Smells That Keep Your House From Selling Faster

Image of 23 Cologne
Image of 23 Cologne

Like a lot of real estate agents, I go out to see a lot of properties in any given week.  But as part of my research, I pay special attention to ones that have been vacant or on the market for a long time. 

Sometimes there will be a subtlety in the title or a major defect that keeps the house from selling.  Other times, the house is just economically obsolete and will have trouble selling at an unrealistic asking price.  Still other times, the marketing might not have been aggressive enough.

Regardless, I look very closely at the reaction of my clients or even people just walking into an open house when they first walk inside. From that experience, it seems clear that nothing damages that first impression like a bad smell. 

That damage costs much more than the few hundred dollars it takes to fix the issues.  Here's a list of several common ones and what you can do about them.

1.  Spicy Foods

I love to cook.  Some of my favorite ingredients are cayenne pepper, garlic, cumin, peppercorns and maybe a little masala thrown in for good measure.  So when my friends or family are coming over to eat, they expect these types of smells to waft in from the kitchen.

Once you put your house for sale, though, you're inviting prospective buyers to come see it and envision living there with their families.  Those smells that remind you of home cooking may remind any random prospect that this isn't their house, and the smell of some spices may be very offensive to people.

Opening windows, running fans, and lighting neutrally-scented candles at the last minute may not always do the trick because oils from cooking can sometimes seep into crevices, particularly if airflow in the house is poor.

Planning ahead before showings is key.  Keeping air circulating using your kitchen's exhaust vent and portable fans, replacing any central air filters, and spraying Febreeze on carpets will relieve the problem. 

Other highly recommended remedies include citrus whether from a commercially available solution or boiling the peels of citrus fruits like lemons and oranges.  There is a cliche about baking cookies or a pie in the oven, and while those smells are generally appealing, they won't mask other odors.

2.  Mildew

What would happen if you marketed your house with the words, "old and musty"?  Unfortunately, that's exactly what a house that smells like mildew tells everyone who visits. 

Mildew can build up anywhere that can collect water, moisture, or sweat --- and like any other living micro-organism, it will continue to grow until checked.  It can grow on or inside walls, in showers and bath tubs, on couches and other furniture, in sinks.  Again, anywhere there is stagnant moisture.

From a real estate perspective, mildew itself usually isn't a dealbreaker, but it almost always reminds people of the age of the house and the appliance.  And sometimes it gives younger buyers a bad impression of the upkeep of the house.

There are a number of well-documented remedies for mildew, some of which are easier to apply than others.  Removing any furniture which could smell of mildew is particularly important because it affects how prospects will envision living in house.

3.  Cat

The reason why I'm picking on cats instead of dogs is based on the reactions on people's faces when they first smell pets.  For example, smells from caged animals like gerbils provoke only mild curiosity and the subject of air fresheners.

While non-pet lovers react strongly to most animal smells, the specific odor of an unruly cat in a poorly ventilated home --- or even an unmaintained litter box --- often cuts a viewing short.

It's important to quickly find the urine or other substances that cause the odor.  There are a number of CSI-like black light products that you can use to hunt down hidden messes.

Then, instead of getting a perfume, you can use products which will enzymatically break down what causes the odor as opposed to just masking it.  Some products are only available through veterinarians but several others can be found through the internet and pet stores.

4.  Cigarette Smoke

If you've seen the reaction some non-smokers have to being put into a smoking room in a hotel, you know what I mean.

Besides being offensive to non-smokers, the real estate worry about cigarette smoke is that if you can't get the smell out of the house before showing it, anyone who buys the house won't be able to either.  It also cuts down the time some prospects will spend at a property.

Running HEPA air filters at their highest setting helps allergy sufferers and eliminates many more obvious odors, but sometimes more in-depth cleanings are needed to get smoke residue out of the carpets, curtains, beds and other places where fabric can collect cigarette smoke.  techniques are needed. 

There's even a technique where you spray cologne on a light bulb.  You might want to have a fire extinguisher handy for that one.

5.  Stale Air

There are some properties where I've literally felt like Indiana Jones entering a crypt.  I get the key from the lockbox, undo the door lock, twist the knob and the break seal between the door and the outside air with a firm push and a sudden ripping noise.

There's an old cliche about open houses and keeping the house as cold as you can in the summer or as hot as you can in the winter.  This emphasizes how good the air and insulation systems are, and how comfortable the house can be.  After all, if it's actually cold in the summer, surely it can be a comfortable temperature too?

It's often prohibitively expensive to keep that up all the time, but if you can afford to run the central fan with clean air filters and the temperature set to an economic level, that will keep the place "fresh" and help stave off other issues like the ones above. 

You might also consider getting a thermostat that lets you set a timer so that you can run the air for an hour or so a day.  This improvement not only helps market your house but also helps modernize it.  You can even speak to your accountant about deducting its expense.