How to Deep Clean a Couch so Buyers Won’t Grouch

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Couch potato chips, dog hair and stains on your upholstery will not impress anyone during an open house or showing. If you notice potential homebuyers slowly backing away from your couch, it’s time to remove that lived-in look and consider some deep cleaning.

In order to make your best first impression, we did extensive research and talked to award-winning real estate agent Deana Corrigan and upholstery expert Scott Johnston to explain all the ins and outs of couch cleaning. Not only will we explore the various methods of how you typically deep clean a couch but also explain why it’s important for attracting potential buyers. So, let’s dig in!

A person deep cleaning a couch.
Source: (mariakray / Shutterstock)

Why should you deep clean your couch?

You might look at your couch and think, it’s really not that bad. But from a buyer’s perspective – who will be spending thousands of dollars for your home – their initial impression could raise concerns about the rest of your house.

“Because when people walk in, they look at the cleanliness, of not just the overall house, but of everything you have,” says Corrigan “So, if you have a dirty couch, they’re like, hmm, what else are they not taking care of in the home? Are they even changing the filter on the HVAC system?”

When buyers notice your messy couch, they’ll often see it as a reflection of the seller’s attitude in not caring about their home. A dirty couch can also make them aware of dingy trim or other items that aren’t well-maintained. This can raise concerns for the buyer who calculates how expensive it will be to fix things when they clean it up.

What do the furniture fabric care codes mean?

But before you start your deep cleaning, you need to find out more about the material you have to clean. Typically, you’ll find your fabric care codes under the couch cushions or listed on another label that’s attached to your couch. Following your fabric care code will tell you what your upholstery can tolerate, and give you the best chance for not choosing the wrong cleaning method.

Fabric code definitions

“W” – Water-based products

“S” – Dry-cleaning solvents

“W-S” – Water-based/solvent products

“X” – Vacuum or light brushing only

If your furniture doesn’t have a fabric care label, you can research the manufacturer to try and determine the best cleaning method. Or, alternatively, contact an upholstery professional to help you in determining the type of fabric.

A dog that stained a couch.
Source: (cunaplus / Shutterstock)

Best tips for maintaining your furniture prior to a deep cleaning

Johnston, who has over 20 years of cleaning experience, says that regular maintenance of furniture saves both time and effort prior to doing your deep cleaning.

Routine vacuuming:  Vacuuming your upholstery on a regular basis is a good way to prevent dry soil from settling into a couch. As Johnston explains, the friction of someone repeatedly sitting on a couch with dry soil can cause premature wear to the furniture.

Clean spills right away: Johnston also notes that time is an important factor when someone spills something on their furniture. Because once things set into the fibers of your couch, it gets more difficult to clean them.

Don’t be too aggressive with cleaners: He also warns that it’s important to use very mild solutions, or just water to treat the area. Johnston further explains that being “too aggressive” with some of the over-the-counter products could cause additional problems.

“You could take the color out of something, could set the stain worse, you could smear and not get it out, there’s a lot of different things that you could do that could make the problem actually worse,” says Johnston.

Always find the right spot to do a spot test: After researching both the type of fabric and the recommended cleaner to use, then it’s always a good idea to do a spot test in a hidden area to test out your products. This can be the back of a couch skirt that faces the wall or the zippered side of a cushion that is never seen. Some couches even have a small piece of fabric underneath the cushion for this specific purpose so you can test the actual fabric.

Know the pros and cons of the different types of cleaners: The most common types of cleaners are baking soda, dry cleaning solvents and mixed solutions that contain vinegar, water, and soap. Each has its benefits, but also some drawbacks depending on how they are used and what you are cleaning.

Baking Soda

Pros: Typically used in small amounts to freshen up fabric

Cons: Can possibly lighten your upholstery and hard to remove if too much is applied

Dry cleaning solvents

Pros: Usually the safest to use on fabrics for a general cleaning

Cons: Typically, the least effective method to clean tough stains

Mild vinegar / soap / water (10% vinegar & soap combined with 90% water)

Pros: Good for pet stains and usually helpful to neutralize odor

Cons: Too much vinegar solution can leave behind a strong vinegar smell

What supplies will you need to deep clean your couch? (depending on your fabric code)

  • Clean white cloth and/or white absorbent towel
  • Cleaning solution (see different type of cleaners)
  • Soft brush
  • Spray bottle
  • Vacuum with hose and additional attachments (crevice tool, etc.)

Considerations for pre-cleaning your couch before you start deep cleaning

According to Johnston, getting any dry materials out of your furniture is important because you don’t want to accidently add water to that soil and cause another problem. Cleaning everything as it sits in place and thoroughly vacuuming is the best way to pre-clean.

Should you use a rented machine to clean your upholstery?

Most rented machines you’ll find in the grocery store are typically used for carpet, with some that might have upholstery attachments. If you use a rented machine, it’s best to test the machine on a small unseen area before using it on a more visible part of your couch.

Also, Johnston says to be cautious of the power settings that will determine the amount of solution and water that goes through the machine. If too much liquid gets into your couch it will need to be extracted, and rented machines aren’t always powerful enough to remove all the water or cleaning solution left behind.

There also may be a learning curve to get the hang of the new machine. Starting with a smaller amount of solution to see how that it works before adding in extra soap is also helpful.

A fan used when deep cleaning a couch.
Source: (yechan park / Unsplash)

Steps to deep clean and sanitize your couch

Method 1 –  works best for fabrics that can use water-based cleaners

Step 1: Thoroughly vacuum (one or two times). This should be done for a minimum of 15-20 minutes for a six-foot couch. Go over every part of the couch using your crevice tools and attachments to ensure all the dry soils are vacuumed off before applying any wet solution.

Step 2: Make a mild solution of the vinegar/soap/water solution (10% vinegar/soap combined with 90% water) and pour into your spray bottle. After doing a spot test in a hidden area on your couch, lightly spray onto the couch to help loosen up the dirt. Then use a soft brush and/or cloth to remove more dirt from the material. This is an important step, as you don’t want any residue left behind to become a magnet for attracting more dirt.

Step 3: Dry the couch with a ceiling fan and/or box fan. Make sure the couch is thoroughly dry before using it. Typically, a 6-foot couch will take up to two hours to dry if the amount of solution used hasn’t been too excessive.

Johnston says “less is best” when using solutions and water. Starting off with a cautious approach to cleaning will help ensure that too much liquid doesn’t soak into your cushions and stay there, acting similar to a sponge that can dry along the edges but still be wet in the middle.

Method 2 – works best for fabrics that can use dry-cleaning solvents

CAUTION: Make sure you are working in a well-ventilated room away from open flames and follow the safety measures indicated on the dry-cleaning solvent you are using. Protect your skin, eyes and lungs from irritants when using solvent products, especially those that contain carbon tetrachloride which is a toxic substance.

Step 1: Thoroughly vacuum (one or two times). This should be done for a minimum of 15-20 minutes for a 6-foot couch. Go over every part of the couch using your crevice tools and attachments to ensure all the dry soils are vacuumed off before applying dry-cleaning solvent.

Step 2: Carefully follow the instructions on the dry-cleaning solvent you are using. After doing a spot test in a hidden area on your couch, apply the solvent to the couch in the amount indicated on your product’s label. Usually, this is done with a white clean cloth.

Step 3: Remove the dry-cleaning solvent, also following the label instructions. Typically, this is done by using a wet clean white cloth to remove the solvent with blotting. Let the couch air dry.

Johnston notes that using caution is highly recommended when using strong solvents. He will occasionally use stronger solvents when trying to remove things such as grease, tar, or gum but tries to avoid them if there’s a better alternative.

What are some of the toughest stains?

Pet urine

Johnston explains that pet urine is one of the toughest stains to remove due to its acid state that can oxidize and cause possible color change to your fabric. This can cause permanent damage if not removed immediately. As a professional, Johnston will use an acidic rinse and an enzyme (that attacks the bacteria) to help with odor and prevent stains. Absorbing as much as you can and treating the area with a mild vinegar/soap/water solution will usually help to neutralize the area.

Coffee/blood

Hydrogen peroxide, the little 69-cent bottle that you get at the grocery store, can be one of the most effective spot removers, especially for things like coffee and blood,” says Johnston. Prior to using hydrogen peroxide, Johnston recommends using a gentle cleaner and then treating the area with hydrogen peroxide. But Johnston says to be cautious with the amount you use, as hydrogen peroxide is mostly water and if you use too much water that can cause water stains.

Mold/mildew

Mold and mildew are often caused by excessive moisture. Johnston says that mildew typically  grows over several days and can be treated. However, it may be difficult to remove the black stain left behind, which is like a dye that usually requires a professional to work on it for the best results.

What about cleaning the couch pillows?

The couch pillows are typically made of the same material as the couch itself, but always test the fabric first, especially if there are added colors to the pillows. Then Johnston recommends — after you follow the same cleaning process as the couch — to dry the pillows in a T shape to ensure both sides are completely dry.

Common mistakes people make when cleaning their couch

  1. Using too much water – When too much water is used to clean, the problem is that it gets trapped and doesn’t fully dry, which can cause staining and mildew.
  2. Using too much cleaning solution – Dousing your couch in cleaning solution doesn’t usually make the stain go away faster, even if it’s club soda or vinegar. Basically, you are compounding the problem by adding in additional liquid that you can’t remove and this could leave a vinegar smell in your couch.
  3. Not using the right product – If you are using a water-based product and your couch is dry clean only, this could ruin the fabric since it’s not designed to tolerate the solution.
  4. Not taking enough time to clean – A couch can take a minimum of 3.5 hours to finish in making sure everything is vacuumed, cleaned and dried properly.
  5. Concentrating on the stain but not the rest – If only the spots are cleaned and the rest of the cushion is ignored, that can cause that one area to stand out.
  6. Scrubbing the fabric too aggressively – When a spot is rubbed too aggressively with excessive scrubbing, it can damage your fabric or make the spot permanent.
  7. Not having the right tools – Your rented machine might be too powerful or not have enough suction to take out all the solution or water. Typically, the machines you have access to won’t be as powerful as professional equipment.
  8. Waiting too long – If that pet urine incident happened six months ago and the stain wasn’t treated properly, it would be difficult for even a professional to fix it now.

When should you call a professional?

You’ve sweated and worked tirelessly to deep clean your couch and get those tough stains out without success. Now you’re ready to throw in your white absorbent towel and call an upholstery professional to take over for you.

According to Johnston, most experts will assess the situation by typically asking basic questions before getting started.

  1.     What kind of stain is it?
  2.     How long ago did the stain occur?
  3.     What products have you used to treat the stain?
  4.     When was the area last cleaned and how long did you work on it?
Source: (Timothy L Brock / Unsplash)

Situations when starting with a professional is a better option

Leather care

Since the process for cleaning leather is a multiple step process of both cleaning and conditioning, Johnston recommends contacting a professional who has previous experience working with leather. Someone attempting to try it on their own may reveal an unpleasant surprise.

“A lot of people don’t know that most leather is painted, you can go in, all of sudden you look down and you’ll be taking color out of it, not actually cleaning it.”

Red dye

Children’s medications or punch that has a red color, which is often called red dye #2, is difficult to remove, even for a professional. But this becomes even more challenging if someone else has already tried to remove it on their own and inadvertently made the problem worse.

Make sure your professional cleaner sets realistic expectations

After your cleaning professional asks you the current status of the situation, looks at the fabric and stain, they’ll give you an estimate (which is usually based on the linear foot) and tell you what to expect. Sometimes you are giving them the permission to try, and there’s no guarantee the stain will come out.

“But we just try to be very up front, saying OK, this is what we’re going to do, this is what might happen,” says Johnston.

How do you find a professional?

Johnston says that most of his business comes in through referrals and suggests asking friends and relatives for their recommendations. Sometimes, a reputable furniture business can often make a recommendation as well. Some cleaning professionals are also members of the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification IICRC, which offers certification courses.

A person using a computer to research deep cleaning a couch.
Source: (Microsoft Edge / Unsplash)

If your couch needs more than a deep cleaning consider other options

Corrigan explains that sometimes she will encourage her seller to get rid of their couch due to it being too outdated and affecting the first impression the buyers have when they visit.

“If they don’t have the money or whatever, they don’t know what they’re going to need. I’ll send them to a consignment shop and say you can go get one at a consignment shop, pretty inexpensively or Facebook marketplace.”

Corrigan says that a lot of Facebook marketplace ads will feature either an inexpensive couch or a free one that someone no longer wants because they ordered a new one and need the old one taken away.

Once you get your couch, Johnston says you should clean the entire sofa, and not just spot clean it, since you won’t know how it was maintained prior to buying it. If you’re concerned with any bugs, like fleas, Johnston suggests a thorough vacuuming before starting the rest of your cleaning. If there’s still an issue after cleaning the entire couch, then it would be time to consider calling an exterminator at that point.

Knowing your couch is ready for its close-up

Deep cleaning a couch may take some time to do a good job, but it’s an important step to help maintain positive first impressions that can attract buyers. Once you assess the couch’s condition, know your fabric’s code, test your cleaner, work on your own or enlist a professional, you’ll be well prepared to impress your potential buyers.

An experienced top real estate agent who serves as a good partner can help sell your house and ensure your clean couch moves on to its next living room.

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Header Image Source: (Christian Kaindl / Unsplash)