How to Deodorize a House: Attack the Root Cause Before Your Home Hits the Market

Does your home smell like a barn or Don Draper’s ashtray? Is your nose so used to the stench that someone else had to tell you it won’t sell in this condition?

Step away from the Glade plug-in air fresheners, scented candles, and cans of Febreze, dear homeowner. It’s time to learn how to deodorize a house by attacking the root of the cause. Masking the problem with nausea-inducing fruity fragrances will only have homebuyers reaching for the Pepto-Bismol.

“You have to get rid of the problem, whether it’s the cats, litter boxes, dogs, or smoking,” says top-selling Cincinnati real estate agent Jon Bowling.

“If you’re not willing to do that, I might not take your listing because it’s so difficult to move a home with bad odors.”

For every foul odor, there’s a different remedy, so let’s go through how to neutralize the worst offenders, including:

  • A dirty or messy house
  • Walls drenched in cigarette smoke
  • Pet odors seeped into carpets and furniture
  • Damp, mildewy bathrooms or closed-in spaces

Then, we’ll guide you through the types of smells you should add back into a home that appeal to the widest pool of buyers.

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General tips and tricks to keep your house smelling fresh

Even if you heed the CDC’s warnings of the last 50 years and aren’t a chain smoker, and you’ve never had a pet in your life, it’s possible that your house has an odor issue. In any case, your home could always smell fresher for the sake of home showings.

To start, roll up your sleeves, grab your cleaning supplies, and give your house a deep cleaning.

Your Deep Cleaning Checklist

We’ve put together a checklist that you can print out and work on as you move through the house on your deep cleaning quest.

Then, follow these tips and tricks to make sure that you’re abode is spick and span nip any unpleasant smells right in the bud.

Don’t leave dirty laundry lying around

Piles of clothes cramped up in laundry baskets throughout the house can create bad odors, especially if you’ve got sweaty athletic wear inside your gym bag or damp towels collecting mildew. Don’t let laundry linger for extended periods of time—it might be the cause of the smell you can’t quite pinpoint. Get your clothes and linens into the washing rotation asap.

Wash those sheets and comforters

While we dream of sugarplum fairies at night, our beds collect bacteria, fungus, and dead skin cells in a truly filthy fashion. That can’t smell good. Wash all your sheets at least once a week. Get rid of funky smells in your comforters and duvets by adding a few cups of white vinegar to the washing machine.

Ruthlessly toss expired food

Meat, kale, potatoes, milk—when spoiled, these groceries exude the worst kind of stench. Go through your fridge and ditch any expired goods and make sure nothing stinks when you first open the doors.

Enforce a “no shoes in the house” policy

…At least while your home’s on the market. Shoes track in dirt and grime, and make it harder to keep your floors smelling fresh.

Please, just do the dishes

Don’t let the pans “soak” or decide to put off your dinner dishes ‘til the morning, especially if you’ve just cooked a particularly aromatic meal. Clean up spills in the kitchen (and elsewhere) right away.

Set up odor traps across the house

Leave out bowls of baking soda or distilled vinegar to absorb odors like magic. Alternatively,  create your own coffee-filter sachets filled with baking soda to put on shelves or in drawers. Keep closets and dressers smelling fresh with dryer sheets tucked away or stuffed into clothes pockets.

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Get rid of the nasty cigarette smoke stench

Smoke is one of the most persistent and pervasive scents, prone to cling to your walls, ceiling, carpet, upholstery, and clothing. Known as third-hand smoke, the lingering odor isn’t just unpleasant—it can cause health issues as well.

The first task, as Bowling noted, is to remove the cause. No more smoking in the house, even in just a single room. Smoke seeps into everything, using your air ducts to travel throughout your home.

Once you or the smoker in your household has officially taken their habit far away from the home, it’s time to do some damage control.

Joshua Miller, the Director of Technical Training for Rainbow International Restoration, a home restoration company established in 1981, gives homeowners these tips to mitigate existing cigarette smoke odors:

Gather up any items made of fabric that you can lift

Remember how your clothes and hair smell after a night out at a smoky bar? That stench now emanates from all your home’s drapes, rugs, furniture, linens, and all the contents of your closet—and each item will need to either be tossed, placed in storage, or put through the wash.

Put your soft items through the wash

Any items that you’re keeping in the house should be washed in cold water with at least two cups of vinegar added to the machine. It may take multiple washes to fully eradicate the smell.

Bring items that can’t go through the machine such as window treatments to the dry cleaners and let them know that you need to remove the smoke smell.

Once the items are cleaned, don’t bring them back into a house that still reeks of smoke. Protect them with garbage bags and put them in storage until you’ve completed the rest of the steps.

Spread baking soda over carpets and big furniture

With a large colander, sprinkle a deodorizing powder like baking soda on carpets and big furniture. Let it sit for at least 30-60 minutes. Then vacuum it up, using your vacuum attachments on couches and chairs.

Scrub down surfaces using vinegar

Vigorously wash walls and ceilings with water/vinegar solution—ceilings can be the biggest culprit in a persisting smoke smell in a home, as cigarette smoke tends to travel upwards.

Repaint walls and ceilings

If the smell is still sticking around then you’ll need to apply a new coat of paint to the walls and ceilings, starting with a solvent-based, stain-blocking primer. If that project seems daunting, then you can hire professional painters to come and help you. Remember that none of your hard work will matter if you don’t remove the source of the smoke first.

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Don’t let “wet dog smell” ruin your sale

Oh, how we love our furry friends. They’re cute, they’re cuddly, and we forgive all their little messes!

Unfortunately, potential buyers of your home won’t have the same affinity for Lola and Fido, or the shedding and odors they leave behind. They’ll only will only wonder if purchasing your house also means smelling traces of your dog or cat for the rest of their life.

Fortunately you can attack most pet odors head on with some basic cleanup and the right products.

Run a vacuum over carpets and furniture

Get pet hair and dander out of your carpet fibers and couch creases with an initial run of the vacuum. Be sure to spend extra time on carpeted stairs where pet hair tends to collect in the corners.

Sprinkle on a little magic powder

Baking soda packs an awesome odor-absorbing punch, and is free of VOC-laden perfumes and chemicals that are bad for your health. Sprinkle some on to your carpets after a thorough vacuum. Let it sit for a few hours, then vacuum up the baking soda.

Toss fabric items in the wash

Remove pet odors from you area rugs, throw blankets, and machine washable draperies and linens by simply tossing them in the washing machine.

Add a one-pound box of baking soda to your regular detergent, and air dry items in the sun when possible to get them smelling extra fresh.

If you can still smell pet odors, rewash the item with an enzymatic cleaner like Rocco and Roxie or MisterMax.

Seek and destroy surface odors

Vinegar and essential oils offer an environmentally safe and effective way of cleaning and deodorizing surfaces in your home.

Safe for use around kids and pets, simply fill a spray bottle with white vinegar and 10-20 drops of essential oil. Use the solution to spray and wipe-down any hard surfaces in your home.

Popular antibacterial essential oils for pet odors include lavender, eucalyptus, and lemongrass.

Investigate old messes

If the cleaning methods above don’t seem to be tackling pet odors issues, you may have overlooked an older pet accident. Black lights are a great way to identify dried soiled areas.

Once you’ve identified any trouble areas, rent a carpet cleaner machine from your local grocery or hardware store or hire a carpet cleaning service for proper cleanup. Cleaning up pet urine that’s already settled on hardwood floors is another story—if the floors are salvageable, try using a hardwood-safe enzymatic cleaner to deodorize the spot.

The most powerful tool for keeping your home free of pet odors? Prevention. Regularly cleaning their bedding, litter boxes or cages, frequent vacuuming, and managing accidents promptly will keep your home from hanging on to foul smells.

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Turn musty and damp into springtime fresh

Bathrooms are high-traffic spaces and as hubs for humidity, damp towels, and stagnant airflow, often absorb unpleasant smells.

Doyle James, president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing, an established plumbing company since 1970,  has some insightful tips to breathe air, light, and freshness into these spaces.

Ventilate to increase fresh airflow

Air out bathrooms by turning on fans and opening windows to get the fresh air circulating. This also keeps humidity in check to prevent mildew growth. Leave the door open when the bathroom’s not in use to keep air circulating.

Hang towels separately

This will prevent them from getting musty and help them dry out faster. When drying towels on a rack, be sure to leave plenty of space between each towel.

Add a few capfuls of bleach to your towel and rug washes

Towels and bath mats should be washed on a regular basis, ideally at least once a week. To eliminate odors that stick the fabrics even after a full wash cycle, add a half and half bleach-water mix (the water helps prevent discoloration) to the washing machine and you’ll notice that everything smells fresh and clean.

Get rid of mold and mildew from the shower

Make sure to air out the shower after each use. You may need to clean your shower curtain to prevent mold from growing (cloth shower curtains clean up easily in the washing machine with bleach water). To clean your tiles and grout, apply a vinegar and water mixture and scrub down the surface with a grout brush. Be sure to spay down your shower after each use with a Daily Shower Cleaner.

Check for leaks around your bathroom fixtures

The tub, sink or toilet could be leaking and causing odors. Replace the seal under the toilet at the floor if you find water on your floor on a regular basis. If water pools under the sink you’ll need to check for a leak in a pipe—contact a plumber to determine the cause.

Clean out your drains

If bad odors are coming from a drain, try pouring a cup of baking soda down the drain followed by a cup of vinegar. Leave it for ½ an hour and pour hot water down the drain.

Don’t ignore musty smells in dark, damp areas

There’s another reason why you don’t want musty and damp smells in your home—they could indicate a much bigger issue. Odors could be telling you that mold or mildew is hiding.

“We had a home with a storage area in a basement with a musty, moldy smell,” says Bowling. “When we were under contract we had to have a professional remediation company come to do a clean out. There wasn’t enough ventilation and when we pulled some insulation away we found discoloration that needed to be treated professionally, which cost the sellers $1,200.”

Check your bathrooms and basement for odors, moisture, and proper ventilation. Not only will your home sell faster when it smells good, but you’ll also prevent surprises from cropping up during the home inspection.

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Once you’ve deodorized your home, keep smells simple and avoid artificial fragrances

Certain smells scientifically put people in the mood to buy stuff, whether it’s a waft of pure leather at the shoe store, a hint of pine at Christmas time, or the alluring aroma of perfume at the mall.

However, it’s easy to go overboard with artificial smells that are overwhelmingly strong or make buyers wonder if you’re trying to hide something. Avoid plug-in air fresheners or sprays and instead stick to smells on the neutral end of the spectrum—think cotton fresh, rather than sugary sweet vanilla, or those candles that make your house smell like a forest.

What’s more, a 2016 experiment showed that the smell of citrus in a house for sale boosts homebuyers’ perceived value of a property by $100,000, while researchers find that simple smells increase retail sales over complicated scents: for example, orange (simple) versus orange-basil (complex).

So, there’s no need to go bake fresh cookies to make the house smell “homey.” You’d be better off going with a natural, subtle citrus scent. Add a few drops of lemon or orange essential oils to a spray bottle as a mister, put some small pieces of citrus rinds down the garbage disposal, or simmer sliced citrus fruit in over the stove in water.

The bottom line is that foul odors can be a major deterrent to buyers. Investing in preventing and removing unpleasant smells is a sure way to increase your home’s value, marketability, and appeal.

So open up your windows, grab some baking soda and vinegar, and don’t be afraid to call in the pros or spend a little on carpet and paint if you can’t get those smells out on your own. It’ll be worth it!

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