Scrub walls to remove smoke damage

28 Replies

Hey Everyone,

Just closed on my first flip in Maryland. The seller smoked heavily in the property, house is 1250 sq ft and is a rancher style. I was thinking we needed to remove carpet, scrub walls, and then prime, but my business partner thinks primer will cover up any smoke smell.

Just curious if scrubbing the walls with soap is necessary and recommended.

Thank you

If its really thick I would say more of a goof off or goo be gone (one in particular is a citrus formula works really well) to get rid of it..   if its not that thick than primer should be fine.   On a high end flip I would say new drywall...   middle of the road, just cover it up.   

@Ryan Mullin Thank you for the tip sir. Anything citrus usually seems to kill off odors.

It's definitely a more desirable area, not a high end, but not low ARV is slightly under $300,000.

Definitely wash the walls down. I just rehabbed a studio that was so bad the tar from smoking was running down the walls lol. we washed them and the untextured ceiling down twice and hit it with oil base primer. Smells brand new now.

If the previous owner was a heavy smoker, the smell *will* come back, regardless of primer or scrubbing.  Whether it takes 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years, that's the question...and you won't know until it happens.

Sheetrock is porous, and will capture smoke and trap the smell.  In my experience, the only way to get rid of it long-term (if it was a heavy smoker) is to replace the sheetrock.

problem will be the ceilings.  Search past threads on this, some mention a chemical, TDP.

Also have all the vents mechanically cleaned/brushed.

Ozone generator in there for a couple of days post cleanup.

@Matt P. Appreciate the tip. Did you wash them with soap or just water or a type of chemical? I didn't even think about the ceilings but definitely will wash those.

@J Scott That's something I'll definitely have to consider then, luckily we left room in the budget. Thanks for your reply. Your books are some of the first RE books I've read and got me on the right footing.

@Maurice D. Good idea cleaning out the vents. Luckily we are installing a whole new HVAC system and air handler.

A heavy smoker can leave a brown film glaze on the windows and ceiling. Now that Imagine what their lungs look like . Sticky tar ..So stupid

@J Scott so would you gut the whole place? Im a property adjuster dealing with smoke damage on a fairly regular basis. If I dont see visible damage i very rarely would write the walls for replacement. Prime and paint is the most typical odor control.

Originally posted by @Anssi Viljanen :

J Scott so would you gut the whole place? Im a property adjuster dealing with smoke damage on a fairly regular basis. If I dont see visible damage i very rarely would write the walls for replacement. Prime and paint is the most typical odor control.

I've tried priming and painting several houses with smoke smell. Those where the odor wasn't too bad, the Kilz and paint were enough. Those where the odor was very bad, nothing worked long term. The smell always came back.

That's just my experience...

TSP -> ozonate -> kilz-> probably a second coat of kilz if brutally bad -> paint it.

It would be a fraction of 1% of homes, and probably have to be a noticeably hot climate, that would require rehanging drywall. Any soft surface like carpets or drapery is gonna need replaced.

The above worked for me on my first rehab and that was a 580 sq ft home where the tenant chain smoked rollies to the point of the walls dripping with yellow/ brown scum when I hit them with the TSP. Furnace filters hadn’t even been used in a decade or more.

Even then, cat piss was worse to deal with and the above + neutralizer on the concrete worked for it.

+1 for cleaning out the air ducts. Smoke smells hide anywhere there’s air. I had a similar issue with my car when I bough it (the smoke smell is what put it in my price range). I had to blow out my vents with a leaf blower. I’d scrub them out if I had the right brush.

As mentioned TSP and Killz are the two most effective... I've demo'ed homes from past smokers and you can SEE the yellowing deep into the sheetrock/drywall... Good luck

@Ken Nyczaj

Hi, Ken. How do you pronounce your last name? Man, that must have been fun first day of school every year.

Aha, so this is the first deal you mentioned, the $108,000 purchase price with $70,000 renovation costs, with your ARV of $274,900 ARV.

Glad to hear it's a ranch house. If problems come up with the roof it's going to be easier and safer to deal with.

This is my approach for what you've discussed. I'm going to assume that the $70,000 renovation costs include your either doing a lot of the work or closely supervising the team you have, which you have not worked with before.

You should definitely scrub walls with TSP dissolved in recommended concentrate. Don't up the concentration. It will dissolve the paint on the walls. The way we usually do it these days is to put the mix into a pump sprayer, spray it on the walls until they start running, and scrub with sponge mops.

Trim, doors, and windows should be scrubbed with solution using dishwashing gloves and hand sponges.

Then you empty the buckets, spray with clean water, scrub and rinse, repeat. You'll be using buckets and buckets of clean water during the rinsing phase. You have to get TSP residue off the walls before you prime. Do not trust TSP substitute or anything marketed as a replacement for TSP. The rest are near-beer, not light beer.

All carpet and padding is going to have to come out. You will never get the stink out. Hard floors will need to be cleaned and recleaned thoroughly preferably with detergents and steam mops. But we'll get to the floors.

If the property includes a forced air furnace, you need to have the ducts vacuumed and cleaned. You will also need to take apart the blower and soak the fan -- the residue will be in the blades and you will need to clean it with a toothbrush or other small brush after you soak it. This takes forever and is a thankless task.

Then you prime the walls and ceilings with two coats of Kilz Original, oil-based primer. Oil-based primer is a PITA to work with compared to water-based paints. Use cheap roller covers "Valeur General"from Big Lots and cheap 2-inch black natural-bristle paint brushes from Harbor Freight Tools, they'll work well enough to get the job done if you replace them often. Thin the first coat 25% with paint thinner. "Mineral spirits" will work better but is more expensive and is not worth it for this application.

Wear respirators with organic vapor cartridges, I recommend half-face 3M 6000-7000 series with 3M 6001 cartridges. Do not use Kilz Complete. For a few dollars more per gallon, yes, it will absolutely destroy any odors in those walls but it will burn your eyes and is not worth it for this kind of indoor work.

As @J Scott has pointed out, the worst care scenario is that the stink never really goes away. Hopefully, it's not that bad.  I think you would be more colorful in describing it if it were.

If I told you my worst tobacco-residue war story, you wouldn't believe me. I barely believe me, and I lived through it in 2007.

You're going to be doing much of this priming (and painting afterward) toward the end of the renovation period, not at the beginning. I know you're just asking questions now, but you should really be focusing on where you're going to be spending the big bucks at the beginning of the renovation period. Dropping $70,000 into a 1250 ft2 house is going to take some care.

One thing to always look for: if you see your paint guys spending 8-12 hours a day inside the place as it's being primed with any sort of solvent-based primer and not wearing cartridge respirators, you've got a problem.

Good luck to you, Ken. Keep a camera handy to take pictures of problems as they come up during the reno to post here.

To help with the smoke smell what I have used in multiple fire restoration projects is an Ozone generator.  You can get a decent one on amazon for $300-400.  Works great for other smells as well.

Account Closed  Jim, really appreciate the details on your post and I'll be printing it out to show my business partner. Last name pronounced (niche-I) and I actually had one teacher read it out loud correctly. I see your from Pittsburgh, I have a lot of family in the western Pittsburgh, PA area near Oakdale.

The reason my time to completion is only 1-2 months and $70,000 is my equity partner is a GC, younger guy around my age and a good friend. He has about a decade of experience, but this will be our first flip working together.

Rehab includes- New Roof, Hiring out company for crawl space remediation, new deck, new HVAC, complete interior rehab with all new kitchen (possibly paint cabinets or replace) and two complete rehabs in the bathrooms and wood floors throughout and the entire interior primed then painted.

We will be using TSP on the walls after we remove out the carpet and padding. As far as the HVAC system we are buying a brand new one with new Air Handler as well, but I'd imagine the ducts won't be replaced? So those will have to be cleaned.

I would have the duct professionally cleaned at the end of the project.

@Ken Nyczaj it has already been said several times, but make sure you use TSP to clean the walls before applying an odor blocking primer. Remove all carpet, widow treatments and discard. Clean the kitchen cabinets with wood soap. Clean all surfaces like woodwork and windows. The tar will stick to any surface and emit odors, so everything must be cleaned. After clean, run an ozone machine with the property closed up and furnace fans circulating air. Then open all the windows and let it air out for a day. Repeat this until the property smells good. The smell should be gone before you paint and put carpet in. Don't use air freshener spray or candles to mask the odor. The only thing worse than bad odor is trying to mask it.

@Ken Nyczaj

You are correct, sir. Ducts will not be replaced on a furnace replacement. @Matthew T. pointed out that yes, you would do the duct cleaning at the very end of your project.

I'll bet you never heard of Apollos Rivoire. He was a goldsmith who came to Boston in the early 1700s, and started a family. Soon, he realized that he needed a name that "the bumpkins" would pronounce better, so he changed his name to "Paul Revere," and his son was named Paul as well. So you are part of a great American tradition of dealing with the bumpkins that dates back to the Founding Fathers.

Keep us posted, please. A 1250 ft2 ranch with no basement is a great first-flip project. The number of things that can go disastrously wrong is low. I'm very curious about the plan for the wood floors, the kitchen, and the bathrooms.

@Matthew T. @Joe Splitrock @Jim K.

Thanks for the continued support.

Today we removed all the sellers belongings- furniture, electronics, clothes etc. Part of our marketing pitch is we take care of any unwanted or leftover goods and donate or dispose of. Then, we removed all closet doors, room doors, carpet, padding, tile in kitchen, gutted one bathroom completely. Then pulled out all staples from the subfloor. Hauled off all debris to a local transfer station and landfill, luckily we had a utility trailer along with a pickup truck.

One pipe running to the sink was busted in the bathroom and water came shooting out, but water was quickly turned off. All cpvc capped and we shoved a rag in the toilet sewer line. I'm wondering if there is no toilet should we keep water turned off overnight or does it matter?

Wood floors throughout house. Kitchen will be new appliances, creation of an island, granite or quartz countertop, we may keep or replace cabinets and just paint them (they're in great shape and are original at 25 years old, seller was never home). 

Bathrooms will be completely gutted with new vanity, toilets, and all tile showers with niche and tile stripe running through. We are also raising shower head to 7ft, Maybe 7ft 6 inches, I read that it's an inexpensive upgrade and homeowners usually appreciate a taller shower head.

@Ken Nyczaj

1. Water line to the toilet should have a shutoff valve before the male threaded part. You should be able to shut it off there. If there's no shut-off valve, you will have to add one to adhere with any sort of imaginable local plumbing code in an urban area like Annapolis. Usually looks like this: Toilet shut-off valve If you can shut the water off at the fixture, there's no need to shut off the main water line. Will not significantly matter in current weather. Do you have a photograph of the busted water line to the sink?

2. Do you have any shots of the kitchen subfloor as it looks after demo or of the tile demo process?

3. Do you have a shot of the wood floors? Are you running plumbing lines to the island? Do you have a shot of the cabinets? Well, do you have multiple shots of the cabinets, close-ups and at a distance?

4. OK, there's an issue with raising the shower head up past the standard 80 inches. Let's say you put in a dual showerhead or a showerhead with an integrated sprayer. It would look like this: Showerhead sprayer or this: Dual showerhead. Your 5'2" buyer might not be able to reach the showerhead to grab the handshower. There are also higher-end retrofit kits/upgrades that you can put into a standard setup: retrofit shower system. They don't do well when you raise the showerhead. But if I were you, I would think hard about putting in something like this jetted shower tower in the setup your describe. Shower towers sell houses at your price point: Shower Tower. I've used this one before and after you chop out all the behind the wall plumbing, it's easy to install. Two flexible lines, included, from cold and hot lines. No rough in, no valve, no cartridge, no drop ears, no tub spout, just chop out the main valve, add male 1/2 threaded fittings to the hot and cold lines, and put this in.

5. Your GC friend is getting mighty ambitious with that shower setup! Then again, I do exactly the same thing wherever I can. The shower niche can get tricky if he's gotta play with the framing or he's thinking about doing a custom one versus a prefabricated unit. Of course, pictures would be nice.

6. That's some serious demo work for one day! How many guys you got on this?

@Jim K. Jim, again your insight is awesome. I’m forwarding all this to my GC buddy as he is not on BP, at least not yet. I did take pictures today of before and after. I’ll load them into an album and throw some up on this thread or a new thread either by tonight or tomorrow.

We are subbing out the tiling for the shower niche.

We had 3 of us on site today. Would have had time to demo second bathroom but seller had a lot of furniture to remove.

@Jim K. We are not running plumbing to island. It will just be used as extra countertop space, with two cabinets below.

As far as scrubbing the walls with TSP, one of the partners mentioned we should ask the company who will be painting the house to do that work instead of one of us. That way it's done by a professional and this seems to be an integral part to our success in this flip (eliminating the smoke smell), even if it costs an extra $2,000 we have room in the budget and I don't want to take the risk of destroying some drywall by overusing.

What do you think? Hire it out or do it ourselves?

Do it yourself. Start in a closet so you get the feel for how much rubbing will start to soften the paint. You’re not building rockets, you’ll be fine.

@Ken Nyczaj

You're going to find that 90% of bathroom renos have 90% in common with each other. It's just the nature of the beast. Thanks for the compliment, but after your third bathroom I'm sure you'll know exactly what I mean.

1. If you're subbing out the tiling, who's putting in the cement board underlayment (CBU) surrounding the alcove (assuming it's an alcove bathtub)? With a niche, both custom and prefab, the framing behind the alcove and underneath the CBU has to be right. This is one of the multiple reasons it makes sense with any tiled surround to have the same guys handle the alcove work from studs and tub installation to tile. That's how you get tiled surrounds that don't leak. You have one outfit do the prep work and put in the CBU and another do the tiling, and the two outfits don't know each other, all kinds of not-so-fun things can happen.

2. Wise decision on the lack of plumbing for the island at that ARV.

3. You are going to get charged some serious cheddar, more than $2000, if you ask a pro outfit to go with labor-intensive TSP cleaning and oil-based primer as I've described. Instead, they'll probably offer to use Kilz Max (water-based and more than twice the price per gallon) and no TSP scrubbing. There's a slightly greater chance the cigarette stink will come back, as @J Scott  has described. Since I'm not there sniffing your walls, I can't run that risk calculation for you, but I would probably risk the Kilz Max if I didn't see large brown tobacco stain discolorations all over the walls. That will be your GC's call, and when it comes to it, I would let him make it and do what he says. Too many chiefs and no Indians would not be good here, both for this flip and the flips to come.

I would not do the cleaning and the oil-based priming myself if I were in your shoes. If you guys had the ability to do a great job, there would be no need to hire a painter to do the last 20% of the work, rolling on topcoats on already beautifully prepped and primed walls and ceilings. Somehow, I was under the mistaken impression that you were handling the painting for this first flip, not a contractor. This is what happens when you get old.

Sadly, the bottom line is that issues like the tiling and the priming here are part and parcel of what you have to deal with as flippers hiring contractors, without the personal experience to fire them on the spot, step in, and be your own contractors of last resort if need be. This is also one of the reasons a reliable general renovation contractor with his own experienced crew is worth so much to a flipper (J Scott makes this crystal clear in his books).

So far, though, Ken & Co., I'm impressed. You guys are doing well and not stepping on your cranks You have good ideas, reasonable expectations, fine planning, determined execution. Most flippers start with a lot less while they think they have a lot more. Then when the metal meets the meat...

Congrats again.

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