Just before I sat down to write this evening, my eye fell on a lovely bowl of cut fruit I’d picked up this morning from my favorite produce shop, and which I’d quickly forgotten about.

My smile at the unexpected find turned south instantly, when I took a deep whiff and, expecting to smell the sweet scent of fresh berries and melons, instead found that the fruit had begun to ferment — I had inadvertantly left them out in the hot weather.

Tragically (OK, fine, it was a small tragedy, but still) I had to throw the fruit out. Then I started to page through reader questions about how to know whether they’re ready to buy, how to pick a listing agent, how to know whether a short sale is legitimate, how to understand this or that about mortgages, and so forth. And as I read, I kept coming back to the memory of the smell test that my fruit had so soundly failed.

Notwithstanding the unpleasantness of a rotten odor, and the moment of disgust when something fails to pass it, the essential nature of the smell test is quite brilliant and utterly useful.

No, it doesn’t have the power to tell you whether you should proceed with something, because everything that’s rotten doesn’t smell. But when something does smell, in a nanosecond, everything that is within you gets the message.

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