for less mess, less stress and a home you don’t hate. She shared the the 20/10 method that can change the way you clean your house with us, and is back with emergency cleaning tips. (And wait for it, what you could do instead.)

“Especially if you're a renter and your landlord needs to get in, or apartment maintenance,” she said, you may need to make some fast decisions. “Or even just 'I walk my dog and I run into my neighbors' or somebody wants to come in and borrow a book, [it's like] 'OMG can I let this person in?'” Or maybe you've even given yourself enough time to prepare for a visit, “and then you've just kind of left it till the last minute and you're like, 'this is happening now,'” she said.

Make that person a relative (hi, Mom!) and it can feel even more calamitous if the house isn't ship-shape. I personally scramble to pick up dog toys and wipe dog slobber off the front door and foyer window if someone's coming, but I thought there had to be a quick cheat-sheet for the one thing to clean in every room when you have no time. Hoffman has us covered. Here are this expert's top tips when the clock is ticking.

Where to start?

“Always start with where you're anticipating you're going to be spending the most time,” Hoffman said. And don't worry about the spaces they won't see. If it's an emergency drop-in guest, “you can shut your bedroom door unless it's a particular kind of social call. But regular hosting, private rooms, just close the doors because if you're dealing with limited time you don't need to get distracted.”


Since the kitchen tends to be where everyone congregates (at least at my house) let's start there. Your mission here is to clear surfaces, said Hoffman.

And think in terms of stashing things quickly. Toss anything that's trash, and if any dishes are sitting out? Get them into the dishwasher, or in an extreme emergency, throw them under the sink.”Nobody's going to look there,” she said. (Although I wouldn't be too sure; while showing neighbors our recently renovated kitchen after bumping into them on the sidewalk, one opened the cabinet door in the island — only to see the pan I'd used to make my lunch I'd stashed there!) Now, wipe down those cleared counters, and move to the next room.

Living room and dining room

Same as in the kitchen, “you're going to feel like everything is a lot cleaner if your flat surfaces are cleared,” Hoffman said. In the living room we're talking coffee table or side tables, and of course the dining table in the dining room. “Those are the surfaces that tend to accumulate the most clutter and make the room look messier no matter what,” she said.

The good news is, “it may have been a mess for a month and you figure anything that takes that long to get that messy will take a long time,” she said, but “for the most part you can deal with one of those surfaces in 15 minutes max.”

Don't worry about sweeping or vacuuming, she said. “That's not the most immediate indication of clean or dirty.”


You definitely want to give your bathroom a good once over, Hoffman said, “because you never know when someone is going to use it.” Want some more bad news? “People are alone, the lighting is good, there's nothing to distract you. People look around in bathrooms, it's human nature.”

We're going to cheat here because this is more than one thing. You have to start with giving your toilet a quick cleaning because, really, it's a toilet. The same as the other rooms, clear the counters and wipe them, then swiffer the floor.

Now, to keep prying eyes away, “close the shower curtain as much as you can because you don't have time to get into a deep clean of your tub,” Hoffman said.


Don't forget the very first thing guests will see. Hoffman suggests you walk outside your house and walk back in. “See what you notice,” she said. “If you're living with things day in and out, there's a chance they're just part of the landscape for you. If you walk in with fresh eyes, there's dust bunnies in the corner, cobwebs hanging from the light fixture.”


Ok, say your guest will be seeing your bedroom. In your rush, what should you do there?

“Oh god, put your clothes away,” Hoffman said. “For almost everybody. The mess most of us have is laundry where it's not supposed to be. You have that chair or the "floordrobe", it's been collecting for weeks or — I'm not judging — months. You think it's going to take forever to deal with but [with three loads to put away] I timed myself and it was like 14 minutes. And of course, no matter what else, make the bed, she said. “It doesn't have to be complicated, pull up the duvet, smooth it out. It calms the look of the room once it's done.”

Fake it till you make it

I've seen a “tip” on an Airbnb hosting advice website that suggested hosts simply spray cleaning product into the air if they don't have time to clean. As a superhost myself with a multi-page cleaning checklist, I'm aghast. But for just your own home? Hey, why not?

“It does work because we have such strong associations with smell to trick our brains,” Hoffman said. “If you're concerned about how [your company] is going to look at you as whether you're clean, then little shortcuts like giving a quick spritz can come in handy. Method brand bathroom cleaner smells amazing. I will fully admit — just spraying it makes me feel better even if I'm not scrubbing it down.” If it's an extended visit you want to do the real thing, of course, she said, but for a quick visit “there's nothing wrong with a little cheat.”

And it's not just a cheat. When it comes to dealing with time constraints, “the appearance of clean is probably more important [than actually being clean] because it's going to put you at ease,” Hoffman said. Plus, “most of us, after visitors we're a little more motivated to go ahead with the deep cleaning stuff because it's the things you noticed as you were scrambling but didn't get to.”

Bonus round

If you have time for just one more little thing, make it this: “A trick if it's not as clean as it could be is to put out fresh towels in the bath and kitchen because that makes things look more put together,” Hoffman said. “Those are tiny little touches that may not register, but fresh towels equal a clean place.”

Skip the 'pardon my mess' routine

You've probably heard it — and said it — a million times: pardon my mess. I'm so sorry, the house is a wreck. “It's pretty deeply ingrained in most of us,” Hoffman said. “We basically think everyone is always judging us. I'm a big fan of not having people in my house who will judge me but I still apologize. I wish we didn't have to.”

Well what if we just didn't? I read an advice article years ago that suggested we just stop drawing attention to the mess and making everyone feel awkward, because of course the guest has to counter with a rebuttal that it's not messy. I've mostly followed that advice and it's been so freeing. Except when my house was in literal shambles during renovations, I don't mention whatever state of cleanliness it happens to be in. If visitors don't like dog hair, chew toys on the floor, or evidence that I work from home, they probably just shouldn't visit.

The comment though, “is so reflexive for people,” Hoffman said. “Maybe we can change the expectation that we're constantly apologizing for the way we live. There's a lot of shame and a lot of guilt around cleaning in our minds.”

Here's a thought. “How about not beating yourself up if you don't have time?” she said. “Because most people are honestly not as judgmental of ourselves as we are. We hold ourselves to a much higher standard. Nobody's being as mean about yourself as you are.”

Maybe instead of cleaning we have a glass of wine and relax? “Honestly,” she said, “that's ideal.”

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