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Originally published Friday, May 25, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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What not to cook when your house is for sale

Agent tells of clients who walk into homes that reeked of last night's dinner and walk right back out.

Special to The Washington Post

Smelly tips

How to avoid losing a sale because your house reeks of last night's dinner.

Here are tips from home decorator Jennifer Schweikert, of Just My Style By JMS in Burke, Va., to keep your house smelling fresh, including what not to cook:

• Try to avoid cooking fatty, fried foods. "You may not smell the bacon you make every morning, but that heavy, greasy smell lingers and makes buyers worry about the home's cleanliness."

• Ban broccoli and cabbage. Cruciferous vegetables, which include Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, impart strong odors. Schweikert compares them to "really stinky athletic shoes." Even worse than cooking broccoli, she says, was the time a client burned the broccoli she was cooking.

• Bake (or warm up) cookies in the oven an hour before an open house. "You don't want to overwhelm people with the aroma, even if it is cookies, so don't do it right before the open house starts."

• Grind up some lemon quarters in your garbage disposal. It gets rid of any disposal odor and imparts a clean citrus scent.

• Take out the trash. "Meat wrappers left in the kitchen trash can go rancid quickly. I tell clients that any wrappers or food containers should be immediately taken to the outside garbage."

If a strongly aromatic meal is unavoidable, try spraying Febreze or PureAyre, an odor eliminator sold in pet stores, Schweikert says. "Avoid air fresheners. They don't really remove the odor; they just add an even stronger, artificial-smelling scent."

The Washington Post

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No broccoli. No cabbage. No fish, eggs, curry or stinky takeout. Absolutely no burned popcorn.

And for heaven's sake, no organ meats.

Those were some of things we were warned not to cook or eat in our house if we ever hoped to sell it.

My husband and I are one of the zillions of boomer couples hoping to downsize. With one kid finishing college and one already out and working, we decided that, iffy housing market or not, we wanted someplace smaller and closer to restaurants, shops and public transportation.

So we spent a year fixing up our four-bedroom home in Virginia. New bathrooms, updated kitchen, new paint, carpet, landscaping — and the removal of enough accumulated detritus to sink a small island.

Finally, there we were. A neat, clean, sparkling house that our real-estate agent told us must be camera-ready for potential customers every day. Every. Day. You probably know what a pain that is. Before leaving for work in the morning, we went through a six-page list of things we had to do. Make bed, hide pajamas, empty trash, Swiffer floor, squeegee shower, replace towels, wipe sinks, wipe counters, wipe mirrors, wipe windows.

But that was easy compared with dinnertime. "Try not to cook anything smelly," our real-estate agent, Bernie Kagan, told us.

Kagan has sold real estate in Northern Virginia for 10 years. He told us he had had clients walk into homes that reeked of last night's dinner and walk right back out.

"Strong smells from spicy food can be a deal-breaker," he says. "To some people, it's as bad as cigarette smoke or pet odors. They worry the smell is going to linger in the carpet or the paint."

What about getting scented candles or potpourri or spraying air freshener, I wondered.

Kagan just laughed. "That doesn't fool anyone. It's just one more layer of odor on top of everything else. Makes people wonder what you're trying to cover up."

Actually, I should have known that. When we bought our first house from an elderly couple in Dallas 25 years ago, I remember smelling a sweet apple-cinnamon scent every time we visited. I foolishly thought, "Isn't it nice how much the wife bakes."

After they moved out, we realized they had been spraying that scent to cover up the moldering stench coming from a small closet.

So Lesson No. 1 about house prep: bad smell, no sell.

I told my husband he now had two choices for vegetables at dinner: salad and salad. OK, maybe green beans. But all the other vegetables we liked — artichokes, Broccolini, bok choy — were too smelly.

And fish could only be grilled. On the deck. As far away from the house as possible.

There would be no bringing home Thai takeout redolent with chilies, garlic, ginger and pungent fish sauce. No slow-cooking fragrant Indian lamb curry, wafting coriander, cumin, garlic and garam masala throughout the house. No steaming loaves of odoriferous garlic bread.

When my daughter and her boyfriend brought home onion-heavy burrito bowls from Chipotle one weekend, we had to open all the windows for hours.

Having a convenient excuse not to cook may sound like a good idea, but it rapidly lost its charm with us — to say nothing of costing more to eat out so often.

We really missed the fun and relaxation of cooking. Gone were the weekends trying new recipes, making aromatic family favorites or inviting friends over for a long, messy potluck.

Even with all the caveats, we did get to do some cooking. I was complaining to a friend about how careful we had to be in menu planning and she was incredulous. "You get to use your kitchen?" she asked.

She had her house professionally staged to sell it as quickly as possible, "and we're grateful we're allowed to have bare necessities in the kitchen," she emailed me.

"If the stager learns we've been using her kitchen table and chairs, I think we forfeit the house," she added, half-jokingly.

My friend reminded me, however, about the positive effect some aromas seem to have.

Several years ago, she and her husband had been unsuccessfully trying to sell their house in McLean, Va.

"Every fourth house in our development was for sale. In desperation, I tried the chocolate-chip-cookies-in-the-warm-oven suggestion. We got an offer not long after."

So after the first contract fell through earlier this year and the house went back on the market, I bought some cookies at the supermarket and put them in a warm oven.

Didn't even eat them; just let them spread their homey scent and then tossed them in the trash. (Hey, they made the trash smell better!)

Not sure whether it really helped or not, but a couple weeks later we had a deal.

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