Doctor David Lewis is adamant: “Bad smells get up your nose – literally,” he says. “They have a negative effect on your brain. Pleasant smells have a positive effect and so it pays to have these in your house, especially if you are trying to sell it to a complete stranger.”
When thinking about moving to a new home, odour is not usually right up there with the main criteria of location, price and condition. But it is one of the three subsidiary Ss: sight (how it looks), sound (background noise) and smell (both pleasant and not so). And the homeowner often unwittingly contributes to the latter. “We all have a unique personal odour that is a product of what we eat and drink and our lifestyle,” explains Lewis. “Household pets are also a factor – both dogs and cats, although goldfish are quite neutral. All of these scents are transferred to your home so that every house has its own smell after a while,” says Lewis, a neuropsychologist and director of research for Mind Lab, an independent consultancy that carries out scientific studies on the brain and its responses to various stimulants. He is particularly interested in BO – building odour.
“Quite often you cannot smell your own home because you are so used to it. It’s the same as if you live next to a railway line or under the flight path of an airport. You get used to the trains and planes and you don’t hear them. And when you move, your odour hangs around like a ghost for a while, particularly in odd corners, until the new owners become established.”
While working on this article I have been forced to think a lot about how I smell and also the unique building odour of my home. It’s only when a daughter comes back from studying at law school that there is usually a pong inquisition. As soon as Emi comes through the front door I get: “Dad, this house stinks of wood smoke and of Megan and Tess.” I smile condescendingly and tell her: “Yes, but I like open fires and shooting with the labradors ... and you don’t live here any more.” But I also know that if I wanted to sell the house then I’d have to do something about the BO.
The impact of aroma has long been recognised among estate agents, whose “fresh-brewed coffee” and “baking bread” olfactory advice to sellers has become something of a cliché.
Peter Young, managing director of estate agency John D Wood and Co, remembers an enthusiastic amateur property developer who embraced odour control as a part of a total package approach to preparing for viewings. “If I made an appointment to come round at 11am with a prospective buyer, she would have the place dressed up like a theatre set with flowers, spotless bathrooms and kitchen, everything neat and in place. She would be baking chocolate brownies so the delicious smell infused the whole house. She gave the impression of being serenely efficient and was always immaculately turned-out herself and with full make-up, but wearing an apron. She gave the appearance that everything was effortless. We never had any trouble selling her homes.
“Conversely we had another client who drank a lot of claret. He had a very nice London home to sell but his halitosis could kill an elephant at 100 yards. Eventually I had to get him to go out when I took clients around.”
But is a bad smell as off-putting as the anecdotal evidence suggests?
Recently Lewis was commissioned to carry out a study for public relations advisers Hill & Knowlton acting for household products company Procter and Gamble who were bringing out a new air freshener. In his experiment, he compared the effects on people of breathing in fresh air, the new product and a series of pungent malodours. “The results demonstrated both what a powerful effect noxious odours have on how we think and feel but also the benefits of inhaling sweet-smelling air,” he says.
In the experiment five men and five women were asked to sniff foul smells ranging from rotten fish and human BO to stale cabbage and sweaty old socks. As they did so, their brain activity was monitored via sensors attached to their scalps while straps around their chests recorded the depth and duration of their inhalations. Electrodes attached to their fingers monitored their levels of physical excitement.
The volunteers were tested in a mobile laboratory in which the power of the odours could be carefully controlled. Having endured some of the foulest smells available, they then stepped outside to enjoy some of the freshest air in Britain – a gentle breeze blowing in across the English Channel to the top of Beachy Head in Sussex, UK – at about 600ft one of the country’s highest headlands.
To prevent their responses being influenced by the spectacular panorama, they wore domes known as head isolation spheres (HIS) over their heads. The purpose of this headgear was to create a portable sensory deprivation chamber that would allow the subjects’ brains to focus entirely on the surrounding aromas. While in the HIS, the volunteers were exposed first to the pure fresh air and then to the air freshener.
“The results were most interesting,” says the neuro-psychologist. “In summary, what we found was that a bad smell causes a sharp increase in physical arousal, together with a brain response indicating a strong desire to escape or avoid the odour and extremely negative feelings which tend to linger long after the bad smell has been removed but not replaced by a more agreeable aroma.
“Both fresh air and the air freshener by contrast, produced a far briefer arousal, with brain activity associated with relaxed enjoyment.”
But although Lewis’s research has supported what estate agents have long asserted, the owner of a home with a strong, distinctive ambience still has only two choices: to tackle it at source or to disguise it with an alternative scent such as an air freshener.
Al Horrigan is the chief executive officer and principal broker of RSVP Associates, an estate agency in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, US. His company was asked to sell a property that was owned by a Russian-born couple, both of whom were heavy smokers. “They probably lost about 10 per cent on their sale price,” he says. “Perhaps more important, though, was the time it took to sell and the amount of money they had to spend trying to get rid of the smell of stale tobacco smoke. When they moved out the house was completely painted and all the carpets were replaced with new ones. This was not sufficient and they had three de-fumigations; even the grout and kitchen cabinets were all cleaned. The house got a lot of showings right from the start, as it was always well priced, but it really wasn’t until the end that it smelt good.”
Mark Tunstall, head of rentals at the Knightsbridge, London, office of estate agency Savills, adds. “We have one client who is never without her room spray in her pocket to give a cheeky spritz, as and when required. Undoubtedly, the best rents we have achieved over the past year have been for those clients who go the extra mile to ensure that their properties are presented to their fullest potential, with music, soft lighting and scented candles. In other words, it pays to spend some time and effort to get the ambient smell right, because then you are more likely to get a rent at the top end of the range. We let a ground and lower ground floor maisonette of 2,900 sq ft in South Kensington recently at £6,000 per week because it was presented exactly this way. This equates to an annual return of £107 per square foot, which is a huge figure.”
“Empty properties tend to smell musty and can be damp,” warns Noel de Keyzer of Savills’ Sloan Street, London, office. “So make sure the heating is on, at least some of the time. We were selling a house for a Korean lady. It was empty but she had a very good idea for creating a good ambience. She had real lavender bushes growing in pots and she placed these in attractive wicker-work baskets in the empty rooms ... Location can also be off-putting. For example, if you have a bus stop right outside your front door, then diesel fumes can be a problem.”
But sometimes prospective property owners have to accept that they are unable to affect the source of a sour odour. Paul Jarvis, a chartered surveyor who worked in the Paris office of estate agency Knight Frank for five years, says: “The French sewerage system is rather different in that vents come straight up from the sewers. Under certain conditions basements could really honk. You cannot do anything about it. You just have to pre-warn a prospective client and tell them that the basement will have to be where they store stuff as they can’t be used as accommodation. Also, some of the older properties that we were selling in Spain had the smell of sewage about them as the toilets did not have S-bends. In those cases too, you just had to tell the client that that was the case and leave it up to them to disguise the smell with air fresheners or whatever.”
It all brings new meaning to having a nose for a good property deal.