When your carpet looks dirty, your home looks dirty. And nothing makes a carpet look dirty quite as much as a prominent stain or two. Unfortunately, stains occur most frequently where we spend most of our time – and are most likely to see them. So if you want to have a clean-looking house, you’ll need to have a plan for dealing with spills and stains the moment they happen.

If you want to keep carpet stains to a minimum, you need to be ready for them before they happen. You’re going to need a go-to carpet cleaning solution that works effectively on your carpet without damaging it. Before a spill occurs, you’ll want to test your cleaning solution in an out-of-the-way place; this way, if your carpet does discolor, it will be out of your line of vision.

After applying the solution to the carpet as directed, blot with a white cloth or paper towel. Make sure that no carpet dye transfers onto the towel, and that the carpet looks perfect after the solution dries. If you don’t confirm that the cleaner is safe for your carpets, you may end up making a bad situation worse when you apply it on a spill in a high-traffic area.

You’re also going to want to have plain white cloths or paper towels on hand for spills. Some carpet cleaning solutions can liberate the dyes on cloths and paper towels; instead of blotting a stain out with a paper towel, you could find that you’re blotting a stain in.

One of the best things you can do to deal with stains and spills is to address them right away. The longer you wait, the more likely the stain will set and become much harder to remove. Deal with that spill before it can dry, and before it can sink deeper into your carpet and padding.

So how do you deal with spills? With patience. Lightly blot your tested cleaning solution into the stain. Don’t apply too much solution, as this can cause the stain to sink or expand. Resist the urge to scrub; this can harm the carpet fibers as well as drive the stain deeper down. Keep blotting until you can no longer pull up any stain from the carpet.

If you encounter a stain that remains on your carpet, even after careful blotting, you know that it’s time to call a professional carpet cleaner. (My local go-to is Metro Chem-Dry.) Professionals have an arsenal of cleaning solutions as well as powerful extraction equipment that can liberate stains without harming your carpet. That is, if you don’t take too much time to get help.

While professional carpet cleaners are better at removing stains than we are, there are limits to what they can do. Like us, the pros have better results when they’re able to attach stains before they have a chance to set or dry. Once you’ve realized that you’re not able to remove a stain, don’t call it a day. Head to the phone and call a professional.

Let’s recap: Test a carpet cleaner before you need it. Keep that cleaner on hand, along with some plain white towels. Deal with stains right away. If you can’t remove the stain, call a pro right away. Follow these steps, and your carpet should be a source of pride for you – something that makes your whole house look cleaner.