Removing Bad Smells

When you’re looking for buyers or tenants for your property, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who wants to sign on the dotted line if unpleasant odors are the first thing to hit people when they walk through the front door. Here are some tips to get rid of stubborn smells.

Old Garbage and Rotten Food

Not only can old food and garbage smell terrible, it can also invite pests from fruit flies to rats. If you’re faced with this, the first steps are to move the refrigerator outside to empty it, throw out the trash, and open all the windows. Then scrub the area with soap and water and follow up with a disinfectant like Lysol. Once the food is gone, the pests usually leave, too. If they don’t, call an exterminator.

Pet Odors

Pet odors can seep into walls, carpets, and window treatments. After opening all the windows, clean the property thoroughly, including scrubbing all hard surfaces with a 50/50 mixture of water and vinegar. To identify the source of the smell, use a black light in a dark house to find urine stains. Once you’ve cleaned all you can, call a professional carpet cleaner who specializes in pet odor removal to deep clean the carpets and drapes.

Strong Spices

Smells from some foods and spices can linger. To address this, scrub hard surfaces with a water/vinegar solution (a cup of water with two tablespoons of vinegar)—especially around cooking areas—leave the surfaces damp and allow them to air dry with the windows open. It’s also a good idea to change the air filters.

Cigarette Smoke

One of the harder smells to get rid of is cigarette smoke, since it tends to seep into porous surfaces. Not only does the smoke permeate carpets, the resin and tar can be hard to remove from walls and lampshades alike. I once had a three-pack-a-day tenant who moved out. We had to clean the walls, the windows, the carpets, the drapes—every surface in the property. After that, I added a “no smoking” clause to all future lease agreements.

Marijuana Oil and Methamphetamines

Although marijuana is legal according to California state law, cleaning up after an indoor grow is no fun. Start by cleaning all hard surfaces with hot water and soap. If necessary, follow up with a 50/50 water-vinegar solution. Then have the carpets professionally cleaned.

If you notice a strange chemical smell that reminds you of nail polish remover or cat urine, your property may have been used to manufacture meth. Since meth is water-soluble, you can use the same cleaning techniques as those used for marijuana. Because processing meth can leave behind toxic chemicals, it’s best to hire a professional cleaning company to decontaminate the property. If you find any meth, call the police.

Final Thoughts

Before using a water/vinegar solution (or any cleaning solutions you’re not familiar with), test a small patch in an out-of-the-way area to be sure the cleaning solution doesn’t stain. Also, if you have to do extra cleaning after a tenant leaves, you may be able to charge the tenant for the expense. Be sure your lease agreement is explicit about what is allowed and what isn’t with regard to smoking and pets; otherwise, a court may decide you’re simply dealing with normal wear and tear.

When you believe you’ve eliminated all the odors, close up the house. When you return a few days later, if it smells clean as soon as you open the front door, you’re probably in good shape.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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