Cigarette smoke

How to Rid Yourself of Pervasive Tobacco Smoke (or Other) Smells for Good!

By: Steve Hembree
September 24, 2021  | 

Nicotine is a nasty, oily substance, and really, it’s as much a nuisance as it is anything else, and that's the fact. However, there is hope!

Even though nicotine accumulation in a home, or any other structure is, by definition, toxic, it can be eliminated. See this snippet from

Nicotine itself is a dangerous neurotoxin, even if it weren’t addictive. To start, nicotine is poisonous if ingested and is one of the most toxic of all poisons.

In fact, even handling the plant leaves can cause health problems such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. In the past, nicotine was used as an insecticide, until it was commercially banned in 2014 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of its potential to contaminate agricultural products. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s harmful to humans, too.

In this article, we will cover the standard steps we take in remediating this problem.

Some Background

Years ago, when my life-long-smoker mother passed away, I had the unenviable job of prepping her house for sale. I can tell you; firsthand, how oily, sticky, and smelly years of nicotine can be. It can get so bad that it seems to grow, almost, well, hair or fibers in it. Now, for the sake of clarity, I know it does not grow these, it's probably airborne hairs that get caught up in the oily gunk, but still, Ewww!

I found that most of my mother's hard goods were nearly impossible to clean as one would normally clean anything - such as glazed porcelain - with normal soap and water. Simple Green even met its match. However, Windex or rather the ammonia in Windex, cut right through it like a hot knife through butter! That's my helpful tip for the month.

Mitigating your property

There are a good many other things you will need to do to clean up your nicotine-saturated house. Starting from top to bottom:

Those ceilings. Oh, those ceilings!

If you have popcorn ceilings, pay for the removal of the popcorn. A professional can make relatively quick work of it, and you will have a pristine surface at that point. Yes, you will likely have to do some mudding and texturing, but that is a vast improvement. And You can welcome your home into this century. Look at it this way, even without nicotine sticking to the ceiling, you will always have cobwebs and other dirt on there.

Yes, you can paint the ceilings as well, but it will probably take 3 coats, starting with Kilz primer, to seal in the smell and color from nicotine. If you are unwilling to remove the popcorn ceilings, definitely paint them, because when you paint the walls, which you will have to do, that ceiling, popcorn or not, will stick out like a sore thumb. It will look WAY worse than it did before you painted the walls.

Primer is Primo for Walls

What is primer? Primer is a paint that other paints stick to, in short. Kilz primer is an excellent product, if you use it right. Regular primers are good too, but Kilz really sets the benchmark.  However, even before you prime the walls, you must clean them. If there is oily nicotine on the walls, it will bleed through the primer.

Use a product like TSP (Tri-sodium Phosphate) to clean the walls, to prep for primer. The more guck you get off initially, the less bleed through you will have. Believe you me, it is awfully tempting to simply slap down some paint, but if you don't prep properly, you'll be slapping down paint until the cows come home from, well, wherever it is they, you know, go...

Clean as a Whistle. Clean-ish Anyway.

Once you have cleaned the walls, they are going to still look awful, but this is where primer comes in. One of the things that make me marvel, is how good, straight, and plumb a wall looks after it has been cleaned up and painted. The human eye is easily fooled by broken lines, gunk, and stains on walls, but the reward after the painting is seeing the finished product. Once you have put down your primer, the reward begins taking shape. Once dry, you will probably need two coats of the paint of your choice put down on the primer. My mom's house had one spot, only one, that just would not cover-up, even after 6 coats, but that is an anomaly.

Two coats of decent semi-gloss paint over Kilz will cover like a dream. And better yet, that nicotine smell is now encased. Forever. Bear in mind, however, that is only the case if you paint the whole house, meaning every wall, ceilings, windowsills, doors, closets, etc.

Worst Case Scenario: Major Wall Damage

Bear in mind that major smoke damage, such as from a fire, or really heavy smoking, may necessitate removal and replacement of wall materials. Drywall, insulation, possibly outlets, and switch boxes, but normally this is not the case.

A Shifting Bottom Line...

Before I get to flooring, I do want to bring this up. In most cases, no matter how bad a home is, it's really not as much money to redo it as your nightmares may suggest. Those pesky night terrors will whisper in your ear the worst possible outcomes, and rarely is it all that bad.

For example, a $500,000 house down the street from me was used as a grow house. It was raided, and the perps were arrested. The house flitted onto the market for about 2.5 seconds and sold for $150,000. I have watched the work done so far, so I know what else needs doing.

My son spotted the sale and was wringing his hands at how much the new owner will have to spend to fix this house up. After some quick calculations: Paint and flooring based on the square footage, replacing the melted window coverings, replacing all the hollow core 6-panel doors (I saw them out front, warped and broken) 2 HVAC FAU's, appliances, duct cleaning, etc, I had an answer for him. "Son, that house could be renovated for about $45,000, maybe less, and easily sold for $500k, maybe $525k. That's a cool $330,000 profit."

"Dad, where do I sign up?"

Now to the Bottom

Flooring. Yep, that thing we all walk on, all day long, is the topic of the minute.

If the house has any smoker residue at all, you will probably want to replace any and all carpeting. Hard floors are going to be just fine. Provided they get a good cleaning. However, the nicotine impregnated carpet and padding? Well, this is a good time to consider more hard floors, be it tile, laminate, or vinyl planks. Just make sure that whatever you put in goes well with the rest of the house. There’s nothing worse than a "clown floor", that is, several different flooring types that don't match on any level.

Okay, done, right? Nope.

Besides a thorough cleaning, nooks, crannies, and all, there is one major item to address. As I mentioned above in the grow house near me, you are going to want to spend some time, energy, and resources on the ducts and the FAU. Have them professionally cleaned.

Bathroom exhaust fans will likely need cleaning. Light fixtures too. And smoke probably made it into the attic spaces as well. However, so long as the home has a positive pressure ratio (mine normally has a negative ratio, so Radon is a concern) it will not draw that old nicotine in.

Any drapes and such, just replace them, and when you do, don't put more drapes. They just catch and hold dirt and airborne yuck. This applies to any property you're rehabbing. Sure, they may look nice and all, but at some point, you're going to have to get them cleaned.

The Best Prevention?

Well, the best way to keep from having to remediate a home that has nicotine damage is to not allow smoking, of any sort, in your house.

We, at Management One, have seen it all. Even in the years, I have been here (and, honestly folks, it does not seem like it has been 8 1/2 years, more like maybe one, one, and a half) I have seen quite a bit. In that time, I have seen residents who have been in homes for decades, and some of which who moved in well before smoking was prohibited.

Back in the day, (and I am dating myself here) if you remember, it was not all that uncommon to see people smoke cigarettes in the grocery store or department store. Doctors’ offices, restaurants, you name it, people lit up any ol' place, my wife and I smoked in the first place we lived in together. Yet, when we moved to a house down the way, the landlord told us to never, ever smoke in the house. We never did, and I thank him for that. Who wants to live in that guck? Not me.

With our prohibitions against smoking anything in the houses we manage, and enforcement of the same, I sincerely hope that we have in some way, enlightened others to cease smoking indoors.

After all, we all share a good many things in this life, but smoke need not be one of them.

Here are some resources to help you quit for good: California Health & Wellness Smoking Cessation Program. Call 1-877-658-0305 and ask to speak to a health educator.

Grimacing woman holding her head

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