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Not just looks: how to make your home smell lovely

In the age of Instagram, Snapchat and estate agents’ photoshoots, there has never been such an emphasis on how your home looks. You can read a thousand articles online and in magazines about how to make a house visually appealing. But if you want really good advice on making it smell good, you may struggle.

Yet a significant part of the real-life satisfaction of living in a house comes via the nose. (Yes, sound and taste are also important, but we’re not getting into that here. Acoustics and lick-able walls are, as they say, beyond the scope.)

Making your home smell lovely
Making your home smell lovely

The first rule is to get rid of bad smells before trying to add good ones. Trying to “mask” one scent with another is like trying to make a cocktail that tastes of only one of the drinks you put in it. It is possible, but only by using something really dominant. You might like the scent of pine trees, but if you use a serious chemical dose of the stuff – enough to cover up the lurking odour of drains, say, – then your home is likely to smell more like a toilet brush than a forest.

Drains are indeed one of the most common sources of a bad odour. You can sometimes fix them by flushing through with detergent, lemon juice, white vinegar, boiling water and baking soda – or a combination of these. (Make sure you use ordinary white vinegar, i.e. diluted acetic acid, not “white” malt vinegar – unless you want your home to smell like a chip-shop.) Chemical drain cleaners are not ideal for the environment, and you want to be very careful to wear gloves and eye-protection if you’re using serious ones, but they can work. For the best effect, block up the outflow, and pour the stuff until it backs up, giving it time to get to work on the blockage.

If all that fails, try a drain-cleaning cable spring. It’s cheaper to buy your own from a builder’s merchant than call out a plumber, and using one could hardly be easier: you just poke the thing down the drain until you reach a blockage (you may need to jiggle it to get around bends), then pull backwards and forwards with a certain amount of vigour.

Damp is another source of bad smells. There is often a specific source – a leaking pipe or gutter, a hole in the roof, a blocked-up chimney, and so on. If there is, then fixing the problem ultimately fixes the damp – though if damp is in your walls it can take time and often a good summer to dry out a home. Homes also get damp because they don’t get enough ventilation. So try to avoid drying clothes indoors, put lids on bubbling pans, and open windows to air the house on dry days.

A new and powerful odour is usually the result of a hidden spill. Milk down the side of the fridge, maybe, or a forgotten cheese in the fridge. (I once brought back a Camembert from France for a friend who loved strong cheese. He was out, so I dropped it through an open window onto the windowsill. Next time I called round my friend was out again. Permanently out: he had moved in with his girlfriend. How was I to know the Camembert had fallen down the back of his radiator?)

Overflowing bins and dirty washing are the easiest fixes of all. But often, carpets and soft furnishings are the culprit. Curtain or cushions can soak up musty or smoky smells almost like a bad-odour battery, releasing them back into the house over weeks or months. Both can and should be regularly washed. If you have an un-washable fabric (why do you have an un-washable fabric?) take the offending item outside and beat it hard with something like a tennis racket. Quite fun, and a good work-out. Then leave to air in the sun. As for carpets, if yours smells bad then you can try hiring a professional carpet shampooing machine but often the only solution is to start from scratch. By which I mean take the whole thing to the dump. If you do start all over again, choose a natural-fibre carpet if you can possibly afford it. Quite apart from the horrific environmental issue of the disposal of plastic-based carpets, wool smells good. Seagrass smells even better.

Once you’ve tackled all the bed smells, it’s time to add the good ones. It is rare for chemical odours to smell like anything except chemical odours, so forget about sprays and plug-ins. You might even want to avoid artificially scented cleaning products. A 2019 report by the UK government’s air quality expert group found that the pine and lemon scents in many cleaning products break down into volatile and potentially carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde.

Natural odour-adders – all those essential oils on sticks or in little burners – may or may not be safer. They can certainly be just as overwhelming. Some people are fans of scented candles, but it has to be the right scent for you. A drop of essential oil in the wax can have much the same effect, and a pot-pourri is much more fun to make than buy; sweet-smelling spices for the purpose, such as nutmeg or cinnamon, can be bought cheaply in shops that cater for Asian cuisine.

By far the most effective way to create a pleasant-smelling house, though, is to create good odours in an ordinary, natural, everyday way. Wash your own linen and dry it in the air. Mop hard floors, and be sure to let them dry. Make soups and stews, cakes and biscuits – and ventilate the house if you are doing anything very steamy. Polish wooden furniture with old-fashioned beeswax. (You can even make your own by melting actual bees’ wax with turpentine – it smells incredible.) Bake your own bread. Light (ordinary) candles. Put cut flowers in vases – or, better still, tend your own house plants.

Because making a home smell beautiful, ultimately, is not about adding beautiful smells. It is about living beautifully.