Odors in a Home

A House That Smells Won’t Sell

Sometimes, Life Stinks

When selling your home, you only get one shot to make a good first impression with potential buyers. Believe it or not, most houses have some detectable odor. But because of olfactory adaptation, you may not smell your own breath, body odor, or perfume after a few minutes. It’s science!

Over a short time, you become more oblivious to some odors left in your home from pets, cooking, soccer practice, garbage cans, sink drains, laundry bins, and even dirty diapers. But in real estate, that first whiff makes all the difference to potential buyers… because if you can smell it, you can’t sell it.

Don’t Pick a Friend’s Nose

Your usual guests may be too polite to tell you that your house smells like the litter box, football practice, or last night’s fish dinner. That’s why you need an honest sniff test by someone who will tell it like it is, and isn’t used to it already.

Get to the Source

Occasionally, tough odors like an animal carcass or mold may be creating problems. It can come from inside the walls, basements and crawl spaces, and even attics. Don’t try to mask the problem with air fresheners, because it won’t work.

Smelly situations

In some cases you may need to call in an expert to remedy mold or rodent infestations, especially because removal can be hazardous. But you may also find a simple fix is in order, such as clearing a clogged and stinky bathtub drain. Once you identify the source, be sure to address the issue once and for all.

Odor-Eliminating Action Plan

Deep cleaning your home is the best way to remove odors at the source. Pay special attention to the kitchen and pet areas, which are common problem zones. If you come across old books and papers that smell like mildew, or furniture and fabrics from consignment shops, be aware that some odors can’t be cured; be willing to part with items, or store them somewhere else for a while.

Hard Workers: Vinegar & Baking Soda

In addition to making great science experiments (exploding volcano anyone?!), these basic ingredients will do wonders for cleaning and deodorizing your home. Don’t worry, the smell of vinegar will dissipate quickly! Either of these ingredients can be put into a bowl and left in a room to absorb recent odors, like sweaty clothing or cooking smells.


  • Dampen a cloth with vinegar, and wipe down greasy cabinets near cooking appliances. Rinse off the vinegar with a clean damp towel, and then wipe dry.
  • Grind leftover citrus rinds in your garbage disposal.
  • Keep an open box of plain baking soda in the refrigerator to neutralize food smells. Sprinkle some into the bottom of the trash cans to absorb waste odors while showing your home.
  • Boil a 3:1 vinegar-water mixture in the microwave to steam it, and then wipe all surfaces clean.
  • Wash or replace dishrags or sponges daily to avoid bacteria growth and mildew.
  • Keep food stored in sealed containers in the refrigerator, and empty the trash daily.
People do weird things with food.

Continue Deep Cleaning

Continue through the rest of the home, scrubbing or dusting each surface clean of any grime or residue, and let some fresh air in.

  • Half a cup of baking soda in two quarts of water makes a natural scrubbing solution. Use it to clean the refrigerator, sinks, bathrooms, and other surfaces.
  • Clear any clogged or slow drains, which is often a source of bathroom stench.
  • If you haven’t dusted all surfaces or scrubbed your floors in a while, you’d be surprised how many odors get trapped in simple grime. Floors collect tiny particles from every adventure you go on in Kitsap County!
Deep cleaning

Air Out the Odors

  • If you have central air, set the thermostat to run the fan periodically.
  • Open the windows when the weather is nice to improve circulation and airflow.
  • Run bathroom, laundry and range fans to vent moist or stale air to the exterior.

Furniture & Floors

  • Baking soda will absorb many odors from upholstery, carpet and rugs. Simply sprinkle it, let it sit for several hours, and then vacuum it back up.
  • Professionally clean the carpets to address stains and heavy odors. Avoid carpet deodorizers (which simply mask odors with additional scents).

Tame Your Pet Odors

  • Activated Charcoal pellets or granules will neutralize odors, including pet odors. Fill cheesecloth or old nylon hose with charcoal granules to hang in problem areas, or purchase ready-made charcoal filters from the pet store.
  • Wash or groom your pets regularly, especially if they venture outside.
  • Vacuum up pet hair and dander from floors and furniture once a week, even if your pet doesn’t shed much (because dander is still a problem).
  • Toys, bowls, collars, and even leashes can become quite smelly over time, so wash them clean.
  • For indoor accidents, use an enzymatic neutralizer to clean soiled carpets or floors.
  • Empty and clean litter boxes frequently.
Smelly cat

A Note About Cigarette Smoke

Studies show that that smoking in a home can lower its resale value by as much as 29%. Smoke absorbs into the walls as well as any fibers, leaves a harmful residue on most surfaces, and requires intense professional cleaning.

Strong cigarette odor requires more effort. Your best bet is to remove everything in preparation for home staging, including window blinds, and wash every surface (including the walls, ceiling, and even light bulbs) with a 3:1 vinegar-water mixture.

HVAC systems require thorough cleaning of the coils and ducts, in addition to frequent filter changes, after exposure to smoke. Every nook and cranny of the home should be dusted and wiped clean. An air purifier with a HEPA filter and charcoal odor prefilter will help to eliminate the strong odors.

You many need to replace the carpets to truly eliminate smoke. And finally, apply an odor-neutralizing primer, such as Kilz, in preparation for a new coat of interior paint. While these improvements can be costly or time consuming, they will help you avoid taking a bigger financial loss on the sale due to strong cigarette odors.

Smoking in the house

Showing Your Home

After a thorough deep cleaning, it’s time to prepare for buyer showings. In addition to de-cluttering and staging, don’t forget to address odors. And a fragrance can work against you just as much as a stench.

Take pets with you, if possible, to get them out of the home during buyer showings, and hide all their stuff in the garage. If that won’t work for your pet, be sure to clean pet areas thoroughly.

Skip the Baked Cookies

Eric Spangenberg and the researchers at Washington State University studied the impact of scents on sales and marketing. They found that complex aromas distracted test subjects, and required more cognitive processing. Instead, a simple hint of orange or lemon was easier to process, and people spent more time and money shopping, as a result.

While baked cookies may smell nice, the complexity of vanilla, chocolate and butter is potentially distracting. Baking fresh cookies is one of those old-school real estate sales ploys that just won’t die, despite the research and evidence against it. You want buyers to focus on the home, not the smell.

Just Say No to Fragrance

Candles, air fresheners, sprays, essential oils, perfume, plug-in deodorizers, and potpourri are definitely out. Many people are increasingly allergic or sensitive to fragrances. The synthetic chemicals can cause headaches, nausea, watery eyes, and sneezing attacks, even from natural ingredients. Flowers are risky, too, as they are covered in pollen. Why put potential buyers through that misery, if your hope is to sell them your home?

Fragrance allergies are real.

Your sense of smell is subjective, and it’s difficult to find aromas that appeal to everyone. Just the other day, I showed a home that smelled truly awful, thanks to a combination of pets and lemon diffuser oil. Stick with deep cleaning and avoid the scents.

Keep it Simple

You only get one chance to make a good impression. Based on the smell alone, a buyer may disqualify your house out of fear or concern that it’s permanent. If there is a trace of scent, it should be simple, such as citrus or pine. And less is more.

A good cleaning and lots of fresh air will do wonders for the smell—and the sale—of your home.