Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene What the Smells Tell

A clean dog is still a dog

By Walter Jowers

JULY 6, 1998:  I can't prove it, but I think I can smell better than most people. Maybe I was born with an acute sense of smell, or maybe I've just honed the sense I was born with. Either way, I can identify the smell of stepped-on ants from a distance of several feet. How many people can say that?

When I was a little kid, I made it my business to smell everything. Before I'd eat a bite of food, I'd put it up to my nose and give it the once-over. To this day, I can't take a bite of toast without smelling it first, and I get a little disappointed when it cools down and doesn't really smell like hot toast anymore. When I played ball as a kid, I'd sneak a sniff of my glove between pitches. There was a little spot on the thumb lacing that smelled best, I guess because of the unique blend of lace smell and glove smell.

These days, I go into two or three strangers' houses every day, and the first thing I notice is the smell. Most of the time, I can tell if the house has pets, and I can identify the pets by species. Even the cleanest dog still smells like a dog, and even the freshest cat box still smells like cat funk.

Of course, it's hard to smell your own house, because you live there all the time. Most days, I can't smell my house. But when I come home from a week-long trip to the beach, the first thing I notice when I open the front door is the smell of old wood, plaster, and two cats. (Yes, they do smell different.)

I prefer old-house smells to new-house smells. Old houses smell like earth, wood, cotton, and wool. New houses smell like vinyl, chipboard, joint compound, and glue. It's as vivid as the difference between coffee and paint thinner.

When I'm doing my home-inspector work, I use my power of super-smell for the good of the customers. Wet wood, like a wet dog, has its own special smell. If I smell wet wood around a kitchen or a bathroom, it tips me off to look for a plumbing leak.

If a furnace hasn't been serviced for a long time, it'll smell like hot rust and burning dust. That tells me two things: 1. Check the furnace closely, because nobody else has. 2. The homeowners aren't big on preventive maintenance, so there might be deferred-maintenance problems all over the house.

If I can smell gas at the heat-and-air ducts, that's a sign the furnace's heat exchanger is cracked. That's serious, dangerous, and expensive trouble.

Cigarette funk is so strong, I can usually tell from the front yard if smokers live in the house. Leaving all the health and sociopolitical issues aside for now, I can tell you this: Cigarette smoke gums things up--electrical switches, air filters, and electronic gizmos such as computers and office equipment. Also, a whole lot of people won't even consider buying a house that smells like cigarette smoke. Of those who will, many of them make lower offers, because they know they'll have to shell out for new paint and carpet.

Wife Brenda and I have sold three houses. All of them sold on the first showing, and I think it was because Brenda's special blend of Make This Your Next Home spices was bubbling away in the kitchen. The blend includes cinnamon, clove, and orange. I'm not saying any more, because we might want to package it and sell it one day.

Now, before anybody even thinks about asking: No, I will not come to your house and tell you what that funny smell is. There's no joy in that kind of work. I once had a customer get screaming mad because I didn't tell him that when the bug man killed all the cave crickets under this house, it would make a powerful dead-cricket funk. I figure people know that dead things stink, even dead bugs.

Most of these smell questions are just common sense. If it smells like a dead thing, it's probably a dead thing. As far as I know, nobody will come to your house and remove a dead thing for you. Just hang tough. Eventually, it'll stop stinking. If it smells like sewage, it's definitely sewage. Call a plumber.


Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nash-scene.com/~housesense. Or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.


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