Household Scents: Good and Bad, From Hmmm to Pee-Yew!

By Bill Primavera

When it comes time to sell a house, there are many issues to be addressed 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. My sense of smell isn’t what it used to be, and as a realtor, I find that sometimes that can be a good thing, such as occasions when an old house is riddled with mold or when a home is overpowered with the aroma of spicy cooking. 

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 it.

I can still recall that sweet smell of the home I grew up in. Maybe it was a combination of my mother’s cooking, largely tomato- and olive oil-based, with her perfume (My Sin), which today I remember as smelling like a mixture of rose, jasmine, lilac and lily-of-the-valley. I recall that our house smelled particularly sweet when she would can tomatoes in the basement. Today, my own home projects the wonderful smell of my wife’s perfume, Lauren by Ralph Lauren.

When I rented my first apartment, the air quality was awful. I lived in the basement of a private house, which was only slightly above grade and faced north. It had a musty smell caused by the moisture in the air that was so thick the walls would sometimes weep from it. Being a proactive tenant, even as an 18-year-old college student, I petitioned the landlady to buy a dehumidifier for me, and 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 senior woman who had invited me, as a part-time antiques dealer at the time, to buy some of her things. When I entered her apartment, located in an old former hotel in Brooklyn Heights, I was hit with a smell that was very unpleasant, yet difficult to describe. 

The windows were shrouded in heavy curtains and shades, and the furniture was all deeply tufted. When she showed me her things, some quite beautiful, I would ask her how much she wanted for them. She would often give me a low price, which she must have pulled from her value of things in the 1920s. 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 as an ‘old people smell,’” I was told by the owner of an air quality restoration service. “It’s the circumstances of the old person’s environment.  “There may be closed windows and no air flow; it could be their personal habits, how often they bathe and clean their clothes, and the odors just don’t have an opportunity to dissipate with circulation.”

Smoking, pets and mold are the three most common causes of house odor, he said.

“Usually no one does anything about the first two – smoking and pets – because people are not aware of those odors when they live with them,” he continued. “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 and even fatal illnesses.

While the smell of lingering smoke and pets may be offensive to those not used to it, they aren’t harmful and might be corrected by household remedies. However, toxic mold, which is reputed to have hastened the death of television personality Ed McMahon, should be handled by a professional remediation service. There is just too much at stake, especially in the remediation process, to approach on one’s own.

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 with good old-fashioned baking soda. Baking soda can be sprinkled on furniture and carpeting that has absorbed smoking or pet odors. After sitting for several hours, it is vacuumed.

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

Bill Primavera is a residential and commercial realtor® associated with William Ravies Real Estate in Yorktown Heights, as well as a publicist and journalist writing regularly as The Home Guru. For questions about home maintenance or to buy or sell a home, he can be called directly at 914-522-2076.

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