I'm living in filth!

I let the dogs ruin the carpet again. How do I replace it?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 17, 2008 10:16AM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Tennis,

I live in filth and I'm not sure what to do about it. (Clean up, of course, but how to fix what we already broke?)

I'm 25. In 2005 I graduated from college, got married, and moved with my new husband across the country so I could start graduate school. In November 2007 he finally, finally found a decent entry-level position at a stable company after many months of part-time jobs, temporary work and angst. The following month I made a spectacularly awkward exit from graduate school. In February I quit my part-time job at a department store. Very recently and by the grace of God I was offered a full-time dream job doing something I love. (I start tomorrow!) So after a couple of emotionally and financially rocky years we're making enough money to meet our needs without mooching off either set of parents, we'll be able to rebuild our savings, and I'm not spending the majority of each day hiding under the covers crying.

Things are looking up, but our carpet is disgusting. We have three dogs and between them there has been enough illness and indifference to potty training that our carpet is a wreck -- unsalvageable, stained, stinky. It needs to be replaced.

But how? I feel so stupid. We already had to pay several hundred dollars we didn't really have when we moved out of our last place because the carpet there was trashed, too. There aren't words for how disappointed I am in myself for letting it happen again. Whenever I try to explain (to myself or any of the very few people who know our situation) how The Horrible Carpet happened (twice!), it feels like the how degenerates into a series of excuses. ("Well, one of the dogs is really old ... and, uh, clinical depression clearly made me incapable of cleaning. Etc.") There is no excuse. What we want and need to do is fix this problem and move on, being cleaner and better people.

We can't have people over. We can't reciprocate the kind invitations we receive. It's humiliating to let maintenance people in. The thought of people I love and miss from back home flying out to visit fills me with dread and shame. I hate how we live. But things are better now: We both have jobs, the dogs are at least pretending to be house-trained, and the constant pain of pretending to be a graduate student is gone. (I also got help for the depression thing. Feeling much better these days, in general.) So I truly believe my husband and the dogs and I can keep it together, make our lives work and pass as grown-ups. But I'm too callow to know how to deal with this horrible carpet.

I don't know how we, as renters, get our carpet replaced. Oh, God, we'd have to move all our furniture out, wouldn't we? How do adults do things like this?

Wish I'd paid attention when Mom tried to teach me to clean. Wish I hadn't been such a surly, wretched kid. Wish I'd been smarter about house-training the dogs. But what do I do now?

Thank you for your time. I've enjoyed your column for years and appreciate your responses.


Dear Cassandra,

The carpet you walk on means a lot. It affects you. If it is filthy, you will feel terrible walking on it. You may have allergies to the dust and pollen stored in it and the microscopic creatures growing in it. It can be both a result of and a cause of your personal feelings of depression. If you're too depressed to control the dogs and clean the carpet, it will get dirty and deteriorate. And if you are walking around on a dirty, deteriorating carpet, it can remind you of your failure to keep up with housecleaning and apartment maintenance, and thus contribute to the negative thoughts you have about yourself. It is, to use the cliché, a vicious cycle.

(I think the term vicious cycle is funny. Like just how vicious a cycle can it be? Is it like a vicious dog, this vicious cycle? Is it like a vicious dog coming after you in a cycle, or on a cycle, or are you and the dog chasing around in a circle or what? And how does the vicious cycle compare with the virtuous cycle and the squared circle?)

So first of all, please keep doing everything you can to manage your depression, because your personal well-being is the most important thing, no matter what you do with the carpet. Exercise, keep regular hours and eat well. Do the things that you know improve your mood. If you play music, play music. If you go to the movies, go to the movies. Enjoy yourself and also meet your responsibilities: Maintain family ties. Pay bills. Do what must be done. Take care of yourself and maintain stability.

Also, try to let go of the little things and forgive yourself. This involves managing the degree and severity of the things that you tell yourself. For instance, maybe you didn't manage the dogs perfectly. Maybe the dogs are not trained as well as they could be. But that's the situation. It's not an excuse. It's just what happened.

You say you wish you hadn't been such a surly, wretched kid. Those are harsh words. Perhaps your family was pretty hard on you when you were growing up. You may have a history of being blamed for things, or of people not accepting the truth, of saying that you are making excuses when you're just telling the truth. Try to mitigate those mean voices. Talk back to them. Who says you were a surly, wretched kid? Wretched? Did you kill anybody? Did you burn cats? Just how wretched were you? You can't have been that wretched! You might have acted surly. Most teens act surly. But wretched? Cut yourself some slack. You have to stay strong to meet life's challenges. So refrain from beating yourself up. Treat yourself with generosity and kindness, as you would treat a well-loved friend.

Now: Before you replace the carpet, see if you can clean it and remove the odors. Consider this process, or perhaps this approach, which, interestingly enough, involves variously the use of vinegar, brake-cleaning fluid and shaving cream!

I'm not endorsing any one vendor or method; I'm suggesting you learn what's available. If your research into cleaning leads you to believe that you don't have the time or energy to do it, see what it will cost to have the carpet professionally cleaned.

If the cost of cleaning the carpet is more than you can afford, or if it is actually torn up and completely ruined, then it's a situation you need to discuss with your landlord before taking action. So read your lease. What does it say about damages and improvements and maintenance? If you are unclear about your situation, talk to a landlord-tenant attorney or counselor before taking action. If you are in an area with a lot of renters, there may be free tenant counseling available. You want to be fully informed before you begin talking with your landlord about it.

You might take a look at this carpet installation overview to get an idea of what's involved. And take a look at this basic carpet installation deal from Lowe's. It's probably pretty standard. The big places, like Home Depot and Lowe's, may be the best place for you to start. At least they are good places to learn, because you can walk around and look at products and ask questions.

Usually the workers can move the furniture. But anything you can do ahead of time to make the furniture easy to move would speed the process. Remove all the things off the surfaces of the furniture before they arrive so that it is easier for them to move things. And you might also remove drawers from furniture so that all they have to do is pick up the big pieces and there is less chance of inexperienced workers causing drawers to spill, breakage, accidents, etc.

If possible, make space within your apartment for the furniture to be moved to. That is, if there is a kitchen/dining area that is not carpeted, see if all the furniture can be placed in there. It may be possible. You would be surprised how much furniture can fit into a room when it is piled up.

Every situation is different. Localities are different. Laws are different. Landlords are different. Some are great, some are awful. So I can't advise you in particular. I can only say that the process is to first try to clean the carpet; then, if it truly must be replaced, do your research to find out what your legal position is, and then approach your landlord like a responsible adult and explain the situation. As two responsible adults, perhaps you can reach an agreement about sharing the costs. Perhaps the landlord will pay for the whole thing. Perhaps he or she will pay for nothing. I have no idea. As I say, people are different. But here is what I might argue, or the approach I might take. I might say that if you combine your resources you can get a better carpet, which is an improvement to the apartment.

The bottom line is this: First see if you can clean it. If you can't clean it, then do your research both about carpet replacement costs and about your rights and responsibilities as a tenant. Then make an agreement with your landlord about how to proceed.

Is housecleaning a nightmare? See pp. 188-191.

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