I’m a real estate broker and attorney. I put myself through grad school, in part, as a probation officer. So, guess which career made me start carrying a vat of hand sanitizer in my car? It sure wasn’t working with criminals!

As the number of REOs on the market has steadily increased, so has the amount of sheer filth my clients and I encounter on a daily basis. In fact, most of my clients have developed a bizarre (but sensible) Pavlovian response: When my thumb presses the little doors that slide open the middle console in my car, they hold up their open palms to receive their ration of alcohol gel.

And it’s not just our hands that get contaminated. The other day I had to phone home to my husband to ask if he was aware of any way one could scrub lingering foul odors out of one’s lungs. (He wasn’t.)

Showing bank-owned properties (aka REOs, for "real estate owned" by the bank) reminds me of that reality show, "Clean House." The host is an ebullient, Southern-accented comedienne by the name of Niecy Nash. The premise of the show is that Niecy and her team travel the country visiting homes that are experiencing, how shall we say, a breakdown in basic housekeeping and organization, help the homeowners throw out/sell/donate as much of their junk as possible, and organize and decorate what remains.

The show’s signature scene is a moment that is somehow endlessly entertaining, no matter whether it takes place in Cleveland or Connecticut; Niecy walks in to the house, takes one gander at the family’s 20-year collection of gilt faux Rococo dancing lady lamps stacked floor to ceiling and hollers, in utter dismay and mortification, something to the effect of "What kind of madness and mayhem?!?!"

Homebuyers across the country are joining Niecy in spirit, wondering to themselves (and their Realtors) — what kind of mayhem is going on in these REOs? I’m not talking about fingerprints on the walls and the fabled missing fixtures and plumbing — I’m talking about grime, filth, and animal and human waste, smeared on the walls, ground into the carpets and spurted (cue here for that quizzical, "How did they even do that?" look) onto the ceilings.

And this is not only the stuff of an angry homeowner trashing a home in a flash of anger; a lot of what we’re seeing reflects layers and layers of years and years of really hard living in a home. Like a connoisseur of fine wines, I can now take one sniff and rattle off the vintage: oh, that’s a 1999 dirt, with undertones of sin and topnotes of bacteria. …CONTINUED

But this column is about behavioral economics. And the reality is that this level of filth simply stops homes from selling. No matter how HGTV-obsessed a buyer is, no matter how amenable to buying a fixer at a discount to get some sweat equity, and no matter how much vision they have, it is just downright distracting to walk into a home and feel uncomfortable letting the bottoms of your shoes touch the carpet, or taking a breath of air without turning your shirttail into a makeshift mask.

These heinous homes inspire buyers to race through them — it’s just almost intolerable to stay in them, physically, for long enough to really give them a chance. And that’s unfortunate, because under the filth sometimes lies a home in otherwise decent condition — a $500 deep cleaning by a service would reveal a nice, inhabitable home. But it’s extremely difficult for buyers to see that. In fact, I just showed two REOs in a subdivision with identical floor plans, a block apart — one was so covered in pet and human, er, leavings that we were in and out of there in a heartbeat. The other was much more deliberately considered by my buyer, because she could open the cupboards and closets and walk around without fearing she’d come away with the "foreclosure flu."

So these homes languish on the market and either don’t sell or sell at extremely low prices, sometimes dragging down the prices of neighboring homes. All because they are dirty.

In my humble opinion, REO listing agents have no business putting places on the market (a) without ever stepping foot inside them, and/or (b) without making sure that some very basic, minimal cleanliness standards are met. It should be standard operating procedure — and it already is, for the better REO listing agents — to have a property preservation contractor come through, dispose of the former occupants’ personal property, and do a basic cleaning, if necessary.

It’s a win-win, at least four different ways. The banks will reimburse the listing agents, and they’ll make even more money by having a strong track record of selling these listings quickly and at good prices. The neighbors will be happy their home isn’t being devalued by something as trivial as dirt. I’ll save the money I spend on buying sanitizer in bulk. And buyers will be able to stop shaking their heads in Niecy Nash-style amazement at the madness and mayhem, and get on with the business of house hunting.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.


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