Passing the Sniff Test

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007

Olga Lukianova loved the location, the look and the price of the cute bungalow she and her husband spotted while shopping for a new home -- until she swung the front door open.

"The place just reeked of cigarette smoke," said Lukianova, 31, a Capitol Hill resident and a scientist by training. "We could smell it before we stepped in. At the time, we were both smokers, and it even bugged us .. . . It was gross."

Even though they said the house was "awesome" in every other way, the couple fretted about whether they could get rid of the stench and, if so, at what cost. The smoke had seeped into the furniture, the textured wallpaper, the carpeting and even the wood rail of the staircase. They concluded that the financial -- and emotional -- drain of dealing with the odor would not be worth it.

The smell of a place is not usually at the top of house-hunters' minds. But when people detect an odor they don't expect, don't like or don't recognize, it can alter their mood and influence their buying decisions in a powerful way. For many, a distracting smell can be as off-putting as clutter, if not more so, real estate agents said.

"If people see your house filled with junk, mentally they can't see themselves occupying that space," said Joan Cromwell, a real estate agent in Long & Foster's Chevy Chase Uptown office. "It's the same with smell. If they can't imagine clearing the smell, they can't imagine occupying that space."

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In scientific circles, smell is the "stepchild of the senses," said Avery Gilbert, a sensory psychologist and chief scientist for the Scent Marketing Institute. "It is the last one to be explored."

It's the one scientists understand the least. But this much they know: Thousands of molecules produce odor. We detect those odors when the molecules, or a mix of them, bind with receptors in the nose. Each person has a slightly different repertoire of receptors, which explains why some people seem more attuned to certain smells than others.

"Maybe you have a couple of receptors that I don't, or maybe I have dysfunctioning ones, which is why I can't smell X or Y," Gilbert said.

Some of the poorly functioning receptors can be aroused if they're regularly exposed to certain molecules over time, said Pamela Dalton, a research scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Conversely, if people are chronically exposed to a smell, the functioning receptors in their noses stop responding to it.

"It's an adaptive phenomenon," Dalton said. "It's a way of filtering that information out so you can process things that are new that you need to pay attention to. That's why if you're selling a house, you have to rely on somebody who has not lived there to tell you what it smells like."

If not, you risk losing a deal or dragging down the price of your home. In an unscientific National Association of Realtors survey a few years ago, agents cited the smells of tobacco, mildew and decay among the top deal-wreckers. About 60 percent of them singled out pet odor as the one most likely to kill a transaction.

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