Nosing Around: Apartment Odors and What they Mean for Renters

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Renters tend to approach apartment hunting as an exercise for the eyes only, without involving the other four senses. If it's a loud building the ears may get involved, but taste, touch and smell rarely come into the process. It's generally unacceptable to go licking or pawing at the walls or furniture in an occupied apartment, but an apartment seeker can benefit greatly by sniffing around in every building lobby, hallway and apartment they visit on their showing tours.

Today we'll be explaining the significance of the odors that renters may encounter in their search for new housing.

1. Paint or Varnish Fumes

One of the most common odors in vacant apartments comes from paints, coatings and varnishes. There are many kinds of paint on the market. Some are more smelly than others. The ones with the most pungent odors are high in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can be irritating to humans and harmful to the environment. High VOC paint and varnish is far less expensive than the safer stuff, so landlords who are dealing with large portfolios will often just slap on anything that covers well and dries quickly without regard for what these materials are releasing into the air.

Heavy paint fumes in a vacant apartment indicate careless, stingy landlords who may be in a hurry to get the place rented. After all, it takes maybe 24 hours for the odors to clear, so why not wait an extra day or two to show the place?

There is one exception to this rule though, which is the smell of soured milk. Milk-based paints are quite expensive and usually only used in heirloom decor for their vibrant colors. If you smell a soured milk paint odor the landlord may still be in a hurry to fill the vacancy, but they're definitely not stingy on the supplies.

2. Cleaning Supplies

Cleaning supplies are some of the few smells that you really want to encounter in an apartment. If the place is occupied it means that the current tenant has taken good care of the property, a good indicator that it will be ready for you on time. If the place is vacant it means that the landlord has had enough time or courtesy to actually clean the place after the prior occupants left.

However, if nobody is actually visibly cleaning you should not smell any cleaning supplies other than floor cleaner. The smell of bleach hanging around a vacant bathroom or kitchen can indicate poor ventilation, which is never good in wet areas of this nature.

3. Pet Odors

If you have a pet and are looking for a pet friendly apartment, catching a whiff of wet dog or slightly stale cat litter might be a comforting reassurance to you that the place is, in fact, pet friendly. However, it doesn't really take that much effort to clean up after a pet. Heavy pet odors in an apartment are a sign that the place has not been cleaned thoroughly in a long time. Landlords are not reliable when it comes to scrubbing apartments between tenants. Anything that's in the air at the showing is probably still going to be there when you arrive.

More significant is the smell of pet odors in a hallway or common area. Some landlords and property managers are more fastidious than others when it comes to cleaning common areas of their buildings. (I can recall one building where the hallway carpets weren't vacuumed for close to 5 years after the prior staff housekeeper moved out.) If you smell dog in an apartment building hallway it's a sign of sloppy maintenance.

4. Cigarette or Marijuana Smoke

Landlords will often balk at revealing details about the other residents in a building. What they won't tell you can sometimes still leave a trace in the air. Cigarette and pot smoke in common areas are both clear tells about who will be living around you. While smoke does not necessarily indicate fire, it is definitely a red flag that you might be in a party building. You can check with the local police about noise complaints if you want to be sure. Note that noise complaints are not included in the public data released by the Chicago Police unless an arrest is made. You have to actually call the local police office if you want the real scoop.

The residue left behind from smokers on the walls, ceilings, floors and appliances is almost impossible to clean or cover up. It eats through all but the thickest paint and can only be dissolved with strong solvents. Unlike pet odors or paint fumes which can be aired out by open windows, the smell of old cigarettes will persist long into your tenancy.

Marijuana smoke is less persistent, but it bring with it a different problem. The smell of burning cannabis comes from oils known as terpenes. In nature, these exist to attract pollinating insects and in apartments they have the same effect. We often had to deal with an explosion of bugs in surrounding apartments following the departure of known pot smokers. Regardless of your stance on the stuff, if you move in after a heavy toker or grower you'll probably have to deal with their little friends for quite some time after.

Any smoke odors from hallways should not be noticeable inside the apartment provided the windows are closed. Apartment doors are supposed to be fire barriers, and if fumes are finding their way in, smoke from a building fire can as well.

5. Salty Sweetness

There is a particular salty sweet odor that property managers and restaurant inspectors know very well. Unfortunately it isn't from food or humans. This pungent odor similar to rancid cooking oil or expensive cheese is actually oleic acid and it comes from cockroaches. It is unmistakable and memorable.

6. Standing Water or Mustiness

Another unmistakable smell is that of fetid standing water. Even without the presence of sewage, water that has been around for a long time picks up a heavy reek. It is a sign of fungal growth within the water, and one of the most unhealthy things you can encounter in a modern building.

Standing water odors are very common in basements, particularly in laundry rooms and breaker rooms. In these locations they are of minimal concern unless you're considering a basement apartment. They can also pop up in apartment bathrooms and kitchens, particularly in dishwasher. If you smell standing water inside an apartment it isn't necessarily a reason to reject the place. You can request that all drains be snaked and the dishwasher (if present) be cleaned before you move in and the problem should be sorted.

7. Air Freshener and Potpourri

Landlords, this is a PSA. I have shown many, many apartments with heavy air freshener odors in my career. Not a single one of them got rented by my clients. Short of a smiling political incumbent there is no greater sign of a coverup. Even renters who have never thought about an apartment's scent before are sure to pick up on the cloying, artificial smell of air fresheners. A landlord who uses air fresheners is a landlord who fixes everything with duct tape and spackle.

Potpourri, incense and essential oils are a different story. Because of their short decay time, these three options must be refreshed frequently and usually indicate that you're in a small building with either an owner or manager living on site. It is a sign of care and concern for the space.

8. Cooking Food

This is another way to get a bead on who else is living in the building. Touring apartments at dinner time can give you some valuable insight into the ethnicities and evening habits of your potential new neighbors. (It can also make you very hungry. Bring snacks.) While Chicagoans are known to cook all sorts of different foods, a building that smells entirely of curry or onions is definitely going to point you in certain directions.

9. Trash

Unless you're visiting on a very hot summer day or a building has an indoor trash room there is no reason at all for you to be smelling garbage odors. Even alley dumpsters should have the smell under control. The only reason for it to become noticeable is if hallways have not been cleaned of dripping waste, recycling bins near trash chutes aren't reliably emptied, or the dumpsters are allowed to regularly overflow. The city issues fines for overflowing dumpsters with such persistence that any landlord permitting such a situation to occur is showcasing a truly appalling level of carelessness.

10. Rotten Egg

This is the most dangerous scent on the list. Rotten egg odors indicate either a sewage leak or a gas leak. Regardless of which one of those is the actual source, you do not want to be hanging around. Sewer leaks smell more strongly of rotten egg due to hydrogen sulfide. If allowed to build up it can lead to asphyxiation. Natural gas leaks smell slightly of skunk in addition to rotten egg due to mercaptans added to the naturally odorless substance. If this one builds up the whole building can explode.

If you mention the smell of rotten egg to the person showing the property and they react in any way other than escorting you out immediately, you should avoid not only that building but any other apartments they represent.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves