I’m Thinking About Buying a Smoker’s House. What Do I Need to Know?

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We’ve probably all smoked at least one cigarette in our life — and we all know a handful of smokers who smoke way more than one each week. Way back in pre-pandemic reality, watching smokers gather outside offices and bars, blowing smoke to the wind, it could seem almost natural to keep smoking an activity relegated to the great (or, at least, uncovered) outdoors. But would you consider buying a smoker’s house?

But that’s the idealistic point of view of a non-smoker. Are you signing up for a smoking-hot deal … with a hidden high price?

Bans on indoor smoking are relatively recent news in the U.S. In 1994, California was the first state to ban indoor smoking in public spaces. Other states slowly followed suit, albeit at a somewhat beleaguered pace: Alaska finally signed an indoor smoking ban into law in 2018, and there are still 12 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming) where no statewide smoking restriction exists at all. Even in states with smoking bans, you’ll find plenty of smoking loophole laws — it is legal to smoke inside adult-only venues in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, and Nevada, for instance, so bear that in mind when you go gambling in Vegas or Lake Tahoe.

You might have noticed one big exception to indoor smoking bans: there are no federal regulations anywhere on smoking in private homes.

Despite a lack of legislation around smoking in private spaces, the hazards of doing so (fire risks, health effects, and smoke damage) are well-documented. Sellers of homes that have been routinely smoked in can expect to net up to 30% less for their home.

For buyers, 30% off can make a house stand out and might just be a big enough discount for you to start daydreaming about a quick and easy restoration, with money leftover for those aesthetic updates you’re dying to make.

However, where there’s smoke, there’s fire — in this case, the proverbial fire is the attendant costs to your health and the potentially staggering price of renovations that will be needed to mitigate the health hazards caused by smoking cigarettes.

This hard-to-assess trade-off between immediate savings and long-term costs has lit a fire under us. We’ve spoken to experts, poured through cleaning blogs, and analyzed CDC reports to assemble here for you this helpful list of the things you have to know before buying a smoker’s house.

A smoker smoking a cigarette in a house.
Source: (mariyaermolaeva / Shutterstock)

Buying a smoker’s house: Effects of living with thirdhand smoke

The health effects of living with first- and even secondhand smoke are well-established at this point. But thirdhand smoke? Findings are slightly more hazy.

What we do know is that thirdhand smoke is an issue that accumulates over time and can cause cancer, liver and lung damage, insulin resistance, and hyperactivity. While we don’t know precisely what quantity of thirdhand smoke causes which side effects, we do know that thirdhand smoke is more likely to harm those house residents who tend to hang out closer to the ground — namely, children and pets.

To add insult to injury, smoking in the house will leave it stained and charred. This can be seen in the yellowing of the walls, carpets and drapes, and burn marks on countertops, windowsills, and even flooring.

Even if you’re not worried about the potential health risks of thirdhand smoke, aesthetically, the house will need a lot of elbow grease to look its stain-free and burn-free best.

Finding out first-hand how deep the third-hand smoke goes

Michael Wood, a real estate agent who has been working for 15 years in Reno, Nevada, told us that there has been an increasing trend since around 2007 of agents counseling sellers to mitigate smoke damage before putting homes on the market.

If the homeowner claims to have hired professionals to mitigate the effects of smoke, ask them to provide you with proof of professional restoration, which will detail what has already been done to the house. This trend of sellers working to mitigate the history of smoking in a home before it goes to market is good because it means some of the leg work will probably have been done for you.

However, because the severity of smoke damage is different in each home, it can be hard to tell how much more work needs to be done to truly beat the smoke.

Not all states require homeowners to disclose that the house has been smoked in (Nevada is one such state), and there is currently no specialized home inspection for smoke damage. Whether out of social shame around smoking or just out-and-out greed, some smokers simply won’t disclose the smoking history of their home when they put those homes on the market.

So how do you know if the house you want to buy was once a smoker’s paradise? Here are some clues you should look for when viewing a house to gauge what has been mitigated, what’s been simply covered up, and what is left to do.

Smells on smells

Like with other home issues that come with a tell-tale smell (think mold, cat pee, and sewage) sellers may try to mask the stench of old cigarettes with other smells.

Wood advises buyers to keep your eyes (and nose) alert for an excessive number of air freshener plug-ins or the strong smell of ammonia or bleach in the home.

Burn marks

The scent of smoke isn’t the only clue that someone has been lighting up inside the house  — burn marks are another telltale sign of heavy smoking.

Keep an eye on bathroom and kitchen counters, carpets, windowsills, and other surfaces where smokers might lay a cigarette down for a moment and then forget to put it out. Cigarette-shaped burns are a pretty big clue that a cigarette was there at some point.

New fabric

Any porous surfaces in the home will absorb the effects of long-term smoke, but especially fabric.

One of the easier quick fixes for sellers is to replace fabrics like drapes, carpets, and linens that would have become discolored and smelly from consistent smoke. This switch will reduce the smoke smell — but remember, fabrics aren’t the only finishes that capture and hold smoke; you’ll still have to worry about the carcinogens that could be lingering in and on other surfaces.

A smokers winter grotto: the garage

Wood told us that he has viewed homes that seem entirely smoke-free — no scents, no burns, no nothing — until he gets a whiff of the garage.

Some smokers, especially closet smokers or mostly outdoor smokers, might not smoke very often inside their home. However, in colder climates (like Reno) where going outside for a winter cig might mean boots and a jacket, “outside the house” can quickly expand to include the garage.

The lesson to buyers: Make especially sure to check for signs of smoke and smoke damage in the garage, even if the rest of the house seems clean. Checking underneath work benches or in corners for stray butts or ashes can be especially fruitful in a garage.

A person installing carpet in a smoker's house.
Source: (LanaG / Shutterstock)

Renovating a smoker’s house

Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done if you do decide that the location, bones, and bargain-barrel discount of the home are worth the process of making your new house smoke-neutral.

While the cost of such a renovation will depend on your location, the size of the house, and the degree of smoke damage, there is certainly a laundry list of items that will need to be addressed. Every mammoth task has a step-by-step process.

When renovating a smoker’s house, first figure out what you can afford to entirely replace and do it. Then clean the remaining surfaces and appliances meticulously, and finally, trap anything you can’t replace or clean (like walls) behind a thick layer of odor-resistant paint.

Throw it out and start again

Any surface that is porous can and probably will have absorbed smoke.

Most experts recommend simply replacing highly porous items, such as fabrics, carpets, or furniture that come with the house. Depending on the damage, you may also need to replace harder but still-porous items like floors, trim, and doors. And some smoker’s houses will need to be stripped down to the studs.

Light bulbs, large appliances, and HVAC units can all accumulate nicotine residue that will emit a smokey (and most likely carcinogenic) smell when heated. The coils and ducts in the HVAC unit are a hard-to-see and even harder-to-clean culprit of smoke residue build-up; a full HVAC scrub by a professional can cost $900 or more, and even that might not entirely clean your system.

Clean, clean, clean

Whatever doesn’t get thrown away will need a deep, deep clean. You’ll want to start by dry cleaning with a soot sponge to remove the first layer of smoke residue on walls and ceilings, followed by wet cleaning with a heavy duty cleaner like trisodium phosphate (TSP). If you’re adverse or allergic to strong chemicals, you can also muscle away at the damage with a 3:1 vinegar-and-water solution.

Paint it all away

After you clean as deeply as you can, it’s time to re-paint all surfaces.

Start with a stain and odor blocking primer like Kilz or Zinsser’s, followed by at least two coats of regular house paint. Don’t skimp on or skip the priming step — without a heavy-duty primer, the smoke smell will eventually seep back in through your paint.

Ceilings are the biggest culprit for smoke residue since smoke travels upwards, but to be truly effective in neutralizing the smoke, all painted surfaces need to be cleaned and repainted — including baseboards, trim and molding, cabinets, and doors.

An air purifier in a smoker's house.
Source: (Yuttana Jaowattana / Shutterstock)

Ongoing investments in your health

After the big, exhausting (no pun intended) work that is the renovation of a smoker’s house there are just a few more big-ticket items to consider to make your home as smoke-free as possible.

Though you can clean them, experts recommend replacing any air filters in your home so you’re not pumping air through contaminated surfaces. Even tiny particles of smoke residue can affect you and your household’s health, so consider investing in an air purifier (or three!) to keep reducing the effects of any trace particles that might be hanging around.

Should you buy a smoker’s house?

Buying and renovating a smoker’s house is not for the faint-of-heart (or for anyone with pre-existing heart or respiratory conditions). The still-developing research around effects of thirdhand smoke means even after renovation, you and your family could experience health consequences down the line.

That said, if you know what you’re getting into and have the patience and budget to make the truly meaningful, deep renovations necessary, then in buying a smoker’s home, you could just find yourself in the revamped, no-longer-malodorous home of your dreams!

Header Image Source: (nito / Shutterstock)