Emergency Cleanup: Get Ready for Guests in 30 Minutes or Less

Many of us have experienced an embarrassing moment when a visitor dropped by with little warning, but my friend's story tops them all. She was spending a lazy Sunday at home in New York City, when a friend called to say she'd be stopping by shortly with one of the town's most prestigious interior decorators. My friend thought the right amount of notice for such a visit would have been about 12 months (by then she could have had the place completely renovated), but instead she had about 30 minutes to whip her home into shape. Apparently she pulled it off well enough—she never got a visit from the housekeeping police—but she asked what I'd have done in similar circumstances.

I'd have done the following, and gone as far down the list as possible until the doorbell rang.

1. Check your outfit, comb your hair, and fix your makeup. The first thing your guests notice isn't your living room—it's you.

2. Close doors, blocking off the view of whatever rooms will not be in use.

3. Carrying a bag or two, clear the table and floor surfaces of any unnecessary clutter both in your foyer and in whatever room you'll use for the visit. Hide the bags somewhere out of the way—meaning, not in the closet near the door, where you may have to hang the coats.

4. Take a light-duty cleaner, furniture spray and rag into the room you'll use for the visit. Wipe fingerprints and other visible dirt off surfaces such as the mirror, glass-topped end table or wooden coffee table.

5. Fluff up all pillows.

6. Now, check out the bathroom. Wipe away hair on the floor, toothpaste in the sink, and any other obvious turnoffs. Gather up any clutter, like dirty towels, extra bottles, magazines and so forth, and stuff them in the hamper—or just stow them behind the shower curtain. Make sure the bathroom has clean guest towels, soap, and toilet tissue ready for your visitors.

7. If you have enough time, go back and vacuum the room where you and your guests will be spending the most time.

8. Go into the kitchen and stow unwashed dishes in the dishwasher or oven. Clear the clutter off the counter, too. If you have to, put things in the oven or the refrigerator. You may get a few minutes to tidy up when you go into the kitchen to fix your guests a drink, but there is always the chance that your guests will follow you.

9. Spray pine cleaner all around. The scent in the air creates the impression that everything has been thoroughly scrubbed.

Keep this list posted where you can find it in an emergency!

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