Home Guru

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

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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, and realtors are eager to provide advice to guide sellers through the process of “getting ready.”

But as a realtor, I can assure you that probably the most sensitive issue to address with sellers is unpleasant odor in the house.

Every home has a particular smell. Sometimes it’s good and 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, which was My Sin. Many times, people would compliment her on that perfume, which today I remember as smelling like a mixture of all my favorite blossoms in the garden – rose, jasmine, lilac and Lily of the valley. I remember that our house smelled particularly sweet when she would can tomatoes in the basement.

When I rented my first apartment, the air quality was very different. I lived 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 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 old woman who had invited me, as an 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 and difficult to describe. 

The windows were all 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, and she would give me a particularly 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 what I had heard called “old people smell,” but that was a wrong assumption. 

“There is no such thing as an old people smell,” I was told by an air quality control expert I consulted. It’s the circumstances of the old person’s environment, he said.  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.

“The three most common causes of house odor are smoking, pets and mold,” he continued. “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. 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.”

While pet smells and smoking may be offensive to those not used to it, they are not harmful to household members and can be corrected by household remedies. However, toxic mold, should best be handled by a professional remediation service. There is just too much at stake 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 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, in my opinion, is to try to mask them with candles, incense or other odor-combating products. The layered smells can be worse than the original offending odor. 

Bill Primavera is a residential and commercial realtor associated with William Raveis Realty, 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 e-mailed at williamjprimavera@gmail.com or called directly at 914-522-2076.


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