The nose knows: how to deal with smelly listings

Why baking cookies just isn't going to cut it

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Luxury Connect | Oct. 16-18 | Beverly Hills

I love the smell of freshly cut grass.

It evokes memories of spending pleasant summer evenings out on my deck with friends, watching my horses frolic in lush green pastures and the sun setting in a stunning watercolor painting of gorgeous color and light.

To me, the fragrance of “eau de mow” is the equivalent of bottling up the feeling of great times with amazing people in my favorite place in the world. It’s a fragrance that immediately improves even the worst day and puts a smile on my face.

According to science historian Diane Ackerman, “A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them.”

That’s why catching a whiff of a pipe may remind you of your long-deceased grandfather or a certain perfume may remind you of a girlfriend from 30 years ago.

Ackerman continues that “Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, and emanate from us.”

The sense of smell is one we often take for granted. We tend to focus on what we can see, touch, taste and hear. But if you are in real estate, you know that just like seeing roaches in a home will turn off a buyer, so will experiencing a home that reeks of cat urine or cigarette smoke.

So how do you make a home smell like somewhere buyers would want to live?

It may not be as easy as you think. We all know the tricks; baking cookies on-site before an open house will create a pleasing smell, but looking more into the science and psychology of sniffing may give us more insight into what a buyer really wants.

The connection between smell and memory

Compared to most animals, humans are not nearly as olfactorily advanced.

Whereas a dog has over 2 billion smell receptors, the average human only has 40 million. A bear has a sense of smell seven times stronger than a bloodhound.

But human sense of smell is still nothing to sneeze at. Recent studies have shown we can pick up over a trillion different odors. In comparison, our eyes can only pick up about 10 million colors.

The olfactory cortex, which contains the olfactory bulb, is part of the limbic system of the brain, which is what controls the processing of our emotions.

The amygdala, which is closely tied to the olfactory bulb, processes emotion, and the hippocampus ties this all together by being responsible for associative learning.

All of these brain structures work together when you encounter a new smell. After your brain processes the new sensation, you then develop a conditioned response and a memory that goes with it. That is why most times we encounter a familiar smell we experience memories from our childhood because that is when we first “recorded” the odor.

Scientists prove that older people smell different

I remember my grandmother’s apartment like I was last there yesterday.

Although she passed away nearly 20 years ago, I still remember her rocking chair and her dining room table and chairs like I just had dinner with her last night.

There are some houses that I visit that look nothing like her modest apartment, yet they immediately evoke the same memories of her.

Why? It never fails, it’s because they smell almost the same.

The often called “old people smell” is actually caused by a chemical compound called 2-nonenal that is not present on people under the age of 40.

As we age, other changes in our skin involving omega-7 lipids cause this particular type of odor to intensify as well as the fact that the older you are, the more 2-nonenal a body emits.

So, next time you are showing a property to a buyer and they say, “Wow, this place smells like Grandma!” you can now scientifically explain this phenomenon.

Neutral smells sell

So, we know there is science behind what most real estate agents already know — a good smelling house is going to sell faster than one that stinks. We all believe the scent of freshly baked cookies makes a house feel more like a home, and it puts a good feeling into the air.

As part of our marketing of a home, we take into account how the home can be pleasing to all of our senses.

It needs to look clean, neutral and uncluttered, be quiet and peaceful, cozy and comfortable and have a kitchen that could produce delectable food.

Our goal is to provide a neutral canvas so the buyers can imagine their life in the home. A strong odor in a home that doesn’t fit their lifestyle can ruin the entire scene.

Scientists in 2012 made a discovery that just like there is white light, there is also white odor.

Just as white light is a combination of all of the colors of light, white smell is a scientifically created combination of over 40 different smells that make up this new scent they named “Laurax.”

Unfortunately, there is no Laurax-scented Febreeze coming out anytime soon that would give us the home scent equivalent of freshly painted beige walls. But it does make us think that just maybe, the best smell for a quick-selling home would be no discernible smell at all.

How to create an odorless home

As the commercial says, when you are exposed to an odor for a lengthy period of time, what once may have registered as an obtrusive scent turns into one that no longer registers as offensive.

This phenomena, known as “nose-blindness” is a real thing and much more than just a gimmick to sell more air freshener to those that are stinky-scent paranoid.

Odor control may be one of those uncomfortable conversations that needs to be had between an agent and seller before the home listing becomes active.

Just like you would tell a client that the purple with hot-pink polka dot dining room needs to be repainted with something more neutral, you need to gently explain that not all buyers are going to be alright with a basement that smells like the national zoo came for a visit.

According to a survey done by the housekeeping channel, the top five worst odors in a home are led by the smell of rotting garbage and include, in order, pet smells, mold, body odor and tobacco.

So, if one of these is a problem in your listing, here’s a bit of reference to use to sway a nose-blind seller to make some changes.

Luckily, some of these odoriferous issues have an easy fix.

Garbage

Smelly garbage can? Taking out the trash and scrubbing the container thoroughly usually removes the problem.

While the house is on the market, make sure trash gets taken out more often to prevent this unwanted smell.

Body odor

Does your client have a teenage boy’s bedroom that smells like a post-game locker room for the Philadelphia Eagles? These rooms need a thorough cleaning, more frequent removal of dirty laundry and a set of charcoal odor absorbers for each pair of often-worn shoes.

For odors that permeated carpet and upholstery, using a sprinkle of baking soda, letting it sit and then vacuuming can work wonders.

Scientifically, this works through the process of adsorption, as the odor molecules will adhere to the baking soda, so when you vacuum, you remove both the baking soda and the odors in one step.

Using a HEPA filtered vacuum is another step in battling the odor issues.

Mold

Moisture-induced problems are often more difficult, as they cannot be combated without determining and remediating the source of the moisture. This may not only be time consuming but also an expensive proposition.

Often mold remediation companies, structural engineers and home inspectors can be great resources for determining the cause and the appropriate treatment depending on the scope of the problem and the types of mold and other potentially aggravating allergens.

What all odors have in common is you must remove the source of the stench first, otherwise any other steps are a waste of time, money and energy.

Pets

This can be tough when it comes to pets, as most pet owners are not willing or financially able to board their four-legged family members while their house is on the market.

That’s fine, but it may mean they need to be more diligent about grooming Fido, brushing Fifi and scooping out Frisky’s litter box. The last thing you want your home to smell like is cat poop and roses, so scooping more often is way more important than trying to cover up the odor with air freshener.

If the odor is more than what these tips can handle, professionals may need to be called in to clean carpets. Especially in the case of pet damage, sometimes carpets may need to be replaced in addition to removing the pad and potentially treating or even removing the subfloor.

The science behind freshly cut grass

In my research, I found out what causes that wonderful summertime smell of freshly cut grass. It’s a distress signal released by a newly shorn blade of grass called cis-3-hexenal.

Scientists have determined this emission serves two purposes: it keeps plant-eating insects away and attracts parasitic wasps that can destroy the lawn predators while the grass “heals.”

Now every time I smell freshly cut grass, I’m going to feel bad that I’ve inflicted injury on my poor innocent lawn. Maybe I’m going to have to buy myself a lawn-scented candle to enjoy instead.

Maria Dampman is the owner and manager of Smiling Cat Farm and a Virginia State licensed Realtor and ABR with Century 21 Redwood in Leesburg, Virginia. Visit her on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Email Maria Dampman