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I Smell Trouble

How do you sell an apartment that comes with a distinctive odor?

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Illustration by Peter Arkle  

The renovated prewar condo on the Upper West Side was small, but still, at $650,000 for a two-bedroom, a deal. Yet after four months and numerous price discounts that edged the figure down to $599,000, there were no takers. The problem: It faced a stable, and the pungent horse aroma made its way into the place even with windows closed. “People were clearly put off by it,” says listing broker Adina Azarian. The owners eventually settled for renting.

Could a stink really matter that much? Kelly Kreth, a colleague of Azarian’s, walked away from buying a two-bedroom that was less than $350,000, and not just because it needed a heavy renovation. The previous occupants had been inattentive when it came to their cats, and the place positively reeked of their urine. “I’m not prissy. I’ve lived in some shitholes,” she says. But the funk was so deep into the apartment that “years could pass by, and I’d think I smelled it even if I didn’t.”

Daily-life smells can be problematic, too. Another broker says her clients bolted from a Fifth Avenue seven-room when the next-door neighbor decided to fry some fish during their final walk-through. “Psychologically, it really has an impact,” says Corcoran’s Deanna Kory. “Where people are tentative anyway, that just puts them over the edge.”

The only solution, of course, is a real scrubbing. Roses, candles, and the old bake-a-tray-of-cookies-before-showing gambit? Experts say they aren’t great ideas. What’s aromatic to you could turn off others. “It should smell clean and fresh, but shouldn’t be cloying,” says Rochelle Bloom of the Fragrance Foundation. (Her ideal: the smell of “clean sheets,” and no stink of bleach.) Try to finish your cleaning blitz a day before the showings, so the cleanser smells can dissipate.

Even post-closing, smells can cause eruptions, says lawyer Steven Wagner. One current case has co-op residents furious over a neighbor’s four dogs that, they allege, stink up common spaces. Another had tenants up in arms over the food smells from the fancy restaurant on the ground floor—never mind that the same residents frequent it. Smell complaints are notoriously hard to litigate, Wagner says. “Odors are transient, subjective, and nearly impossible to prove,” he explains. “There’s no standard to measure it. How would you reproduce that odor in court?”


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