Smelly Homes - The Complete Guide on What to Do

Don’t let your smelly house offend the pumpkin.

Don’t let your smelly house offend the pumpkin.

It’s a sensitive subject. And I mean that literally. When I walk into a smelly home my eyes start to water, my nose goes on overdrive, and a blasting headache begins to form behind one, sometimes both, of my eyes.

I’ve been told that I have a '“super-sniffer”. I once got hit in the face with the smell of cat pee as soon as I opened the door of a condo. My buyers didn’t even notice until I made a casual comment about it, and even then they had to really stop and take it in.


I don’t think my sense of smell is THAT good, but my gauge might be skewed from watching Gus on the show Psych use HIS super-sniffer to fight crime. He gets this ability genetically from his parents. Okay, clearly I’ve watched a little too much of this show, but if you haven’t seen it, then check it out on Amazon Prime, because it’s 8 seasons of AWESOME (you can skip “Psych: The Movie”, but don’t skip “Psych: The Musical”).

My parents definitely don’t have super-sniffers so it’s not genetic. They were smokers, though. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so attuned to the smell of smoke, cats, dogs, spices, etc.

Impression Is Important

I digress… the point is that when I walk into a home, whether it’s with a buyer or to meet a seller, smell is the 2nd impression… and arguably even more important than the exterior (1st impression), or the online marketing (0th impression, 1/2 impression, pre-impression…?).

This is going to take more than a few flower pots to fix…

This is going to take more than a few flower pots to fix…

Anyway, we all have various “impressions” of a home, whatever or however you want to number them. Smell is important because it can easily turn a buyer off a home faster than stepping through rotten decking or finding a dead rat in an attic space. Seriously, it’s amazing what buyers will shrug off if the first few minutes they are outside and inside of a home go well.

And yet, telling someone that wants to sell their home and is considering you as their listing agent that the home stinks up a storm is a super fast way to be shown the door. Which is probably why many agents just avoid the conversation altogether. This leads to stinky listings that sit on the market a long time.

Believe it or not, I do have some tact, so I certainly wouldn’t walk in the front door and exclaim, “Whoa, doggie, this place REEKS!”. But, if it comes up on my nose-radar, then it will for sure come up at some point during the discussion. It’s my job to sell your home as fast as possible, for the most money possible, and a house that Pepe Le Pew would turn his nose up at is not gonna sell for top dollar.

Yes, I might lose the listing even if I approach the subject as carefully as possible. But, it’s the right thing to do and I don’t bring it up to be a jerk. Every home has challenges and if there is a way to address them that doesn’t break the bank, then I’m going to respectfully walk through the options.

There are definitely steps that can be taken to remedy strong odors, and I don’t mean getting glade plug-ins.

Fun fact: Using lots of air fresheners is a sure-fire way to make buyers suspicious and can make the situation worse instead of better. However, if odor is minor, then some light diffusers can work very well (and are a lot less risky than candles!)

Another fun fact: Vanilla is not the best scent to use and is the fastest to arouse suspicion in buyers. Go for “fresh” scents, like lemon, thyme, or basil.

Just for the record, every single home has a unique smell. That doesn’t mean it smells “bad”. Whatever your home smells like (it’s usually a combination of a variety of scents that you don’t notice), after it is sold, it will begin to take on the fragrance of the new occupants pretty quickly.

Unless, of course, it’s one of the 4 big smelly culprits: Spices, dogs, cats, and smoke. These scents turn buyers off, make homes extremely difficult to sell, and will last forever unless steps are taken to remedy them.

The following tips are written with sellers in mind, but this can be useful for buyers, too. Smelly homes can often be snapped up below market value and can be worth it if you are willing to put in the work to remedy the problem!

Basic Odor Neutralization Steps

Time to get out the elbow grease.

Time to get out the elbow grease.

First, let’s go through some basic steps that just about every seller should do before listing their home on the market, regardless of the presence of strong odors. Remember to always wear gloves and other protective gear when working with cleansers:

  1. Change your furnace filter. If you weren’t doing this regularly before (and most people don’t), now is the time. It doesn’t cost much to buy a new furnace filter, and your lungs will thank you. Buyers that see a nasty furnace filter assume the home isn’t well maintained.

  2. Have the carpets and rugs cleaned. Even if odors aren’t a big issue, if the carpet isn’t new, having it cleaned before listing can make a big difference to buyers. Make sure to point out any stained areas to the cleaners or tackle them yourself with some carpet cleaner.

  3. Scrub down all surfaces. This includes kitchen and bathroom cabinets, something that a lot of people don’t think about. Most of us don’t think much about what our cabinets look like, but over time they tend to get coated in various food splatter and oils. Give them a good wipe down.

  4. Thoroughly clean all appliances. This can be a true pain in butt, but is worth every minute of chipped fingernails. (We’ll talk more about this in a second.)

  5. Consider re-painting the walls, especially if odors are a concern. Depending on the condition of the paint (and the color, but that’s another article…), this can really help if you have the time. It’s not terribly expensive if you tackle it yourself. Consult with your real estate professional about colors and whether or not painting is a high priority. (More about this in a second.)

Alright, those were the basics, now let’s get into what to do if you have a real issue with persistent odors that go beyond basic cleaning.


Very yummy, and very aromatic

Very yummy, and very aromatic

There are certain spices (curry is the main culprit) that linger on long after you’ve cooked with them. Curry is oil-based and it clings to just about everything. A home that was occupied by people cooking with curry and other similar spices on a frequent basis is going to need some extra work.

I’ll just go ahead and give you the bad news… if you want to eliminate the curry smell completely, you are likely going to need to call in professionals. A pro cleaning service will do things like: use microbial solutions on everything, scrub the entire house (a deeper scrub than you probably could ever accomplish on your own), run an ozone generator for several days, air out the house, use sealant where necessary, and other things depending on the odor.

But, if you’d like to tone it down yourself without spending a boatload of dough on a pro, then here are some steps to try:

  1. Have your air ducts cleaned. It’s a good idea to do this regularly anyway, as build-up of dust and debris over time can negatively effect the air quality of your home. You may want them to clean the dryer vent while you’re at it (built up lint and debris from clothes dryers is a leading cause of house fires).

  2. Decide on a cleansing solution that will cut through all the grease that is baked into the flooring, cabinetry, appliances, furniture, walls, etc. Use gloves, test it on the different materials in your home to make sure the solution doesn’t cause damage, and then GO TO TOWN WITH ALL OF YOUR MIGHT. Some people recommend turpentine, others recommend a 50/50 vinegar and water solution (but you’ll need to use some serious muscle no matter what you use).

  3. After thoroughly wiping down the walls, try painting with Kilz or other sealant before re-painting with a primer and more standard (neutral-color) paint.

  4. You may need to switch out the microwave. It’s difficult to get inside the workings of a microwave in order to clear the grease, so this may need to be replaced.

  5. Clean (or replace) the hood filter and scrub the outside/inside of the hood as best as possible. Did you know that there’s a filter up there that should be cleaned regularly? Some of them are dishwasher safe, but if it’s really caked, especially with curry oils, then you should hand-wash it with de-greasing dish soap or replace it. Running them through the dishwasher can actually damage the dishwasher and clog the drain.

  6. If the original furniture is in the home, consider changing it out. It is extremely difficult to remove tough odors from older fabrics.

  7. Once you’ve done all of the above and anything else you can think of, rent an ozone generator for several days. (Don’t try to skip out on the above steps, as it is unlikely that the ozone generator will get the job done without first removing the main sources of the odor.)

  8. After the ozone generator is done, air out the home for at least 24 hours.

Pet Smells

Cuteness overload, but better unseen and un-smelled when selling a home.

Cuteness overload, but better unseen and un-smelled when selling a home.

Specifically cats and dogs. I’m lumping these together but there are some small differences to cleaning a home with cat odors versus dog odors.

BTW, I love animals, dogs in particular (follow my puppy on Instagram for loads of adorableness @roxythedoxiePDX). But, when selling a home, the more out of site and out of mind, the better.

The number one thing to do if your home smells doggy is to bathe your dog(s) and continue to bathe them more frequently and regularly.

When your animals are clean, removing dog or cat odors are all about the fabrics and flooring in the home.

  1. Similar to the above, cleaning the air ducts is a good idea. If the home had larger dogs or a lot of dogs/cats especially, the air ducts probably have a build up of pet fur and dander in them.

  2. If odor has more to do with fur and dander but urine isn’t an issue, then a thorough carpet cleaning should do the trick. You can also spot clean with enzymatic cleanser, several times if needed.

  3. If the carpet has absorbed quite a bit of dog/cat urine, then replacing it and the pad underneath will likely be necessary.

  4. For really bad dog/cat urine situations, the subfloor may need to be treated. Once you’ve got the carpet and pad out, you can use a blacklight to find the bad areas. You can use enzymatic cleaner and allow it to sit until completely dry. If that doesn’t take care of it, you might need to gently sand the subfloor down a little (not very deep!) and paint it with Kilz or other odor-blocking sealant.

  5. Thoroughly clean all furniture, blankets, pillows, pet beds, and other fabric materials. Vacuum the furniture thoroughly, especially the nooks and crannies. Remove the covers if they can zip off and launder those and any throw pillows/blankets. If the furniture fabric isn’t removable, then you can try hand washing the fabric. This blog has some suggestions that involve vinegar water, baking soda, and odor neutralizing spray.



When a home has been occupied by a cat that really liked to spray, then some extra steps might be necessary. Unlike dog urine, cat urine gets worse over time, so owners often don’t realize it’s happened until it gets pretty bad. And, like most odors, owners become used to it and often don’t realize that it’s there at all until guests start making funny faces.

When cleaning particularly bad cat pee, it might take some extra time and patience to eliminate the smell. Cats like to mark the same areas again and again and again, so it can really seep into the subflooring.

For homes with wood or laminate floors, this can prove to be a costly issue because replacing the entire floor might be the only option.

You can first try to douse the problem areas liberally with enzymatic cleanser and let it sit (of course, allowing a liquid to sit like that can damage wood, laminate, and other synthetic flooring materials, so it may not be an option). Keep doing this until you can’t detect even the faintest whiff of a smell (if you can still smell it at all, then other cats/dogs entering the home in the future will be drawn to it like a magnet).

If that doesn’t work, there’s no other option than to remove the flooring material, apply Kilz or other odor-blocking sealant and replace the flooring.

Or, instead of all the above, hire a pro.



And by smoke, I mean smoker’s smoke. Although, if you cook meat in a smoker that’s located in your garage, that can be persistent, too.

The tiniest whiff of smoke will strongly turn off a buyer more than any other odor, so if you have a smoker’s home, you’ll need to be very fastidious in the clean-up process.

I would suggest tackling the big items first (carpet, walls, ceilings, big furniture items). If you start with things like cleaning drapes, clothing, and smaller items, then they will start to take on the smoke smell before you finish getting the odor out of the rest of the home.

  1. Carefully walk the entire home and yard and get rid of all the smoke sources both inside AND outside the house. This means tossing out all the ashtrays, cigarette butts, cigars, etc. Bag it, seal it, and get it far away from your home. Don’t leave a single cigarette butt behind!

  2. This may sound crazy, but after you get rid of all the ash and butts, and the garbage company has taken away the remains, you may want to consider washing out the trash cans. The smoke smell can really cling to the cans and be very obvious to anyone that walks by them.

  3. Change the air filters. Consider having a company come out to clean the air ducts.

  4. Air out the house, a LOT. Open up the windows and doors whenever possible as you move through the clean-up process and turn all the fans on.

  5. Unless the carpet is newer, consider replacing it. You can certainly try shampooing it, but unfortunately the smoke smell is difficult to remove from carpet. If you want to try the shampoo route, do that and then, after it dries, try sprinkling baking soda over the carpet and leaving it for a day or so before vacuuming it up. I’ve heard that this can help remove/neutralize the odor.

  6. You can try the baking soda trick on furniture, if necessary (after thoroughly washing the fabrics, of course). As always, test to make sure that it won’t harm the fabric first.

  7. More than likely, you’re going to need to re-paint the interior of the home, including the ceilings. Smoke doesn’t get into walls quite as much as curry does, but it causes discoloration and the large surfaces contribute to the odor. Start with washing the walls (trisodium phosphate is recommended by professionals), then apply Kilz (don’t skip this step or you’ll end up just sealing the smoke smell in behind another layer of paint). You should then be ready to re-paint with a neutral color.

  8. Thoroughly wash anything made of cloth and don’t forget about the drapes. If the drapes are older you may just need to remove/replace them.

  9. Seriously consider moving all the furniture in the home into storage. Selling a vacant home is infinitely preferable to one staged with smoky furniture. If that’s not an option, then you’ll need to give fabric furniture the best wash of it’s life. Remove any fabric that you can, run it through a few wash cycles. Cleanse the rest of the furniture as best as possible. This article has some ideas that you can try.

  10. Wipe down all of the shades and windows with cleaning solution.

  11. Wipe down/clean all the lamps, artwork, tables and any other non-fabric materials throughout the home. A 50/50 vinegar mix or cleansers with bleach can work, but be cautious about what you use where.

  12. For small items, you can just wipe these down with soapy water.

  13. If you have a lot of books, then you should consider packing them up and keeping them in a storage unit. Cleaning those isn’t usually an option and smoke odor can really stick to paper.

  14. If you’re a smoker, you may not realize the degree to which it can permeate your clothes, especially outerwear like jackets. Launder every piece of clothing and cloth in the house.

  15. If you are a smoker living in the home while trying to sell, then it probably goes without saying that you need to find somewhere else to smoke (somewhere not on the property). But, you also should consider picking a specific jacket to wear while you smoke, and when you’re done, bag it up, seal it, and store it somewhere buyers won’t see (or smell) it.

  16. Once all this is done, have a non-smoker with a good shnozz (like me!) walk your home and see if they pick up anything. There may be lingering odors on furniture you didn’t think about, or “hot areas” that can be spot-treated. The goal is to get rid of it all!

  17. If there is anything still lingering and you’ve done everything you can think of, you can use an ozone generator to try to remove the last of the odor.

Ready to smoke out some buyers or sniff out a new home? Contact me!

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