Passing the Sniff Test
What You Can't Smell Can Sour a Deal for Buyers Who Can

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."

* * *

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.

Dalton said cat urine is especially difficult to remove because it contains sticky sulfur molecules that are easily embedded in floors, wallboards and other surfaces.

Scrubbing the surface may temporarily get rid of the stink, as long as that surface stays dry. But when humidity rises, water molecules displace the odor molecules, releasing them into the air. Once they're airborne, we smell them again.

"The holy grail of odor counteraction is how to get rid of cat urine, especially from male cats," Dalton said. "Their urine is much smellier."

* * *

That smell is the reason Sarah Piergallini lost interest in a townhouse in Gaithersburg. She got a whiff of the basement. "It was definitely cat urine, in the corner, on the Berber carpet," said Piergallini, a District resident who works for a nonprofit environmental group.

"It burned your nose."

She started wondering: If the cat went in that corner, where else did it go, and how much would it cost to clear the smell if the problem were not confined to just one spot?

Chris Coffin, production director at the Alexandria branch of the specialty cleaning firm ServiceMaster, offered some ballpark figures.

If the cat damaged the carpet and padding, Piergallini would most likely have had to pony up $300 to $400 to spot-clean the carpet with an enzyme treatment and replace the padding. If the subfloor was affected, fixing it would entail cutting out the damaged section or sealing the concrete, both of which would have added a few hundred dollars to the cost. The costs would have climbed if the home's hardwood floors were saturated or stained, he said. Replacing a floor is the only viable option if it is soaked so deeply that it can't be sanded.

But there's no guarantee of what the outcome will be at a set price, especially if the offending odor comes from cigarettes, Coffin said. "The amount of nicotine that comes oozing out of the walls is amazing. You may have to clean it three times. Our technicians hate those jobs because it seems like they never end."

After they scrub the walls, they typically coat them with a thick primer and then paint them to lock in residual odors. In some cases, insulation may need to be removed to get rid of the smell.

The options go on. There are airborne odor-removal methods, including ozone gas that binds with odor molecules and neutralizes them. ServiceMaster uses ozone chambers in its facilities to treat smelly, fire-damaged furniture. The furniture sits in the chamber for a few days with the gas circulating around it.

Coffin does not recommend using ozone inside homes because it irritates the eyes and lungs and can damage refrigerator seals and other rubber. It is safer to use scented aerosol foggers that cleaning specialists use to deactivate odors, he said.

The bottom line is that just about every foul odor can be purged from a home, Coffin said. "It's just a matter of how far you're willing to go to do it."

Not far, you say?

Then keep an eye out for air fresheners and other odor-masking scents when touring a home. They can be telltale signs of trouble.

* * *

Sometimes it may not be necessary to go to such extremes if an old-fashioned, thorough cleaning will do the trick.

"The way you detail your car is the way you should detail your house when you're about to sell it," said Patricia Barta, who owns a home staging company in Great Falls. "The bathroom has to be toothbrush-clean. The kitchen has to be immaculate."

Barta does not embrace the old-school tricks of the trade -- baking cookies and lighting scented candles. Homeowners would be better served by washing their drapes, which absorb pungent cooking smells, such as garlic and curry.

"With smell, less is best," Barta said. "Think of it this way: When you see a house, it's a house. When [you] buy it, it's a home. When it's time to sell, it should turn into a house again. It needs to be depersonalized. You're not selling the stuff in it or the smells of it, you're selling the architecture."

Air out the house and wash the sheets and pet bedding, said Cinderella Bermudez, owner of Maid to Clean, a Washington area cleaning service.

Before vacuuming, Bermudez suggests mixing a half-cup of baking soda, a half-cup of cornstarch, and a few drops of lavender or lemon oil with a cup of water. Sprinkle the mixture over the carpets and upholstered furniture, allowing it to sit as long as possible for best results. After vacuuming, she recommends spraying a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water, both natural neutralizers, over the same areas.

Rarely does Bermudez need to dispense this advice to homeowners, because very few complain about the way their houses smell, she said.

"If they do, it's because they're preparing to sell their house," Bermudez said.

"They're usually telling us about the smell because a realtor has told them."

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