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Sniffing for and Handling Those Terrible Household Odors

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Bill Primavera
Bill Primavera

By Bill Primavera

It was quite some time ago, but how well I remember that “almost” house showing. As soon as the front door opened, it was evident that the sellers were smokers and animal lovers. All it required was a casual whiff.

My buyer clients, particularly the wife who said she had multiple allergy issues, refused to go past the entrance hall.

I was in a quandary about how to tactfully point out the issue to the listing agent, but it needed to be addressed.

When it comes time to sell a house, there are many issues to be discussed to make it attractive to prospective buyers, from curb appeal to functionality of all systems. Realtors are eager to provide advice to guide sellers through the process of “getting ready.”

Probably the most sensitive issue to address is unpleasant odor in the house. Every home has a particular smell. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. When it’s good, we might want to savor it and remember it, but when it’s bad, both we and a prospective buyer want to escape.

When I rented my first apartment as a college student, it was in the basement of a private home, which was only slightly above grade and faced the north side of the house. It had a musty smell caused by the moisture in the air that was so thick that the walls would sometimes weep from it. Being a proactive tenant, even as a 19- year-old, I petitioned the landlady to buy a de-humidifier for me. I kept it running day and night to make the air quality acceptable.

The next time I was keenly aware of objectionable house smells was in the apartment of a very old lady who had invited me, as part-time antiques dealer at the time, to buy some of her possessions. When I entered her apartment, located in an old former Brooklyn hotel, I was hit with a very unpleasant smell that is difficult to describe.

The windows were shrouded in heavy curtains and shades, and the furniture was deeply tufted. When she showed me her things, some quite beautiful, I would ask her how much she wanted for them, and she would give me a particularly low price, which she must have pulled from her value of things in the 1940s. It would have been unconscionable of me to not give her more. Whenever I would offer her two and three times the amount she requested, which was still a bargain for me, she would say, “Oh,” with delight. She was lovely and I was getting tremendous deals, but I couldn’t wait to leave the terrible smell of her living environment.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought the smell was coming from what I had heard was called “old people smell,” but that was a wrong assumption.

There is no such thing, according to experts, including Valerie Maziarz of Oxygen Sanitizing Systems. There may be closed windows and no air flow or it may be from their personal habits, and the odors just don’t have an opportunity to dissipate.

“It’s the circumstances of the old person’s environment,” Maziarz said. “The three most common causes of house odor are smoking, pets and mold. Usually people are not aware of the first two odors when they live with them. They are very aware of mold, however, either because of the smell or allergic reaction, and that is something they want to do something about. Toxic mold produces a chemical called mycotoxins which can cause serious illnesses that can be fatal.”

Pet smell and the odor from smoking may not raise a danger signal as much as toxic mold, but when you think about it, the source of the smoking smell can be very harmful to the one who smokes and the one who breathes in second hand smoke. Pets can be anathema to those with severe allergies to them.

Both smells can be addressed with home remedies when the source moves on, but toxic mold, which is reputed to have hastened the death of television personality Ed McMahon, should be handled by a professional remediation service.

“Our system neutralizes the organisms that cause the smells to oxidize them, and break them down,” Maziarz said.

If a house is being readied for sale and the owner is advised to eliminate the smell of smoking or pets, the best cure is good ventilation. The process can be expedited on a do-it-yourself basis with baking soda, that old standby that we know from our mothers placing a box in the refrigerator. Baking soda can be sprinkled on furniture and carpeting that has absorbed smoking or pet odors, and after it sits for several hours, is vacuumed.

The worst thing to do about household odors is to try to mask them with candles, incense or other products. The layered smells can be worse than the original offending odor.

For those who need to address household odors prior to listing, Oxygen Sanitizing systems can be reached at 877-244-3080.

Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. ( His real estate site is, and his blog is To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.






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