Unexpected Guests: A Battle Plan

When I was a little girl, my mother would insist on cleaning the house from top-to-bottom before any out-of-town trip or vacation. Her reasoning?

“Well it’s nice to have a clean house to come home to. And also, if I die unexpectedly, there will be all sorts of people traipsing through here, and I don’t want them thinking I kept a messy house.”

Perhaps mourners at a wake are the most unexpected guests, but short of that, we’ve all been there. Whether your sister-in-law calls from the road to announce that she’s dropping in (in an hour!) or your significant other comes home only to announce he invited some friends over (in twenty minutes!), unexpected guests happen to us all.

No one short of those with a live-in maid keep their house perfect all the time. At the very least, there are some things that need to be straightened and put away. At the worst, you haven’t cleaned the guest bathroom in six months.

Why is this important? Not so much because it affects people’s perceptions of you, but moreso because it affects people’s perceptions of how you perceive them. We once socialized with a couple who insisted on having grand dinner parties of ten and twelve, but the house was always a wreck, in spite of the fact that they had no children and no pets.

They both worked more than full time, and it was understandable that their house couldn’t always be spotless, but it still always irked me that the guest bathroom was dirty and there was no place to put our coats.

“I hate going over to Tim & Elaine’s,” I often remarked to Jack on the way home. “Even though we’re invited, I always feel like we’re intruding.”

Even when guests are unexpected, there’s still a modicum of work that ought to be done to accommodate them to make the situation less awkward. Only the most cowardly of people use their blatant lack of housework to silently point out how unreasonable unexpected guests are – if you’re going to let your unkempt guest bathroom “speak for itself” on how pissed you are, then suck it up and just say no to your unexpected guests in the first place.

So then even after you’ve decided to accept unexpected guests with a maximum of grace and charm, you still fly off in a tizzy, too panicked to even argue, and find yourself running around the house clutching paper towels and shoving things randomly into corners. Well stop.

You need a battle plan, honey.

Pass-through guests

If you know your guests aren’t staying for an extended period of time (like for a lengthy dinner or overnight), you can take a different approach than if they were full-fledged house guests. For example, when your spouse invites Jim & Jane over for cocktails before going to a movie or show, you take a completely different tact than if Jim & Jane are using your spare guest bedroom overnight.

ETA: Five Minutes

  1. Leave the clutter alone – stacks of papers, magazines, etc. People understand clutter. They don’t understand filth – if you have only five-to-ten minutes, tackle the filth.
  2. Scrub the inside of the toilet in the guest bath or main bath – whatever one guests will use. Those little pre-treated disposable scrubbers on a stick are a god-send for this – I keep the wand and replacements in both bathrooms.
  3. Wipe the base of the toilet and the seat down.
  4. Wipe the guest bath sink down. Give the mirror a quick spritz and wipe with glass cleaner. Make sure there’s toilet paper, soap, and a way for guests to dry their hands.

ETA: Ten Minutes

  1. Do the above, and:
  2. Quickly wash any dishes in the sink, or shove them into the dishwasher where they won’t be noticed. Do a walk-through to collect stray bowls or cups.
  3. Wipe the kitchen sink, faucet, and surrounding areas down. Wipe the counters if you have time.
  4. If you’re going to be serving any drinks or food (I like to keep cheese, crackers, and tea for iced tea on-hand at all times – it gives the illusion that I’m a much better hostess than I actually am), then ensure you have enough plates, napkins, and glasses clean to serve.

ETA: Fifteen Minutes

  1. Do the above, and:
  2. Light any candles for scent or ambiance now.
  3. Decide which rooms you’re going to close up. (We close our entire upstairs to guests that are not staying the night – no one needs to given access to my bedroom or the study, in my opinion.) Close the door on them and ignore them – time is of the essence.
  4. Do a quick sweep or vacuum. We have three dogs, and a sweep is a must before guests. Don’t bother with the rooms you’ve already cordoned off.
  5. Give the sofas or chairs the necessary de-pet-hairing or wipe down.

ETA: Twenty Minutes

The twenty minute mark is the earliest you can start thinking about clutter, in my opinion. Up until now, you should only be tackling things that are dirty.

  1. Do the above, and:
  2. Ensure you have a place and means for taking guests coats.
  3. Wipe down table-tops, especially glass ones. Ensure there are adequate coasters.
  • Clutter Option A: If there’s absolutely no time to put away clutter, then at least straighten what can be straightened, such as stacks of books and magazines.
  • Clutter Option B: I favor the method of shoving things into a big paper shopping bag and toting the clutter upstairs to the study, which is always closed off. There’s nothing worse than shoving it all into a downstairs cabinet or closet and then having a curious guest be subjected to a landslide when he thinks it’s the coat closet.

ETA: Thirty Minutes

  1. Do the above and:
  2. Give the front door glass or windows a wipe down with glass cleaner. Ditto for any windows guests will sit closely to.
  3. Wipe down the more visible parts of your kitchen appliances, such as the fridge handle (ours will get filthy if I don’t keep an eye on it), the microwave door, or the front/side of your stove.
  4. Continue to de-clutter as time allows.

ETA: Forty-Five Minutes

  • Do the above, and:
  • You officially have a little breathing room. If you’re going to be serving drinks and snacks, do your prep work in this extra fifteen minutes. Even if they’re only staying a few minutes, at least offer them something to drink. This is the time where I’d brew iced tea or slice some cheese.
  • Tackle the great outdoors, making sure your walk is swept and any outdoor spaces (like the patio) where you may congregate are swept down and cleaned. I like to send Jack out to do this as I’m prepping food and drink.

ETA: One Hour

  • This is the space of time I need to do the above, and a little more intensive cleaning – like wiping down windowsills and polishing the dining room table.
  • Wipe the dust off less-used cabinets, wine bottles, or glassware that sits out.

Real Simple also has a handy guy to “Faking a Clean House,” which is more a list of tricks and tips (just realized with dawning horror that there’s dog hair all over the bathmat and no time to wash it? Roller it with a lint roller).

House Guests

Lord, save us from unexpected house guests – those gentle souls that drop in, unannounced, and expect to use your spare bedroom. It’s an ugly thing, but it happens to all of us at some point; maybe it’s a girlfriend, needing a place to stay after a bad breakup, or maybe you just procrastinated about your mother’s visit. Either way, you need to strategize.

ETA: Less than 15 minutes

  1. Open the guest bedroom windows to air it out. Light a candle or spritz some air freshener if you need to.
  2. Get through as many of the five and ten minute steps above as possible, but sacrifice the kitchen if you have to to focus your attention on the guest bathroom. Unlike pass-through guests, house guests will likely be using the shower – this is your last opportunity to give it a scrub-down.

ETA: Twenty minutes

  1. Do the above, and:
  2. Straighten your guest room. This is a must for us, because the guest room is the place that we iron daily and lay laundry to dry. Often times, the natural inclination for house guests is to show them to their room first so they can get rid of any luggage – you want to make sure it’s straightened, even if they’ll only be seeing it for a moment or two.
  3. Wipe down any guest room surfaces that collect dust, like tabletops or bookshelves.
  4. Ensure that the air conditioning or heating vents are open and air flow is working well. Jack and I close our guest room off when it’s not in use, including the vents, to save energy.

ETA: Thirty minutes

  1. Ensure that you have enough clean towels; if you don’t, now’s the time to throw some in the wash.
  2. Vacuum or sweep the guest room.
  3. Strip the guest bed and put on fresh sheets if they’re not already clean. I like to strip my guest bed and wash the linens immediately after someone leaves, so I know we can accept guests with a minimum of fuss at any time.
  • I also like to leave this step out until the thirty minute mark, because anyone dropping in on you with less than a half-hour to spare should gladly understand your need (and will hopefully even assist you) in putting fresh sheets on the bed – in a way they won’t understand a filthy shower.

ETA: Forty five minutes

Now you have more breathing room to prep for an incoming guest. If the bed is already stripped, bathroom cleaned, and bedroom aired out and straightened, you can actually focus on being a good hostess.

  1. Do the above, and:
  2. Ensure clean towels are placed directly in the guest bedroom, either on the bed or on top of a dresser. You don’t want guests having to open door after door to try and find the linen closet.
  3. Make sure there’s a water pitcher and glass set out for middle-of-the-night refreshment. Don’t forget to fill it at night. Nothing’s worse than waking up with dry-mouth in the middle of the night in a strange house.
  4. Set out any accoutrements, like sample-size soaps and hair products, or a clean and pressed guest bathrobe.
  5. Embark on the twenty- and thirty-minute steps for the rest of your home.
One Response to “Unexpected Guests: A Battle Plan”
  1. Quinn says:

    I love your blog! Thank you so much, not only for all the useful information and links, but also for the entertaining style in which you present it all.

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