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Home Buying: How to Tell If Smokers Are Hiding Tobacco Smell

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Is the realtor trying to hide tobacco and nicotine smells in the house they're selling? Find out how to recognize the signs.

Is the realtor trying to hide tobacco and nicotine smells in the house they're selling? Find out how to recognize the signs.

An Important Tip for Home Buyers

If you're buying a previously owned home, you need to know this! Smokers mask smoke odors with tips taught by realtors. But you can still tell those odors exist if you know what to look for—and if the smoker's agent hasn't figured out this trick, too.

Photo taken by a first-time home buyer who didn't realize her new house reeked of smoke because the seller hid it.

Photo taken by a first-time home buyer who didn't realize her new house reeked of smoke because the seller hid it.

You don't want to walk into your new home to find THIS!

This is an actual photo taken by a first-time buyer after she entered her newly purchased home. She had expressed concern about a very faint smoke odor to the seller, who brushed it off by saying her boyfriend wasn't allowed to smoke inside the home. After the home was sold, piles of used cigarettes and messes like this were left all over the house. The house reeked of smoke and required several thousand dollars of cleaning to get the smoke smell out.

Cigarette Smells Are Easier to Mask Than to Remove

You would think that you'd be able to tell a smoker's home just by taking a sniff, right? Wrong. There are ways to mask the cigarette smell temporarily. Unfortunately, methods for getting out tobacco odors and stains for good are expensive, so sellers will just do a quick fix to conceal the stench.

Smokers' homes are hard to sell—Google "selling smokers home" for many pages on this problem. Unless you are a smoker, you may want to avoid the hassle and go to the next house. For the moment, it's still a buyer's market, so you certainly can afford to do so.

Cigarette Butt by Vivek Chugh on Stock Xchng

Cigarette Butt by Vivek Chugh on Stock Xchng

Ways to Recognize a Smoker's Home

Remember, realtors are doing all they can to help sell a home.

Initial Warning Signs

  • If windows and doors are open and/or there are plug-in deodorizers in every room, that's a warning sign.
  • Ditto if there are scented candles burning and/or the smell of fresh-baked anything.

How You Can Investigate

If you tour the home when the seller's out, it's easier to tell.

  • Sniff drapes, carpets, and upholstered furniture. Especially sniff the closets and clothes. It's hard to hide cigarette smell on clothes.
  • Scoot furniture or tilt pictures. There's often a lighter area underneath or behind things, with a faint yellow or brown stain around it.
  • Run your finger along the curtain rod in an area where clothes haven't been moved in a while. They probably didn't take all the clothes out of their closets to wipe down the curtain rods.
  • If there's a computer tower, game console, or other major piece of electronics, look behind it if you can. Fans and anything that generates static electricity will attract smoke particles, which leave a dark stain on the desk/carpet.

Additional Signs

You shouldn't feel shy about shifting pictures or furniture if the seller's present—you're about to spend a lot of money, after all! But here are some more tips.

  • Cigarette butts in the patio, on the sidewalk, or in the garden, especially in empty flower pots. They clean out all traces inside the house, but they tend to forget outside.
  • Yellow or brown stain or soot inside light fixtures and lamps.
  • It's standard for sellers to paint the walls, so a fresh coat of paint isn't a giveaway. But a smoker has to paint to cover up the stains! Otherwise, it'll look like this (well, maybe not that bad).
  • The fresh coat of paint helps, but not forever. Nicotine sweats through even tough latex paint. And THAT is your secret weapon.
Nicotene stain on bathroom walls of smokers home

Nicotene stain on bathroom walls of smokers home

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Read More From Toughnickel

Best Way to Recognize a Smoker's Home

Even If They've Gotten the Odor Out

Smokers can take many steps to scrub walls, ceilings, and floors; replace stinky carpets and curtains; and repaint every surface to cover up stains and mask odors. If they live in a warm area, they may take to leaving the windows open all the time to keep air circulating and odors moving out.

But there's one place that gives away the home's history: the master bathroom. Unless the owners have really and truly gotten all the nicotine stains out (and they often just paint over them), sticky yellow-brown drips will sweat through the paint on the walls. There may only be a few of these spots around doorframes, in corners where they scrubbed less vigorously. But within a few months of repainting, they'll start to come through.

They can be wiped off with a wet towel, but they'll keep coming back for a few years.

Below is the underside of an open doorway into a master bathroom. Yuck!


How to Remove Smoke Odor From a House

If You Love the House and Want to Risk It

The good news is that you can remove the stench. After all, homes damaged by fire can often be rebuilt and saved, and they get a lot of smoke damage!

But depending on the amount of time people smoked in the house, it may be an expensive restoration: several thousand dollars, at least. Keep this in mind when negotiating the price.

Here's how to get out the smoking smell for good:

  1. Remove all furniture and fabric: carpets, drapes, even cloth wallpaper. You're probably not going to be able to wash them well enough to get the smoke out.
  2. Have all ductwork thoroughly cleaned. Or, better, just get the A/C, furnace, and ducts replaced and upgraded to a more energy-efficient system. Again, negotiate down the price for the repairs you'll have to do.
  3. Clean walls/ceilings/floors/insides of cabinets thoroughly. Many sites recommend a vinegar or lemon juice scrub -- apparently acidic cleansers are good at attacking tar. But you'll want a professional cleaning service. Or, better, go straight to a fire/smoke damage restoration service.
  4. Put activated charcoal odor absorbers in all closets, cabinets, garage.
  5. Make sure to clean all the the light fixtures and other recessed, slightly inaccessible areas.
  6. Remove any popcorn ceilings. Replaster as needed. It's your new home... make it nice!
  7. Ozone the house. This is the biggest step. Note that no people, pets or plants can be in the house during the ozone process.
  8. Prime. Maybe twice. Then repaint everything.

In all but the most extreme cases, this should -- I hope -- be enough to kill all traces of cigarette odor. You should still consult a professional, not just a random webpage, for expert advice. I can't make any guarantees.

Where to Get an Ozone Treatment

Rent a Generator or Hire a Service

Search the yellow pages or Google for Ozone shock treatment, odor removal ozone services, ozone generator rental, and smoke/fire damage restoration.

While many companies let you rent an ozone generator, you may wish to try a smoke/fire damage restoration company. They deal with extreme cases of smoke damage, so mere cigarette smoke shouldn't be as bad. Just watch out for scammy companies; there are many contractor-type companies who make a career of exploiting people in desperate situations. If anything they say smells "off" to you, trust your nose.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2011 Ellen Brundige

Guestbook - Spread the Word!

GH on May 28, 2017:

The comments about Realtors is a defamatory statement by the author, who may or may not have had a bad experience with one. The very use of the term "Realtor" indicates a real estate agent who is bound by a code of ethics. Not all agents are Realtors. The author is also showing ignorance of the very highly enforced disclosure laws that are in place. Implying that Realtors advise their clients to break the law and hide things shows some kind of agenda by this web site. I would not trust any advice listed on the site about anything. More like a limp nickel to me, and not worth five cents.

Joe Frasca, EMSL Labs on February 14, 2017:

We have developed a test kit to test for Nicotine smoke residue on a wall or surface.

We have also developed a test kit that can test for Marijuana smoke residue on a wall or surface.

The test kits are FREE and the lab fee for the testing is $95 for either the nicotine or marijuana.


Joe Frasca, EMSL Labs on February 14, 2017:

We have developed a test kit to test for nicotine smoke residue on a wall or surface.

We have also developed a test kit that can test for Marijuana smoke residue on a wall or surface.

The test kits are FREE and the lab fee for the testing is $95 for either the nicotine or marijuana.


geosum on March 01, 2014:

Great lens. Buying a newly-constructed house seems like the best bet, but this is really important to check out when considering a previously-owned home.

Charlotte Realtor on January 05, 2014:

Great information! I am a real estate agent and have run across this on many occasions - and you're right, they're hard to sell if not remediated!

suzhwkfn on November 19, 2013:

@anonymous: If you were really allergic to cigarette smoke, there is no way you could live in a house with smokers. It is not just the smoke, it is the tar and other chemicals that stick to literally everything in the home. If a person asks if the home has been smoked in, they have a right to know. Yes, you have the right to do whatever you want in your house, but we have the right to not subject our children and ourselves to the toxic chemicals left by the smoke. I am allergic to smoke and I will guarantee you that I would know if the house has been smoked in. The owners of the house I am getting ready to move out of lied about the house being smoked in and they were told how allergic I am to smoke and they lied anyway. They painted all the walls and cleaned up the house thinking that we would never know the difference. I was getting sicker and sicker as I lived in the house and in our quest to find out why, they finally told us the truth. Guess what, they are getting the house right back and we are purchasing another one. It is misrepresentation and fraud. I may be suing them for my hotel bills and my doctor bills as well. So, I guess if you want to take the risk of lying to others go right ahead, but you may have to face consequences later.

suzhwkfn on November 19, 2013:

Great tips. I wish I would have found this sooner! I am very, very allergic to smoke and found that even when we explain that we can't have a house that has been smoked in, the sellers still lie. I don't care what people do in their own home, but I think it's absolutely awful that someone would lie to my face knowing that they are selling me a house that could kill me. We will probably go with a brand new home due to the bold-faced lies we have encountered, but the tips are helpful in case we find a pre-owned we like. Tertiary smoke does a lot of damage and you can't always smell it. For those trying to keep their children safe, please keep this in mind because no smell doesn't always mean safety.

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on May 03, 2013:

@anonymous: "I'm sorry, I didn't know people couldn't do WHATEVER THEY WANT IN THEIR OWN HOUSE. " Where did I say you couldn't? You can do whatever YOU want in your own house. You can raise skunks and paint bloostains all over the walls, if that's what floats your boat.

But buyers aren't obligated to buy what YOU want them to buy. They have the right to spend their money on what THEY want, and if your house isn't what THEY want, they don't have to buy it. See how that works?

anonymous on April 15, 2013:

Ludicrous. I don't smoke and am sensitive to the smell. I live with two smokers who only smoke upstairs. Currently about to put our house on the market. What I can't believe is how important this is to people! I'm sorry, I didn't know people couldn't do WHATEVER THEY WANT IN THEIR OWN HOUSE. Odds are that you've purchased a house in which there once lived a smoker. Very good odds, I'm sure. Not all smokers are like the person who left the "gift" above. If you're buying a home you have to understand that people have lived there and have the right to do whatever they want in their own house - including smoke. A smart, considerate person (which is most what I'll call most people trying to sell) will wash the walls and possibly repaint and whilst selling smoke outdoors. This is what I ask of my smokers and our house sold last time - but I still couldn't believe the morons that kept saying the smelled smoke. If you can't understand that a) people have lived their and can do what they please in the home they paid for... and b) you can clean/paint yourself and easily get the smoke out (it doesn't cost thousands of dollars like this post says) then you are deluding yourself and are one of those potential buyers that I would sooner see stepping on a rake than coming into my home.

Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who is not a smoker and never has been and is, basically, allergic to cigarette smoke.

Suck it up and look at the home for what it is structurally and for health and safety. Be smart and add a clause to the offer that the house needs to be left clean (which leaves the "gift" giver above open to being sued), etc.

kabbalah lm on March 02, 2013:

Thanks. I hate that smell

ivanthegreatest on February 26, 2013:

Yuck! Could you imagine moving in and finding out that your new home stink!? Thanks for the tip!

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on February 26, 2013:

@pauly99 lm: Ugh. Masking, eh?

I wonder how many people with respiratory problems were later harmed/sickened by the residual stuff that was still in the house, but masked by the crafter seller.

pauly99 lm on February 26, 2013:

Thank you for these tips. When I was rehabbing homes, one of the toughest thing to do was to mask the smell of cigarette smoke.

anonymous on December 06, 2012:

It sure told me quite a bit of what I needed to know. Thank you.

StMoores on November 18, 2012:

That's a nasty looking toilet!

BillyPilgrim LM on September 26, 2012:

Some great tips here, I hadn't even thought of this! Thanks for sharing x

MajesticPropert on August 24, 2012:

Great tips for detecting smoke! Getting rid of that smell is so costly, and too many sellers try to mask it and fool buyers.

xriotdotbiz lm on August 24, 2012:

Great lens and tips, something I would not have thought took for when buying a home. I guess I would have trusted my nose but now I see that it could be tricked.

mouse1996 lm on August 23, 2012:

Great advice. Those pictures were disgusting, and that's horrible they try to hide it from potential buyers. Great lens.

AssociationLawG on August 21, 2012:

Excellent resource for buyers. Considering the cost of smoke odor removal and allergies buyers may have, it's important to look for these signs in condos, townhomes and single-family homes.

dealnation on January 19, 2012:

The first video was a little disturbing, however, it hammers the point down quite well!

sarahrk lm on December 01, 2011:

Hate the smell of smoke in a home!

OnlineAutoInsuranceQuotes on November 11, 2011:

Great lens. Nothing worse than the smell of smoke if you're a non-smoker or worse if you're an ex-smoker.

franstan lm on August 06, 2011:

Great lens

anonymous on January 27, 2011:

Really nice lens and useful tips! There is nothing worse than the smell of stale smoke on clothes or in a house!

anonymous on January 23, 2011:

Very important tips....thank you

lasertek lm on January 23, 2011:

This is very helpful! Sometimes, we forget about important details such as this when buying a house.

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