How to Spring Clean

woman with hands on hips in kitchen, ready to clean
In the end, your spring cleaning to-do list is really up to you. But we have some ideas that'll help you get moving (and cleaning).

When the spring cleaning talk starts up, I always feel a little guilty. I must confess that I've never had a true spring cleaning "plan." I really like the idea of having a big thorough house cleaning when warm weather rolls around, but I've never managed to actually do it myself, with a systematic plan. I do actually have a regular, written cleaning routine (don't worry, it's only been for the past few years), but the idea of adding anything onto it seems daunting. Yet I know that spring cleaning is a great excuse to clean things that I don't manage to get to any other time.

The good thing is that "spring cleaning" can really mean doing as much or as little cleaning as you want. Nobody's going to come to your house to check for dust or to see if your DVD collection is organized. You're the one who has to live there, so you should clean to your own standards. But also keep in mind that some spring cleaning tasks are designed to keep things running smoothly, so while it's not something you "have to" do, it can be about more than just enjoying a clean house.


Where to start? That's what this article is about: what you'll need to know before you get going and how to systematically go room-by-room. If you really want to get detailed, spread the cleaning out in small increments over a few weeks. Or if you want to just focus on the high-traffic or worst areas, you can get it done in a weekend. No matter how you choose to tackle it, you'll end up with a great sense of accomplishment.

Build Your Toolkit

assorted cleaning products
Assemble your army of cleaning products before you start. You'll be glad you did!

If you're reading about spring cleaning you probably try to keep your house in some kind of order, so it seems safe to assume that you have cleaning stuff on hand. But when you're doing some serious cleaning, you might need to invest in cleaners and tools that you don't usually have at the ready.

Despite what you see in the cleaning products aisle, you can actually get by with very few cleaners. It's all about your preference and what you need to tackle. There are lots of multi-purpose ones that can be used on floors, counters, walls and bathrooms. Often they can be diluted to various strengths depending on whether you are mopping or cleaning up a serious mess in the fridge. Some people prefer to use something with antibacterial properties for the kitchen and bathroom. Then you need something alcohol or vinegar based to clean glass, like mirrors and windows. A basic stain remover for carpets and upholstery is also handy.


Now we'll get into the more specialty cleaners. Dusting sprays are actually a no-no for wooden furniture -- they leave a residue, so get a paste wax. Countertops made of soapstone need to be oiled with mineral oil; granite or marble surfaces have their own special cleaners (regular household cleaners can damage them). Want to polish your silverware or copper pots? Yep, you need a special polish. Getting out a carpet cleaner? You can't just put any old soap in there. So figure out what you want to do, and then buy what you need.

Then there are the tools: broom, dustpan, mop, bucket, vacuum cleaner, cloths or sponges, dusters. Some people swear by feather dusters, but others claim they just spread the mess around and prefer microfiber ones. Also consider buying two buckets -- one for mopping and one to carry your supplies from room to room. If you have high ceilings like I do, you'll also need a step-stool or even an extension pole to get those cobwebs. Finally, gloves are always a good investment if you want to avoid touching muck or have sensitive skin.


Cleaning Basics

man holding a feather duster, standing below a chandelier
You, 1. Dusty chandelier, 0.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Cleaning will be different in every room of the house, but there are also some basics that you can carry over no matter where you're working. For example, cleaning each room from top to bottom is a common strategy for a practical reason: if you're cleaning the upper shelves in a room, the dust and dirt will drift down. But if the last thing you do is clean the floor, it won't matter.

Pretty much every room has things like windows, window treatments, upholstery, flooring, light fixtures and surfaces, which means dust. Obviously you're dusting everything once a week, right? Ha. Even if you are, you're probably not getting everything. How about the tops of doors, crown molding, or the corners of ceilings? Here's where a duster with an extension handle comes in handy.


Next, take everything off the tops of furniture and dust. Books and knickknacks are notorious for collecting it, so you need to dust them off (just use a dry cloth) before replacing them onto your clean shelves. Don't forget about lamps, shades, picture frames, mirrors, and light fixtures. (Glass on the latter needs to be cleaned with your glass cleaner.) Now you'll need your all-purpose cleaner to wipe down walls, doors, windowsills and baseboards. Any time I've done this I've been surprised at the amount of dirt.

Now turn to the windows -- dust the blinds and shades, or if you have curtains, wash them or get them dry-cleaned. Spray with your glass cleaner of choice and go to town. Paper towels work fine, but some people swear by plain newsprint to avoid streaking. Next, vacuum all over your upholstery using an attachment, including under the cushions (did you find change?). See if cushion covers and slipcovers can be washed, or use a stain remover for upholstery. Some carpet cleaners come with attachments, and you may want to go that route if your chair is especially smelly. If you have pets, use a solution designed just for pet odor. You don't want to sit on a wet sofa so this is something to tackle early in the morning.

Finally, the floors. Wipe down all baseboards with a damp cloth. Carpets need vacuuming and a special cleaner; other kinds of floors should be mopped to start. But then it depends on your flooring. Wooden or laminate floors shouldn't be mopped or even steamed clean, although you can use a special cleaner on stains. You can mop tile and vinyl, but with the former you may need to use a grout cleaner. Check for loose grout and replace if you need to.


Tackling the Kitchen and Bathroom

gloved hand scrubbing gas range
Scrubbing a gas stovetip like this one can be a pain, but it's worth it.

Now that you've got the basics down, let's turn to the individual rooms of your house and the areas that need special attention. I have to admit, the kitchen and bathrooms can be especially gross when you're spring cleaning, so let's get them out of the way.

Even if you're good at rotating food, you probably have some that's expired. Take everything out of the fridge and pantry, and if you're in doubt, ditch it. Wash all of them down inside and out with your all-purpose cleaner (for me that means changing out the bucket several times). One important task that often gets ignored is cleaning the refrigerator coils. They're usually on the back, but check the manual. These coils get dusty and that makes your refrigerator work even harder to keep things cool. Don't neglect cleaning the gaskets around doors, because if they get full of crumbs they don't seal as well.


Other major appliances in the kitchen that need your attention include the dishwasher. Look in the bottom for a strainer that catches food, take it out, dump any gunk and clean it. Wipe down the inside with your basic cleaner. You can buy a bottle of dishwasher cleaner to run through a cycle, but you can also just put in some borax and run it empty.

The stove can be a challenge. If you have a lovely, sealed-top electric range, that's one thing. If you have a gas stove like me, cleaning the top means copious amounts of scrubbing and vowing I'll be better about getting up spills immediately. Many ovens have cleaning cycles, which essentially burn off any spilled food, so use that if you have it. If (yes, like me) yours doesn't, try scrubbing with a thick layer of baking soda instead of oven cleaner.

In the bathrooms, use this time to clean really carefully in small cracks around the sink, grout, and bottom of the toilet. If you have a fan installed, clean or replace the filter. If you have soap scum build-up, vinegar can break it down. Make sure your drains are running smoothly, using a drain cleaner or pour baking soda and then vinegar down each one. The medicine cabinet or closet can also be full of products potentially gone bad, although cosmetics don't always have expiration dates. Definitely throw away expired medicine, and take the time to restock your first aid kit.


Living Spaces

woman vacuuming ash from fireplace
Vacuuming the fireplace is a good spring cleaning task.

The living room, den, office and dining room are probably the spaces where you spend the most time. Sitting on the sofa in front of the TV, reading, playing with your kids, eating meals, paying bills. While a lot of the basic cleaning tips will get most of these rooms clean, there are a few things that need special consideration.

Let's start with the clutter. This is where it lives, more than anywhere else. So before you even start cleaning, go through your book, DVD and CD collections and weed them out. Why clean something that you don't really want? Electronics also tend to be kept in these places, and do they ever get dirty. You don't want to clean electronics with anything wet, so dry-dusting is your best bet. It might also be worth buying a lint-free or non-static cloth to get rid of any dust or smudges on the screen. Your computer may be full of dust, so consider opening it up (if you're into that kind of thing) and spray it out with some canned air. This is the best way to get dirt out of the keyboard too. Got that tangle of cords behind your entertainment center or desk? Sort through and label them all, or even buy a system to bundle and organize them.


Fireplaces are beautiful, although these days they aren't used as much to keep your house warm. They can also be a mess. If you used yours in the winter, it needs to be cleaned. You can handle sweeping or vacuuming out the ashes and debris, as well as wiping down the stonework or brick with an all-purpose cleaner. Getting rid of build-up inside the fireplace is best left to the professionals. Spring is the best time to do it, so it'll be all ready for next winter.

I always mean to file papers weekly. Or monthly, at least. But I don't. Even if you're really diligent about maintaining your file cabinet, you may want to go through and throw out anything really old (with so much stuff online, you probably don't need your power bill stubs from five years ago anyway). If you can't ever find anything, it's time to reorganize and make a system that works for you, whatever that may be. While you're in the office, clean off your computer or computers of any old files and make sure you're backing up everything you want to keep, whether that's by an external hard drive, a server or an online service.


Bedrooms and Closets

illustration of a person hand vacuuming a mattress
Cleaning a mattress is surprisingly easy.
Dorling Kindersley RF/Thinkstock

Dressers, chairs, night stands ... you've doubtless dusted, cleaned and waxed all of these items already. So what sets the bedroom apart from other rooms? The bed, of course! The bed frame counts as a piece of furniture, so don't forget to pay close attention to it as well. But by far one of the biggest cleaning issues in the bedroom is the mattress. The truth is, mattresses can get really musty. If you're just changing the sheets and pillowcases every few weeks, you're not getting the mattress itself clean. Not to get too disgusting, but while you sleep, you're shedding skin cells and hair and maybe even sweat on this highly-absorbent pad for however long you've had the mattress. And if you have small kids or pets...that mattress has probably seen some bad stuff.

There are two ways of going about this. Either way, you should flip your mattress every six months to promote even wear. But after taking off the sheets and flipping? The involved way to clean it is to vacuum it first, and then get out the carpet cleaner with the upholstery attachment, using stain remover on any spots. Make sure not to get it too wet and allow plenty of time for it to dry -- if you can, open windows for it to air-dry or use fans. If the mattress isn't stained but just a bit smelly, you can just sift baking soda over the top after vacuuming it. Then put the sheets back on. The next time you change them, vacuum off any baking soda residue. It'll have absorbed odors and moisture. Pillows are the second-worst-offenders -- they can usually be washed but you may need to take them to a Laundromat to use the big commercial washers and dryers.


Closets are often ignored during a bout of spring cleaning. Out of sight, out of mind? Remove everything from your closets and clean them as you would any other room. Since warm weather is on the way, go through your winter stuff and decide what should be packed away and what needs to leave the house one way or another (and don't let your good intentions die with bags and boxes sitting on your closet floor until fall). Then organize what's left in your closet. Extend this work to linen closets, coat closets and any other closets, while you're in the room that contains it. You will probably run across some "lost" items, and be able to fit more stuff into your closets!

Utility and Storage Areas

well-organized tool pegboard
Even if you're not neat by nature, it's hard to deny the appeal of a well-organized set of tools.

These aren't generally the pretty areas of the house -- the utility rooms, laundry rooms, garages, attics and storage places. Unless they're finished and actually designed to be attractive, that is. For so many of us, these areas become dumping grounds because nobody's going to really check them out anyway, are they? No, but you're going in and out of some of these rooms often so you owe it to yourself to make them clean and at least bearable.

My laundry room/utility room is in my finished basement, but that part isn't finished, so it can be unpleasant to go in there. I just don't think about cleaning my washer and dryer much, but they need to be cleaned like anything else. Wipe them down on the outside with your all-purpose cleaner to remove dust and any spilled detergent residue. Washers can get an unpleasant smell sometimes -- you can run a cycle with baking soda, borax or another cleaner that does a good job of freshening things up.


For the dryer, your focus should be on the lint trap and the vent hose. Both can get full of lint and hair, which can not only potentially be dangerous, but can also make your dryer take longer to dry clothes. While you're in there, clear off any shelving, clean it, and reorganize. For the utility side, if you haven't changed your furnace filter recently, it needs to be done at least every few months. Wipe it down as well as the other elements of your HVAC system. You might want to get the whole thing inspected if you haven't done so recently.

Ever seen a pristine garage or attic? Me neither. It's where we put the stuff that doesn't belong anywhere else. That doesn't mean that these rooms have to be trashed, though. Removing everything and washing it may not be practical. However, you can still wipe down and organize what's there. Move items that you use often to the front and long-term storage things to the back of shelves. Make sure that you have things properly stored to avoid damage from heat, humidity or rodents and keep as much off the floor as you can. Label everything that isn't obvious. In the garage, things like installing a pegboard for tools to keep them neat can make a big difference.


Take it Outdoors

asian man and asian woman using caulk gun on house exterior
Sealing up cracks with a caulking gun in the spring will pay off in the heat of summer.

Now your whole house is clean, so you're finished, right? Yes and no. There are many spring cleaning tasks that could use your attention outside. If you're a renter and don't have any outside property to maintain, then you're in the clear. If not, there's still work to be done.

Let's start with the house itself. Do a thorough inspection outside to check for loose or damaged siding, caulk or other exterior work so you can quickly repair and replace it before spring rains can get in. I have a steep roof, so I get someone to come and check things out up there. While he's up there, he blows all of the debris off and also cleans out my gutters -- another important spring cleaning chore. Look around windows and other openings and re-caulk as necessary. Air conditioning is much less efficient if hot air is getting inside. Speaking of air conditioning, if you have it, you don't want to wait until it's hot to find out that there's a problem, right? Get it serviced well before summertime.


All winter long, you probably haven't had to do much to the yard. Now that spring is coming, it's time to assess things. Before the profusion of growth (both the pretty stuff and the weeds) is the best time. Clean up any leftover leaves and yard debris, put out more mulch where you need it, fix any broken edging or damaged retaining walls. If you need to prune any trees -- with the advice of an arborist, of course -- it usually needs to be done after winter but before they bud. If you want to plant something new, you can plan it out now and start any seedlings as necessary.

Let's close with some warnings -- stay safe when you're spring cleaning. According to the Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AOS), there are hundreds of thousands of injuries this time of year. So be careful when you're climbing those step stools and ladders, read the warning labels on your cleaning products, wear gloves and don't overextend yourself. Some people find mold when spring cleaning. If this happens to you, don't freak out. If it's a small area and on a hard surface, you can scrub it well yourself with something strong (like bleach) until it's gone. Consider wearing gloves, goggles and a respirator. You also have to make sure you fix the moisture problem that caused the mold to grow or it'll be back. For bigger areas, call in a specialist.

You could call in someone to do all the cleaning, in fact -- most maid services tend to offer spring cleaning services. But then you'd miss out on the satisfaction of a job well done. That's what I'm going to tell myself, anyway.


Author's Note

Writing this article did make me feel a little bit bad for not having done a thorough spring cleaning in the past. And there are some things that I write about that I haven't done myself. I take a very laid-back approach to cleaning in general and prefer to use homemade cleaning products when at all possible. But I do love the idea of a freshly cleaned house to greet the new season. I've learned some interesting tips and tricks along the way -- who knew it was that easy to clean a mattress? -- and I've been using some of them. Sadly, I haven't been able to recruit anybody to help me out, but I have discovered some fun podcasts to keep me entertained as I scrub!

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