When buyers enter a vacant house and wrinkle their noses, "Ewwww, what's that smell?" is a kiss of death to the sale. An experienced buyer's agent will explain that vacant houses are shut up and the smell will dissipate when a new family starts coming and going from the house. The space is what's important, not the stale smell.
All houses smell, not just the dirty ones! If we had the ability to sniff out odors like a dog, we would be more aware of the individual house smells when they're occupied, but frequently we remain unaware until a house is closed up tight for a period of time with no opening of doors or windows, no use of exhaust fans, or any other means of circulating the air. Under those circumstances the inside air becomes stale and the house reveals its unique odors. Sometimes the odor originates from favorite cooking spices; sometimes its a frequently used perfume; sometimes its because of smoking; occasionally its from lack of regular cleaning or pet odors. Some of the worst are foreclosed homes which lay vacant for months before ever being marketed. My moniker for the particular smell that frequently strikes at the front door of repossessed homes that are dirty is "HUD house smell".
The challenge to marketing a vacant house is in keeping the house smell from becoming apparent. In temperate climates, windows can be left slightly open on upper levels with fans to circulate the fresh air, but most climates do not allow this solution. Some agents suggest air fresheners or sprays. My experience has been that clients can sort out the stale smell from the freshener and find the combination distasteful. Better Homes and Gardens suggests putting a bowl of vinegar in each room. Others suggest using air purifiers. If they work, that'd be a great idea. Baking bread or cooking cinnamon isn't practical for the vacant house either.
So, what's a seller to do?
- Make sure your house is left sparkling clean. Windows, walls, carpets, lightbulbs, appliances, etc., all need to be spotless.
- Ask your agent to go into the house regularly (maybe once a week) to open doors, run fans, flush toilets, pour water down drains, and run a lemon through the garbage disposal.
- Have professional cleaners come into the house at least once a month to dust, vacuum, and clean the bathrooms with pine scented or bleach scented cleaners. Even though no one is living there, dust still settles and makes the house dirty and water in the toilet still leaves a ring.
- Keep a dehumidifier running in the basement.
- Have an air purifier run on a night scheduled timer.
- If pet odors are left behind from "accidents", they have to be dealt with aggressively either through replacing badly soiled carpet or by using bleach on hard surface floors and subflooring.
- If the refrigerator is turned off, place a box of baking soda in each compartment and tape a spacer over the appliance door opening to keep it open. Even clean refrigerators smell awful when opened after being shut off a while.
- Check with a stager to see what suggestions they might have.