If you've recently moved into a home that used to belong to a heavy smoker, nicotine stains on the walls can be a serious problem. Years of heavy smoking can leave the ceiling stained yellow and the walls actually sticky from tar and nicotine residue.
You can't just paint over nicotine stains -- if you do, the nicotine will eventually seep through the new paint, ruining your efforts. Plus, the odor will remain, despite the new paint. Here are the steps that you need to take.
1. Purchase a product from your local home improvement store known as trisodium phosphate (TSP). You can mix this with warm water, following the manufacturer's instructions and use it to clean the sticky layer of nicotine and tar off the ceilings and walls. You may have to make more than one pass across each surface, especially in rooms that were heavily used.
Here's a pro tip: make sure that you empty the bucket of water and TSP regularly, as soon as it starts to turn brown. Otherwise, you're just sponging some of the nicotine back onto the walls.
2. Buy a stain-blocking primer. Although there are a lot of paints that promise one-coat coverage, you don't want to try that with walls and a ceiling that have suffered from years of nicotine damage. Even the best cleaning job can still leave you with stains that are can come up from the drywall or plaster underneath over time. Priming will also kill the remaining odor that may linger on the walls.
Go over both the ceilings and walls with a generous coat of the primer. Although you need to cover and tape windows and doorways, consider using a painter's spray gun for the primer if you are going to tear up the existing carpets (which is probably wise, if you're trying to rid yourself of a smoke smell). A spray gun can make doing walls and ceilings a breeze, especially because you aren't worried about fine details or color changes at this point.
3. Buy a good-quality indoor paint for the final coating in whatever colors you've chosen for your wall. This is not the time to try to save a few dollars by buying inexpensive paint -- you really do get a better quality paint by buying a more expensive latex paint. It doesn't hurt to buy one that has another layer of primer built in, but it isn't necessary.
However, you still don't want to trust to "one coat" options. Because nicotine can be very hard to fully remove, the more layers you have of paint to keep it from oozing back up to the surface from hidden areas, the better off you'll be in the long run. Do two coats of your finish on the walls and ceilings in each room.
Restoring the beauty to your walls after there's been a few decade's worth of nicotine stains isn't impossible -- it just requires a lot of muscle and time. If you don't think you're up to the job yourself, consider hiring a residential painting service to handle the tough job.