When my boys were young, one of our good-behavior mantras for shopping expeditions was to "look with your eyes, not with your hands." As I wrote last week, in the first installment of this series on sensory homebuying, I’ve been watching and learning as my buyer clients have evolved far beyond looking with just their eyes, and into house hunting with all of their senses, including a sixth sense we’ll get to in a couple of weeks.
Beyond sight, which we covered last time, is smell — not a sense that seems related to homebuying in more than a superficial manner. I take that back: OK, every novice real estate agent has been told to throw some ready-bake Toll House cookie dough in the oven before an open house, to create a warm, yummy aroma (and correspondingly positive associations with the property) to woo attendees. And most agents in the business for any period of time have had at least one odorific horror story, after having either viewed or listed (and smelled) a place that needed odor eradication quick, fast and in a hurry — to put it politely.
For the sensory house hunter, though, the role of smell goes way deeper than this. Smells in listed homes can evoke memories (real and imagined), emotions (from disgust to delight) and can even paint the background for a homebuyer’s imagined lifestyle in a home.
In fact, while house hunting with some clients a few years ago, I exercised my advanced real estate advisory skills to work with them to develop a technical classification system for all the smells we were encountering in the homes we were visiting, which were given the general term "funk." Harnessing the powers I’d gleaned from watching entirely too much of the National Geographic channel, we classified individual properties’ odors by genus. There was "paint funk," the quasi-toxic but cleanliness-implying smell of freshly painted walls. There was "cat pee funk" for, uh, the smell of cat pee, which, by the way, most homebuyers assume (be it correctly or incorrectly) is incurable. There was "cigarette funk" — another ostensible deal-killer for clients who were concerned that nothing but ripping up the floor coverings and the subfloor would rid the place of that odor.
There was also "bio funk," our designation for odors that sometimes defied our efforts to pinpoint a precise cause (but were foul, nonetheless) and other times emitted from obvious but mortifying sources (like the clearly used toilets of homes with no running water or that recently vacated hospital bed in the living room). Enough said? Methinks so. Oh yeah, and there was "potpourri funk," that Realtor-created, saccharine fragrance genre that nine out of 10 of my buyers believe is an attempt to cover up a smell "flaw" with the home. …CONTINUED
When it comes to the memory-evoking powers of smell, buyers frequently verbalize their imaginings of what went on in the home to create that odor in line with their own past experiences of a smell source — this can create good or bad associations with the home, not always in predictable ways. Cedar closets and even mothballs might suggest a fashionista was in the house. On the other hand, a close friend of mine recently got the warm fuzzies from a listed home’s aroma of (in his words) "cat pee and rat poison," which he associated with his dearly departed grandma, a cat lady who singlehandedly fed an entire colony of feral cats. While I, of course, took a "whatever floats your boat" stance on this particular occasion, the home’s sellers would have been well advised to get rid of the smells by any means necessary, as you just can’t bank on finding a homebuyer who has a penchant for the smell of feline urination and D-Con.
Some odors can actually go both ways, depending on how and where they arise. Ethnic or spicily distinct cooking smells that remain in the house, even if the seller is currently preparing the smelly dish, generally create a negative impression on homebuyers, who wonder if the smell might not ever go away. Lingering food odors from a past occupant make it tough for buyers to imagine themselves (and their own stinky foods) living in and stinking up the place. However, I have repeatedly observed clients tilt their noses up and inhale deeply to catch the wafts of a neighbor’s spicy foods, before wondering (and hoping) aloud whether the neighbors like to share.
On a recent property showing, I was reminded powerfully of the creative impact smells can have on a sensory homebuyer’s vision of herself and her life in the home. The subject property was in a very urban setting, on a block so dense that three sides of the home had views of nothing but the neighboring home’s not-so-attractive exterior walls. However, the master bedroom windows were bordered on the outside by trellises simply loaded with jasmine. Just outside the front porch was an audacious Angel’s trumpet shrub. My client fell in love with the house, sure, but also with the vision of herself lying on the bed with the window open in the summertime, lazily reading a book and swimming in the scent of jasmine. She could see herself sitting on the porch, swinging and scenting the Angel’s trumpet. When buyers look with their eyes and their noses, the result can be an emotional connection with a property exponentially greater than could be created with even the cutest home, viewed with sight alone.
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.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.