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How to Mask—or Kill—Odors in Your Listing

Pets, cigarette smoke, and garbage are just a few of the commonplace smells in homes that offend potential buyers. Try these tricks for erasing each specific type of stench.

Sometimes, you get a listing that stinks.

Maybe it’s a lingering, stale cigarette smell or a musty odor wafting up from the basement. Perhaps the home seems perfect and ready for the market—until you reach a room with the pungent smell of sweat, dirty laundry, and old shoes, even though it appears spotless. It’s difficult to imagine getting any buyer interest in your property unless you dispel such unpleasant odors. Seasoned real estate professionals, and staging and decluttering experts, offer their quick tips for zapping offensive scents.

How to mask odors

Lingering cigarette smoke: When smokers blow nicotine and tar into the air, it disseminates onto every surface in the home, including lightbulbs, rugs, and moldings. “But it can be corrected,” says Dorene Slavitz, a sales associate at The Real Estate Group Inc., in Torrance, Calif. First, remove all porous surfaces, including carpeting, curtains, and anything that absorbs odor, Slavitz says. “Wash until yellow stains stop coming off,” she advises. Finally, repaint the room—because paint is an odor neutralizer.


Mold: Put a few containers of activated charcoal in an out-of-reach and inconspicuous space, says Aubrey Jacknow, a broker at Jacknow Realty in Forest Park, Ill. “Activated charcoal absorbs moisture and will help remove mold and mildew smells,” she says. You can find it at most pet stores.

Rotting garbage: The smell of garbage that’s been left in the kitchen too long starts to linger. Jacknow boils sliced citrus fruit and herbs in the microwave, then she separates the citrus from the boiling water. She pours the water into the dishwasher and runs a cycle with it, while dumping the citrus down the garbage disposal for an instant scent upgrade, she says. Once you clear the garbage disposal, sprinkle some baking soda into the bottom of it.

An active child’s room: Soiled clothing laying around a teenager’s unkempt bedroom can cause a distinct odor that likely will offend prospective buyers. Removal of the clothing won’t necessarily solve the problem, says Bill Gassett, a sales associate at RE/MAX Executive Realty in Hopkinton, Mass. When smelly items have been allowed to sit for long periods of time—which enables the smell to “marinate” into the surroundings—Gassett brings out heavy-duty enforcements. “When you have a really difficult odor to get rid of in a home, one of the better methods is to use an ozone machine,” Gassett says. The machine removes strong smells by destroying the spores and bacteria that cause them. “Ozone essentially attaches itself to the other molecules, thereby changing their structure, which eliminates the odor,” he says. Most ozone machines, depending on the sophistication of their features, can be purchased for a couple of hundred dollars, but they may be more effective in smaller spaces.


Dirty laundry or sweat: An alternative to the above for dealing with this type of odor is to combine one-fourth of a cup of vinegar and a gallon of water, and then add the mixture to a spray bottle. Spray the walls and wipe them down, along with woodwork, closets, air vents, and windows. Change the carpet and pads and try painting the room—including the ceiling—says Jean Pasvar, a sales associate with William Davis Realty in Dallas. If a mattress smells sweaty, sprinkle baking soda directly on it, and let it sit for 15 minutes before vacuuming it up, Jacknow adds.


Pets: If there is a specific area of the home that smells, mix one part distilled white vinegar and six parts water, says Dean Davies, a professional carpet cleaning technician at London-based Fantastic Services. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle and generously spray over pet stains. Rub the solution into the stain using a carpet brush or a toothbrush, and then blot it using a white towel. To remove vinegar residue, apply an oxygen or enzyme-based cleaner. Let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, and then blot the surface. If you have entire areas of a carpet or rug that are affected, sprinkle baking soda onto the smelly areas, let it sit for 12 to 14 hours, and then vacuum the surface. If the stench is still there, you may have to replace your carpet, says Nancy Wallace-Laabs, SFR, cofounder of real estate investment company KBN Homes. In extreme cases, problems resulting in pet odor could lead to damaged flooring and subflooring. “Remove smells from the subfloor with a combination of vinegar and water, let set, rinse, and repeat,” Wallace-Laabs says. “If the odor remains, use Kilz spray to neutralize the smell.” But if the wood is under the pad and it still smells, you’ll need to replace that as well.


Stuffy, closed home: When windows and doors have been shut all winter (hello, spring!), don’t just let fresh air in. Add some ouse plants, which clean the air through phytoremediation (organic air purifiers), says Jason Saft, a stager and team leader of The Jason Saft Team at Compass in New York. Saft says he also likes to add a few drops of orange, lavender, or grapefruit essential oils to a spray bottle and do a once-over on fabrics and in the air.

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