​A scratch-and-sniff guide to home buying

Household 3 min read

House hunting? Use this five-point sniff test to detect potential problems in prospective homes

In high school, I had an eccentric German class teacher who—among other quirks—didn’t allow us to use cough drops during class. If a student was hacking away, she’d offer a peppermint candy instead. She based this practice on a study she’d read about. In it, the scent of peppermint was piped into the air at a factory where it was found to markedly increase assembly line worker productivity. She may have been a little nutty, but she was definitely on to something: subsequent studies have shown that our sense of smell affects our behavior and decisions.

This isn’t news to real estate agents who’ve long known the power of baking cookies or brewing a pot of coffee in a home just before showing it to a potential buyer. Those familiar smells pack an emotional punch that can drastically affect the perception of our surroundings.

So, if freshly made chocolate chip cookies can elicit positive feelings about a potential new home, it stands to reason that unpleasant smells can, in turn, tip us off to potential problems. Heads up, potential home buyers: these scents are your cue to probe before you purchase.

1. Air freshener

Take a deep breath when you step inside a home. If you get a hefty whiff of air freshener, it could be masking something, like pet odors or cigarette smoke. A hint of air freshener obviously shouldn’t be cause for concern, of course. But if the overwhelming smell of floral bouquets or scented candles are prominent in every room, you may want to ask about it.

2. Sawdust

It may not be as obvious as the scent of fresh-cut wood, but keep an eye out for do-it-yourself renovations or repairs. Look at the craftsmanship to ensure they were done properly and that they’re complete and up to code. This can be particularly important in flipped houses—where someone buys the place and fixes it up quickly with the intent to sell it right away and turn a profit. A friend of mine recently viewed a flipped home in which someone had turned a wide hallway into a kitchen. The electrical box was inside a cabinet, and you couldn’t pull down the attic stairs because they hit the stove.

3. Paint

Plenty of new homes have fresh paint on the walls, and that can be a good thing. But if you notice that one room or spot in particular reeks of that signature smell, it should pique your attention. That fresh coat could be covering ceiling stains or other moisture-related issues, like roof leaks or water damage. (I know someone who once spray painted dead shrubs at a home before selling it, so I’d take note of the landscaping as well. Seriously … you can’t make this stuff up.)

4. Mildew

I’m one of those people who love the smell of a musty basement, so that scent doesn’t trigger concern for me. However, the smell of mildew can point to a potential mold problem, so it’s best to keep your sniffer on high alert when in basements, attics, garages, and other storage spaces.

5. Sewage

Gross, I know. A hint of that sour, sewage-like smell in the kitchen can mean a backed-up drain just waiting to blow. That smell outside the home could highlight drainage issues or even a poorly maintained septic system. Trust me, you don’t want to gamble with a poorly maintained septic system; disgusting and costly repairs are not a good way to start a relationship with a new home … or new neighbors.

Enlisting the help of your olfactory system can potentially help you save big—on time, money and maintenance—when buying a new home. Our PerkShare® program can help, too. Progressive customers can save $500 when obtaining a new mortgage or refinancing a current one.

As for me, the peppermints never offered much help. I still don’t speak much German beyond “bier.”

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