I've been living in what is best described as a hippie/hipster commune. I was desperate not to be a homeless (yet loveable) tramp, so I moved in rather hastily a few months ago. My friends have been living there for nigh on four years, and to my knowledge, during all of these years, there hasn't really been a deep clean (don't even get me started on the state of the bathroom I was meant to use upon move-in).

However, our lease is up at the end of the next month, and I have the sinking feeling a return of our deposit is a pipe dream. There's a lot of grime, mold, and dust + hair, especially in the corners and on ledges. The house always feels a bit dirty. What is the best way to clean these areas? Is there anything that I can pay loads of attention to that will up the chances of deposit return? My housemates are not the best cleaners, and they are frugal; I've been lobbying to hire a cleaning service but to no avail. Please send help.

Before we do this thing, let's take a second to talk about hiring cleaning services. Every now and again an email comes in from someone asking about maid services, prefaced with an apology. Ladies! (And gents.) There's no need to apologize for bringing in professional help! If it's right for you, given your lifestyle and income then by all means, hire someone! I would also submit that one of the circumstances under which you should seriously consider such a service is around moving time. If you truly are in risk of losing a deposit over a dirty home, it's worth the cost of Merry Maids to recoup that money. On the other end of things, which we'll get to downcolumn, if you can't or won't give your new place a thorough unfilthing then why not call in professionals, provided you can swing the cost? Think of it this way: We're all capable of washing a car, and yet commercial car washes still manage to do gangbusters business. Do we feel better about things now? Good.

All right, now let's talk about getting the place ready for the move-out walk-through. First things first: Call your landlord or management company and ask them what the guidelines are for passing their inspection; a common standard is "broom-clean" which is a tremendously unhelpful term for its lack of specificity, which is why you should take the time to have that conversation. It's also a good opportunity to provide him or her with your forwarding address so they know where to send your returned deposit.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you only need to do the bare minimum. Please don't kill yourself cleaning the place, because it's likely that the property owners will send in work crews after you move out to repaint, fix or upgrade outdated or broken items, throw wild parties, etc. and all that hard work you did will be for naught.

With that, here are the basics:

Walls

  • Remove nails and hooks from walls; if the walls have been damaged beyond just a small nail hole, touch them up with a product like Erase-A-Hole.
  • If you've painted the apartment anything other than neutral colors, ask if you are required to paint the walls back to white.
  • If there are stains or dings on the walls, hit them with a magic eraser.

Floors

  • Sweep all floors clear of trash, hair and dust bunnies.
  • If there are spills or sticky residue or a ton of dirt, you have my permission JUST THIS ONCE to use one of those dreadful Swiffer products.

Bathroom

  • The bathroom should be free of hair and mold and toothpaste dribble, so once you've gotten everything packed up head in with a bottle of Tilex or tea tree oil solution and spray everything down. Open a window! While that's marinating, grab a broom and sweep the floors.

Kitchen

  • Again, we're not aiming for perfection here, just for things to look clean. Don't forget how potentially gross the inside of your refrigerator and/or cabinets may be. The best approach with the kitchen is to spray everything down with an all-purpose cleaner, leave it for 10 minutes, then come back and wipe all the surfaces. That should be enough.

Other

  • If you, too, live in a hippie commune, take a pass at the window ledges and corners of the room with a wet rag – that should take up any stray hair and dirt left there.
  • Repairs: Here comes the hard part, the part where we talk about "normal wear and tear" versus "things you really should have taken care of while you were living there because now you're plum out of luck, sister." Normal wear and tear can be roughly translated to mean things that happen naturally over time, versus damage, which refers to things that have been broken or distressed due to lack of upkeep. Would you like more specifics? Here is a handy chart detailing the difference between normal wear and tear and damage! ('Fess up, which one of you is caking lipstick on the mirror?) The bad news here is that things that were damaged in the course of your occupancy should have been brought to the landlord's attention when they happened.

OK now comes the fun part: HORROR STORIES. You got 'em? Of course you do! Share with us, if you will (and you will), the terrible ordeals you've endured with security deposits, pitfalls we should be aware of, tales of triumph over a landlord who was holding your security deposit hostage.

I have, well, not a question exactly but could I get a consult? A second opinion, a double check? I'm finally moving out of my hoarder roommate's place, and am super excited to be saying fare-thee-well to non-stick pans in the dishwasher, Swiffers, piles of trash bags by the front door, piles of shoes, piles of paper, piles of baseball hats, piles of gross sweaty boyfriend. So, with all the piles in my rearview mirror, can we come up with a move-in cleaning checklist?

Mmm-hm we sure can! This is your chance to start life with a renewed commitment to being a clean person, which is what I know you've always wanted for yourself! Isn't your mother going to be so proud?!

OK so remember how upcolumn I told you to do the bare minimum on your way out of your old place? Right, so let's work under the assumption that whoever was living in the place you now call home took the same approach. Actually no, let's work under the assumption that whoever was living in the place you now call home was, like, slaving away on a Master's thesis in taxidermy and artisanal Limburger production in the place you're now calling home and go from there.

We'll take this bad boy room-by-room.

First up: The bathroom. Let's not mince around the truth here, ladies. This was someone else's shitter. Grab your bleach or your tea tree oil and go hog wild on your bathroom. Wear gloves! But give everything — the tub/shower, the toilet, the sink, the vanity, the grout, the walls, the medicine cabinet, the floors a really thorough delousing.

This means taking it a step up from my beloved Scrubbing Bubbles and busting out a product with some heft: Soft Scrub, Comet, Bon Ami — all great choices for the tub, sink, inside the medicine cabinet, and vanity (seriously... think about it. This was where a stranger stored his Preparation-H). Use an all-purpose spray cleaner to wipe up any leftover residue those products might leave. With my apologies for being vague, on the floors use whatever product is appropriate given the type of flooring. Got specific questions or issues? Write me! Using a rag — rags are best for this — wipe the walls down with an ammonia solution or a basic dishsoap + baking soda solution.

I see you all staring at me like that. The walls? Jolie, seriously you're making us wash the walls?

Well yes I am. And here's why: Ponder, for a moment, all the spraying and brushing and trimming and powdering and projectile vomiting (barfers, every last one of you) that takes place in your bathroom. Have you ever stopped to consider how much fallout from those activities ends up on your bathroom walls? Now think about the previous tenant. The one with the taxidermy and the Limburger?

I do so enjoy the look you take on when I break your spirit.

Shall we move on to the kitchen now? I promise (mostly) that the worst of it is over.

Next up: The Kitchen

We've talked before about hard cleaning a kitchen and you should do that and also I have good news for you! You don't have to take everything out first. Right because there's nothing in there to begin with. Give the vent hood a good washing, get after that stove if it's got burnt-on God-only-knows-what, and consider cleaning the oven while you're at it.

Pay particular attention to the inside of the cupboards and the refrigerator. Artisanal Limburger, remember? Or maybe the previous tenant was a bartender? Either way, clean the fridge. Next week I'll take you through how to hard clean a refrigerator, but for now things are getting long and we haven't even talked about your floors yet. Which brings me to…

The Floors!

There are two approaches here: If you can get into the apartment before you move in, go ahead and wash the floors when the place is empty. If you can't get in there prior to the big day, wait until after most of your stuff is unpacked and put away, since that process will create no small amount of dirt.

I promise that one day we'll talk about the ins and outs of getting floors clean. Really. I'm not putting it off or anything. Nope, not this Clean Person.

And lastly: Windows, ledges, and baseboards

By now you will have already given up on cleaning your new home. It's a sad truth that I'm going to have to accept. But perhaps after living in your new abode for a few weeks or years the spirit will inspire in you a burning desire to clean your windows, ledges, and baseboards, and you'll remember your old pal, A Clean Person. And here I'll be, sitting in my rocking chair waiting for one of you to come sit at my knee and ask, "Clean Person, whatever shall I do about my dirty windows, ledges and baseboards?"

This is what you'll do.

Windows: Windex or DIY vinegar solution. Spray. Wipe with newspaper or a microfiber cloth. Or really anything that won't leave lint. Oh oh! Don't forget the window frames, those suckers are dirt magnets.

Ledges: Dirt central. Use an all-purpose spray or an ammonia solution paired with a rag to get wooden ledges clean. A Magic Eraser may also be helpful!

Baseboards: Go over the baseboards with a dust broom or a vacuum with the brush attachment affixed to get up dust and hair. Then spray — but don't soak! — the baseboards with an all-purpose cleaner and leave it for 10 or so minutes. Go back over the baseboards with a damp rag or sponge.

OK so that's it! Except I feel like I'm forgetting something? Oh right! The most important part: Treat yourself to cold drink and a long, hot bath.

The above originally ran on The Hairpin on 18 August 2011; check the comments section for more tips & reader horror stories