If I can smell it I can’t sell it…

A newer agent in my office recently posed the question: “I am representing a young couple who found a home they love.  The only downside? It reeks of cigarette smoke.  I’m trying to advise them whether or not they should consider this home?”  It should be noted that this question was being asked in Columbus, Ohio where, at the time of the question and this writing, the housing market ranks between #1-5 in the pace of home sales across the nation. In lower price ranges there can be as many as 15 buyers for every available home and homes often sell in hours.   The temptation for a Realtor can be to “just get them a house” and a Buyer may be tempted to accept the leftovers of a 20-year chain smoker as the price one has to pay to get a house.

The easy answer would be to advise a Buyer to move on to another home.  But just like any defect in a house that adversely affects value, the “smelly” home can be a great investment if purchased at the right price and with a clear understanding of the cost and labor one will have to invest to rid the home of the smell.

The offensive smells of a home are many: pets, cooking odors, dirt, mold and cigarettes.  Like an unwanted houseguest, the smell often lingers long after the homeowner has vacated the property.   Realtors have an adage “If I can smell it, I can’t sell it.”  In truth the home can be sold but odors take a toll on the home’s equity.  According to a study by the National Association of Realtors smoking in a home can reduce that property’s resale value by up to 29 percent.  Home buyers who fall for a home that reeks of smoke shouldn’t assume the odor will go away as soon as the smoker moves out.  In fact, removal of most smells can take weeks or months even when extensive measures are taken to mitigate the odor.

Let’s tackle the easier smells first: Pet odors and cooking smells.  These smells are often mitigated by removing all textiles from the home (fabric furniture, carpet and curtains), cleaning and “airing out” a home over a period of weeks.  Pet urine gets into floorboards and drywall making the smell difficult to remove even after removal of carpet and cleaning. These areas should be treated with a commercial primer such as BIN® or KILZ® prior to painting and replacing flooring.

Mitigation of mold is another blog and will not be dealt with here.

Cigarette smoke is a particularly hard challenge and the costliest to remove. Its smelly residue is more than a nuisance, it is a health hazard.  Many people are effectively allergic to the smell of cigarettes experiencing headaches and breathing issues in the presence of first or second-hand smoke.  Researchers are just now documenting the health effects of third-hand smoke. Third-hand smoke is residual nicotine and other chemicals left on indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke. People are exposed to these chemicals by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in the off gassing from these surfaces. According to Dr. J. Taylor Hays of the Rochester, Minnesota based Mayo clinic, this residue is thought to react with common indoor pollutants to create a toxic mix including cancer causing compounds, posing a potential health hazard to nonsmokers — especially children.

I recently represented Dave and Karen Kelly in the purchase of a large (4000+) square feet home in which the previous owner had chain-smoked for a number of years.  The odorous damage was so bad that the cigarette smell was first noticed approaching the home from the outside.  Dave had owned and mitigated the smell in a “cigarette home” before so, if purchased at the right price, the smell was not an immediate “deal killer” for him or his wife. (Note to smokers:  The Kelly’s are the exception to the rule.  In my experience most Buyers will walk away from the smell of smoke without giving the home any consideration.  In fact, I’ve had Buyers unwilling to go in a home if the smell is overpowering.)

Dave and Karen started with the luxury of not needing the home for several months.  They knew that whatever they brought into the “smelly” home would be contaminated.  So they went to work on the vacant house.  “Everything has to be removed” said Dave.  Not just carpet and curtains, but anything that can be removed must be removed and discarded or cleaned. “Light bulbs, switch covers, vent covers, ceiling lights and fans. Everything had to be taken off, taken apart, and cleaned” said Dave. What couldn’t be removed had to be cleaned with a commercial grade cleaner which cut through the accumulated nicotine film and painted: floors, ceilings, baseboards, walls.  And, says Dave, all of this is wasted if the new owner doesn’t perform “extreme air duct cleaning” using a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter duct cleaning through a licensed HVAC service.  The Kelly’s air duct cleaning took a full day and cost $1200.00.

Dave and Karen bought an ionizer. An ionizer is an air purifying appliance which pulls contaminants out of the air. Ionizers emit ions—charged particles—to help an air purifier’s filters trap contaminants in your indoor environment.  These units can cost thousands of dollars but an adequate model costs under $1000.  Renting a unit for a few days runs in the low-$100’s but the Kelly’s found that they ran theirs for weeks, justifying the price.

In the end, the Kelly’s spent $7000 in paid labor and materials to rid their home of the cigarette smell.  The real cost, however, was in the time spent by Dave and Karen ridding their home of the smell of 20+ years of smoking. “Over 2500-man hours,” says Dave.  That’s almost a year of working 8 hours a day on a home.  Worth it? To the Kelly’s, yes.  They paid substantially below fair market value for a home that today is totally smell free.  “You would never know if you walked in our home today,” says David.

Given the cost of mitigation and the potential health issues posed by third-hand smoke, one would think the Seller would have to disclose the potential for odor-issues in the home. Except for mold, in Ohio, there is no legal requirement to disclose the source of bad smells perhaps because it is an obvious “Buyer Beware” issue: if you can smell it, you know about it.   But a good Buyer’s Agent does have the obligation to educate their Buyer as to the cost of making their dream home a sweet-smelling purchase.

House Call is a blog written by Kathy Chiero, Licensed Realtor and Team Leader of The Kathy Chiero Group of Keller Williams Greater Columbus.  Find Kathy and her team at www.OurOhioHome.com

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