Getting ready for unexpected guests — in 20 minutes flat


Let’s talk about that dreaded phone call. It can come any day, at any hour. The one where someone on the other end of the line says the eight scariest words in the English language: “We’re in the neighborhood and want to visit.” (Cue the scream sound effect.)

I don’t know about you, but it happens a lot to me. And when people come to my house, they have Expectations with a capital E. They think that my house will look like a magazine spread, filled with vases of fresh flowers and artfully arranged books. It’s a lot of pressure. Well, I hate to spoil the fantasy, but most of the time I have junk all over the place, just like everyone else. 

However, when it comes to sprucing up the house for unexpected visitors, I do have it down to a science. And with a few simple tricks, you too can be ready for your guests in just 20 minutes. I use the 20-minute guideline because, according to the movie “Clueless,” that’s the least amount of time it takes for anyone to get anywhere in Los Angeles.  

So let’s get started. We don’t have a minute to waste.

Minutes 0:00 to 03:59: Main entryway

Step into the shoes of your visitors and envision what they will see first when they walk into your home. The first rule is you want them to see as little as possible, as if no one lived there. OK, I’m exaggerating, but do err on the side of minimalism at the entrance. Pick up any shoes, coats, keys and dog leashes and hide them in your bedroom. 

Minutes 04:00 to 04:59: Restricted areas

I recommend restricting guests to the living room, kitchen and one bathroom. Close the door to all bedrooms and extra bathrooms. That way, you do not have to clean those areas, and you can use them to hide clutter. Which brings us to…

Minutes 05:00 to 07:59: Clutter bag

I always have stacks of mail, work papers and unread magazines piled up all over the house. You need to get rid of these before the guests come. My trick is to get a large shopping bag — one of those big square bags with a handle like you’d get at a department store — and throw all that stuff into the bag. Then hide that bag in one of your closed-off bedrooms. After your guests leave, you can go through everything in the bag. Sometimes, I’ve actually just left everything in the bag and never even looked at it again. After a while, I realize I don’t need whatever is in that bag, so I throw the whole thing out. 

Minutes 08:00 to 09:59: Garbage

Grab a fresh trash bag (or two if you’re recycling) and walk around your home with a vigilant eye. You’ll find things that need to be thrown out — old newspapers, used cereal boxes, ATM receipts, plastic water bottles, etc. — and now’s the time to get them out of the house. Toss them in the bag. Then go into the bathroom and transfer the contents of that little trash container into the trash bag. Do the same with the kitchen trash. 

Minutes 8:00 to 11:59: Floors

Since we’ve limited the open rooms in the house, you only need to concentrate on the floors in the living area, hallways, dining area and kitchen. A broom and dustpan are too slow. Use a Swiffer instead and run it across all the hardwood, tile and vinyl floors. If you have carpeting, there is no time to vacuum (and the smell of the vacuum cleaner is a telltale sign to your guests that you did an emergency cleaning). Just pick up any visible detritus by hand and leave the carpet as is. 

Minutes 12:00 to 14:59: Table tops

You’ve already gotten rid of clutter and garbage, so cleaning your table surfaces should be quick and easy. Time is of the essence — paper towels, sponges and spray cleaners are not useful, because they take too much time. Disinfectant wipes are faster. Use them on tables, kitchen counters and appliances, and to help remove any stains that might still be on your kitchen floor.

Minutes 15:00 to 16:59: Bathroom

Give the bathroom one last look to make sure the trash container is empty of tissues and cotton balls, that you have fresh hand towels, and the toilet seat and cover are down. If it’s evening, turn off the lights and illuminate the bathroom with a few battery-operated candles. The dim light will make any mess difficult to see.

Minutes 17:00 to 18:59: Follow your nose

How does your home smell? Neutralize odors with a spray like Febreze, or light a scented candle. And my favorite trick: Keep a pack of frozen cookie dough in your refrigerator, and pop some cookies in the oven. Nothing is more welcoming than the aroma of cookies baking. 

Minute 19:00 to 20:00: Relax

Take the final minute for yourself. Sit down, pour yourself a glass of something refreshing and get ready to welcome your visitors. Remember, they are there to spend time with you, not to judge the state of your home. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

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