Pissed off owners?
August 25, 2011 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Housesitting a stinky house... How to deal with the owners?

I'm house-sitting for some people who have gone off on a month-long cruise. They have four cats and two dogs, and a lot of mess; stacks of junk around, filthy couches and carpets, and most pertinently, the house stinks of cat and dog pee. (I have caught one of the cats spraying, I don't know if they all do) The owners seem to have had no problem living like this, and probably don't even notice the smell anymore. But it's so bad I can't even stay in the house for more than a few hours unless I open all the windows, spray Febreeze around, clean the litter boxes every couple of hours, and I am working on the 'problem' areas with Nature's Miracle, but there's only so much I can do (the couch, for example, should be thrown out, but I certainly can't do that.)

My main concern is that, when they come back from their cruise, they're going to walk in the door and go "GAAH! THIS PLACE SMELLS LIKE PEE!" because no matter how hard I try, it's going to. And then they'll blame me, because they'll have forgotten how bad it smelled when they were here. Not that I particularly want to house-sit for them again, but I worry that they'll tell everyone in our close-knit community that I made their house stink and then I won't get hired by anyone ever again.

But on the other hand, I can't seem to come up with a polite note or way to say, "Hey, welcome back. You might notice a pee smell. That's because you were living in a pigsty and while I've tried to clean it up, nothing short of a direct nuclear strike is going to help after you've let it go this long. Please don't blame me. Here, have some Febreeze."

Any advice?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would put a substantial amount of money on the bet that they already know their house smells like pee. They're used to it, is all. It's definitely gross walking into "Oh yeah I live in a litterbox" but it's never actually a surprise, nor would they assume you had anything to do with it.

(My house isn't usually that bad, but I have an older cat who went on a litter-box strike last year and yeah the place smelled like cat piss for a while.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:59 PM on August 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

How long ago did they leave? I would give them a call/email now, just saying "hey, this place smells like pee, do you want me to do anything in particular about it?"

Then if they come back and say "GAAH! THIS PLACE SMELLS LIKE PEE!" you can respond with "AMIRITE! NEW CARPET TIME!"
posted by craven_morhead at 3:59 PM on August 25, 2011 [19 favorites]

You could leave a note or give them a call along the lines of "I caught one of the cats spraying. I tried cleaning it up but I have no idea if he's sprayed other places that I'm not aware of. I did my best cleaning any noticeable trouble areas. Any ideas on how to keep him from doing this?" You've done your job - beyond it actually. I can't imagine them giving you a hard time considering the state of things there. Do you really think they'll bad-talk you when you could just as easily spill the beans at the conditions of their home?
posted by Sassyfras at 4:01 PM on August 25, 2011 [11 favorites]

Could you invite another member of your close-knit community over to the house for a courtesy sniff? "Hey, Bob, I'm over here house-sitting for the Joneses, and I think it smells like animal pee. Could you come over and make sure I'm not going crazy?" And then Bob will come over, smell the house, be all "bro, these people are straight up hoarders," and you'll be like, "I KNOW," and then later if (IF) the Joneses try to badmouth you to the neighbors, Bob can put a good word in for you. (Make sure your Bob is the sociable type.)

My guess, though, is that they have an inkling of how bad their house stinks. They may not notice it that much anymore, but they know. I would be really, really surprised if they tried to blame you for the smell.
posted by phunniemee at 4:03 PM on August 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I would let them know immediately with a call. An email is too informal and you don't know if they are going to get it. Let them know what's going on and tell them that you'd be happy to hire cleaners (that they pay for) as well as someone to come in and do the floor. But make sure they know that the cats are spraying and that you have done your duty as a house sitter.

Are you getting paid for this, or is this a favor? Regardless, I'd follow up with an email of exactly what you talked about on the phone so you have it in writing. Ask for a reply saying, "here's what we discussed, I just wanted to make sure we didn't miss anything."
posted by TheBones at 4:14 PM on August 25, 2011

Febreeze won't do shit. Neither will nature's miracle if it's as bad as you say. It's gonna take multiple cleanings by a professional.
posted by TheBones at 4:15 PM on August 25, 2011

One benefit of emailing them about the situation is that you can document what you said and when you said it.
posted by jsturgill at 4:26 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

If it smelled like pee the first time you came in (and if the mess is as bad as you say), they know it smells like pee. They will know it's not your fault. And I'm going to bet they will be more embarrassed if you bring it to their attention than if you don't. I'm saying this as someone who's moved into a profoundly cat-peed-in apartment.

Febreeze is awful and adds smell to more smell, and I've never understood that. Lynda Barry said it best: Tropical Passion Aromatherapy Cat Box is not a smell anyone really wants in their life, right?

While TheBones is right that Nature's Miracle (which is available at most pet stores) won't fix the whole problem, it can definitely help a little, particularly in the pee spots you catch while you are there. It may at least make things less nauseating for you.

What the house owners (are they your friends? just neighbors?) may not be aware of is that the cats peeing may have more to do with not enough litter boxes and/or one or two cats being ill. Having lived with two cats with pee problems, I learned from vets that cats don't normally pee outside their boxes unless something is wrong. I've found that one box or slightly less per cat seems to help. Getting cats checked for bladder or kidney problems, female cats especially, is also a good idea. If you felt like bringing that up with them, it might be more productive than calling them out for being gross.
posted by gusandrews at 4:35 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If the community is close-knit enough that those people have ever been to their house I assure you they know how they live. We have friends who are not aware they are The Dirty People but all the rest of us know it. They will talk about going to great lengths to do a cleaning and when we see it they've achieved a level we MIGHT be able to go to sleep in... if we promised ourselves we'd tackle it the next day even before breakfast.

So if the only think you're really worried about is your rep, don't. Everyone else is already wondering how you can stand to house-sit.
posted by phearlez at 4:51 PM on August 25, 2011

Seconding Febreze is awful and adds smell to more smell! And I have to say, if I hired a housesitter and came back to find my house reeking of Febreze, I would be pissed.

I think you probably have this backwards. I'm sure they know their house smells the way it does, and they're used to it. Any time you go away for more than a day and come home, you notice what your house smells like to outsiders. So I'm sure they're aware, probably not happy about it, but accustomed to it. But just because you're used to the unpleasant odors that naturally occur in the absence of adequate cleaning doesn't mean you're also okay with the overwhelming chemical fragrance of crap like Febreze. Maybe I'm making a wrong assumption here and their house was already a mixture of cat pee and Febreze. But if not, I really don't think it's okay to do that in somebody else's house. Sorry. Can't you just sit by an open window while you're there?
posted by HotToddy at 4:59 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

My advice is to calm down and leave them be. If they miraculously notice it when they get back and get mad at them, point out that it took way more time than they were gone for the couch to soak through to the floor with pee.
posted by motsque at 5:13 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Won't they just walk in and say, "ah, smells like home"?
They probably don't think it's as foul as they should or else they would have taken care of it already.
If they can afford a month-long cruise, they can afford a new couch and carpets.
posted by Neekee at 5:19 PM on August 25, 2011

I'm not sure why you think this is your problem, since it sounds like the house was already like that when you got there. Just do whatever they told you to do and leave. Don't make their house smell any different from how it already did, because they will definitely notice that.
posted by wondermouse at 5:20 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hey anon, cut yourself some slack here. Your job is to take care of the furry loved ones and not to evaluate living conditions. When the owners get home and smell the smell they'll feel right at home.

The only way you can screw this up is if an animal escapes or dies from starvation or dehydration.

I hired someone years ago to watch my dogs over a 4th of July weekend specifically to herd them into the house before dark on the 4th. Nope, house sitter got loaded, fell asleep on the sofa and slept right through the fireworks and the sounds of my beloved and beautiful German Shepard clawing and chewing his way through a garage door. Never saw him again. Avoiding a scenario like that is all you should be concerned about.

Regarding your own welfare though, if the place has hardwood floors or is carpeted you can sprinkle around lots of baking soda as a scent-neutral way of absorbing some of the stink to make it a little more comfortable for you. Of course you'll have to vacuum or sweep in a few days. I wouldn't do this on any rugs though. If you don't clean up the baking soda very thoroughly it will act as an abrasive and mess up the floor underneath.

Good luck and you should be just fine as long as the animals are!
posted by snsranch at 5:30 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

The owners, after being away a month, will register PEE! much more strongly than when they're living in it every day. They may or may not attribute this to anon.

I suggest an email along the lines of what sassyfras recommends, along with "it smells now, do you want me to take the spraying cat to a vet?"

This shows that you're concerned about the cats, and documents the pre-existing stench.
posted by cyndigo at 5:43 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in my own version of that house, my very old and dearly departed first dog peed on our carpet probably 800 times in the last year of his life which ended not that long ago. We've cleaned it, Febreezed it, carpet-powdered it, but it smells bad here. The carpet needs to go, and it will when we can afford it.

I can tolerate it while I'm here since I have no choice, but if I go shopping for an hour or two I have no trouble whatsoever noticing it when I come home. I'm sure I could smell it even more strongly if I could ever leave for a week and I'm sure people who don't spend all day every day here notice it more than I do, but you're fine.
posted by mullicious at 5:47 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh and if there are less than four litter boxes, adding another one may help you out. It's hard ... I kept my house and boxes super-clean but when the elderly Siamese had problems there was a delicate eau de hamster until the bedroom carpet and subfloor were replaced.
posted by cyndigo at 5:53 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice here. My addition - plain white vinegar is cheaper than Nature's Miracle, and works quite well.
posted by theora55 at 6:19 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

They may possibly be surprised by the smell after being away from it so long, but the visuals won't have faded. They know their furniture and carpet are filthy. If you saw their cat spraying once while you were housesitting, imagine how many times they've seen it while living with that cat? Trust me. They know it's not you. If, however, you embarrass them by mentioning it to them, they might tell people it was you just in case you go off telling other people about their disgusting home. If they're the kind of people who would do something like that, that is.
posted by katillathehun at 6:35 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

They know. They won't blame you, but they might get defensive and weird if you draw their attention to it or make their house stink of chemicals. I don't think my place stinks, but I would be pretty weirded out to return and find a housesitter had messed with it on that level. If by some crazy chance they do raise it and claim it's your fault (they won't), you can politely point out that the problem is way beyond what could have happened in a vacation and that it stunk when you got there.
posted by crabintheocean at 6:40 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

1) they know, and 2) they hired you because they a) trust you to take care of the critters, and b) figure that you can handle the situation and not get all wierd about it. So take care of the critters, do some light clean-up, and don't mention it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:40 PM on August 25, 2011

I've found that one box or slightly less per cat seems to help.

Actually, recommendations I've read tend to coalesce around "as many litter boxes as you have cats, plus one". This page on catinfo.org has some good information.
posted by Lexica at 7:57 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nobody who is even halfway sane and knows that the house contains FOUR CATS and two dogs will think for a second that it was something *you* did that made the house smell like pee. All anyone has to hear is "four cats" and they will understand.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:01 PM on August 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

Stinky litter boxes are generally stinky because (a) they're too small and (b) they're filled with the wrong kind of litter.

Our puss's litter box is in the bathroom. It's actually a 600mm x 450mm x 150mm storage box, and it's filled to a depth of 100mm with a clumping wood-pulp litter. That's deep enough that clumps never hit bottom and stick (biggest clump I've ever seen was a ball about 80mm across) and wide enough that wicking and evaporation keeps well ahead of liquid input.

Because the litter clumps, we never have to change it in bulk. All we need to do is comb the tray with a slottedevery couple of days and transfer turds and semi-dried clumps to a covered bucket, and top the tray up with another bag of litter when it starts looking a little shallow (it took about four bags for the initial fill).

The chemistry of urine + wood pulp means that potentially stinky nitrogen-based compounds are absorbed by the pulp before they can break down into ammonia and stink up the room; this is in stark contrast to clay-based litters, which have essentially no chemical interaction with urine and simply provide an enormous surface area for breakdown to occur on. In fact the stink-absorbing qualities of wood pulp are so effective that even the turd bucket doesn't stink worth worrying about when the lid comes off.

When the bucket's full, its contents go outside to the compost heap. Because wood pulp is carbonaceous and both urine and scat are high-nitrogen, it's beautifully balanced and contributes positively to the composting.

This just works. It has done for the last three years. It's streets ahead of any other litter processing technique I've tried, and I've tried lots (non-clumping clay, clumping clay, recycled newspaper pellets, raw sawdust [don't do this - puss got splinters], silica gel, others lost to memory). Big, deep, clumping pulp. Use it.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 PM on August 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

Edit window: s/slottedevery/slotted scoop every/
posted by flabdablet at 8:07 PM on August 25, 2011

The hoarder in my life is in denial about the house smelling like pee and poo. To the extent, a mutual friend reported, that Hoarder actually sniffed the air in the entryway and said, "I don't think the house smells, do you?" Mutual friend was too mortified and polite to tell her, "YES IT SMELLS IT SMELLS SO BAD I'VE BEEN TRYING TO HOLD MY BREATH THE ENTIRE TIME I'VE BEEN HERE."

However, I agree with above comments. They'll most likely think it smells like "home."

gusandrews, thanks for linking that Lynda Barry comic. I laughed so hard...
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:03 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've just finished house-sitting for the friend of a friend. When we got here the cat and house had a serious flea infestation. I suspect this had been the case since before the family left, but we dealt with it by assuming when discussing it with them that it had happened as they left, so avoiding the "you've been living in a pigsty" thing. We de-fleaed cat and house (though not completely successfully) and in communications and the note we left said something like "there was a flea infestation when we got here - it must have built up just as you were leaving so I don't expect you noticed. We dealt with it [giving details] and left the products we used in the kitchen as there are still some fleas about". Could you say something similar? "There was a bit of a smell of pee when we arrived - I expect the animals went for it as soon as you left! I have cleaned as much of it as I can". I wouldn't refer to any ongoing smell explicitly - I think others are right that even after a month they are unlikely to notice, especially if the smell if reduced. People I have known who have lived in smelly houses don't seem to notice the smell after a day or so away, wch you'd think would give their noses enough time to readjust.

One thing we did check - that the owners didn't have allergies or any objections to products we used to de-flea.

I'm sorry you're having to live in this situation - not pleasant for you at all.
posted by paduasoy at 4:19 AM on August 26, 2011

Please stop using Febreeze! It's crap! It's simply a masking of the urine smell that will return when the Febreeze dissipates. What you do need is an enzymatic solution designed to actually break down the components of urine and kill the smell at the source.
posted by kuppajava at 7:54 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with others that you should frame it as the "health of the animal" concern, which is partially is. Also, I think you should explicitly ask for direction from the home owner.

"Hi there! I hope you're enjoying your vacation. On Monday August 22, I noticed Fleabag peeing on the corner of your brown couch. I remember hearing that spraying could be a sign of XYZ in cats. Do you want me to take Fleabag to the vet? I only saw him spraying the one corner of the couch, but god knows what he did while I wasn't looking."
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:53 AM on August 26, 2011

I disagree with everyone who says the owners must know how their house smells. Everyone I've known with terrible cat/dog pee house smells has been totally unaware of it.

However, after a month away from home, there is a greater chance they'll lean towards "ugh, our house smells terrible," rather than "smells like home!"

Can you just do nothing and if they say something to you when you get back, respond diplomatically that the house always smelled like that, but they were just used to it?
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:15 AM on August 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

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