The One Unexpected Thing That Immediately Turns Off Buyers

published May 17, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Say a potential buyer is coming to tour your place in an hour. This tour will be nothing like the packed open houses of yesteryear—the lone buyer will likely mask up and walk around without touching anything—but it’s a showing nonetheless.

Assuming you’ve staged and prepped your home for sale, there are just a few things left to do: Quickly tidy up, wipe down the kitchen counters, stash the mail away, and light a Yankee Candle to welcome them with a cozy vanilla scent… right? 

No way, says Kiernan Middleman, a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Warren Residential in Boston. “People today are simply more sensitive to air fresheners than they used to be,” she says. “Much like gluten and meat going out of fashion, so are artificial scents. What real estate clients want today is fresh air.” 

Middleman says popular scents have shifted away from “sweet” smells like vanilla, peony, and apple cinnamon toward “clean” fragrances like crisp linen, bergamot, and lemongrass. But even in those fresh scents, a plug-in can chase buyers away. 

“The problem with air fresheners is that when people live with them, they absolutely, without exception, go ‘nose blind,’ and can no longer smell how strong they are,” she says. “I cannot tell you how often clients describe ‘being hit in the face’ with air freshener when entering a home.”  

When selling a house, Middleman says, “It’s much more important to avoid negatives rather than try to create positives.” House hunters are looking for reasons not to buy a given home, and you don’t want them leaving with a fumigated headache. “Psychologically, it’s much easier to rule out a property than it is to move forward.” 

That’s why real estate agents recommend neutral paint palettes and inoffensive cabinet colors. Similarly, the best scent is none at all—or, at least, a neutral one. If you’re compelled to add a scent beyond the fresh air of an open window, Middleman recommends skipping the artificially intense aromas of candles, plug-ins, and sprays in favor of an essential oil diffuser. “Because the scents are not artificial, even when they are strong, they don’t tend to physically bother people in the same way that a plug-in would,” she says. 

Choose oils that aren’t too sweet smelling, like eucalyptus, lemongrass, or ginger. “These scents are often used in the lobbies of high-end hotels and spas,” Middleman notes. “Because scent is so strongly tied to memory, it’s more likely that they may remind someone of a vacation they went on, or a great massage they had, which would likely be a positive association.” At her own showings, Middleman puts out a sealed glass dispenser filled with lemon water—“again, often seen in hotels and spas, to convey a sense of health and luxury,” she says. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

What about the natural, alluring aroma of fresh-baked cookies or apple pie? “Baked goods at an open house are seen as an outdated cliché,” Middleman says. “While we still sometimes see this in the ‘burbs, they don’t strike a chord with today’s urban buyer.” Baking also takes time that could probably be better spent cleaning, organizing, and packing up clutter, she adds. 

“No serious buyer walks into an open house and says, ‘Where are the cookies?’” she adds (although my 8-year-old daughter/junior journalist has absolutely said that exact phrase at more than one open house). Yet, even ever-popular cookies can turn off some buyers, for one reason or another. 

“I was once at an open house where the seller had baked off some grocery store tube cookies,” Middleman recalls. The buyer she was representing happened to be an expert baker, and was unimpressed. “It looks like we have a corner cutter,” he said.