Smells that sell: how an apartment's scent can make or break a deal

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The bare-bones Harlem rental I moved into after college happened to share an air duct with a chicken-and-burger joint, the fumes of which wafted through the tiny window in the shower. Meaning, then, that when I went to get clean, the smell of soap mingled in the hot, damp air with the smell of bargain basement fried chicken. To this day, I've never enjoyed wings the same way. 

By the time I was in the apartment and taking poultry-scented showers, of course, it was too late, and I was already locked into a lease. Granted, I didn't give the place a discerning look (or sniff) on my walk-through beyond "Sure, looks fine!" But it's possible I was also at the mercy of a broker wise enough to stick an air freshener in the bathroom, or bring me and my roommate by at a time when the chicken smell was a little less pungent (oddly, it peaked in the mornings). 

In such a tightly packed city, brokers are keenly aware of how scent can work to their advantage during open houses, even when there's not necessarily a smell that needs explicit covering up. Developers are getting in on the action, too: luxury "lifestyle residence" developer Instrata now uses a signature "green bamboo" scent for its properties, according to Karla Saladino of its leasing partner Mirador Real Estate, and West Village condos at the Printing House were scented with "Australian Coast" when sales kicked off in 2013.  "I think scents play a pretty big factor in anyone’s perception of a property," says Platinum Properties president Daniel Hedaya. "It’s one of the biggest triggers that exists."

But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to pull a Proust and fill the place with the scent of Madeleines if you're trying to sell—in fact, brokers we spoke with advised against the old cliche of baking cookies for an open house to make the place smell cozy. "That might be great in more of a suburban setting, but in New York, with so many different scents in hallways, you might not want to do food smell," is how Town Residential agent David Gomez Pearlberg gently puts it.

Instead, opt for something "neutral, clean, and not overwhelming," Hedaya suggests. (He tends to opt for AirWick's "Fresh Waters" scent for showings.) But it can also work to turn your room's scent into part of the decor: Pearlberg swears by Cote Bastide's Amber Crystal Potpourri for open houses, noting that since they're also decorative, they're a "great conversation starter." 

Whatever you choose, beware of going overboard. "I remember showing a smaller apartment and someone asked me if there was a mold or smell issue since the scented candle was so strong," recalls Bond New York agent David Kazemi. Likely not the intended effect.

Even if you're not quite ready to start peddling your apartment, Hedaya advises against smoking indoors (you knew this was coming, didn't you?) to help keep the place fresh, noting that even if it can be cleaned out after you move, "it really turns people off." And whether or not the odors in question are of your own making, tools like a HEPA air filter, a "bad air sponge," and de-humidifier can help clear the airand keep migraines at bay.


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