Once upon a time, my husband and I toured an adorable home for sale in a bucolic New Jersey town. We were thrilled when we walked through the front door. But that feeling dissipated quickly once we entered the kitchen.
At least, I think it was a kitchen. There was a sink.
The rest was indistinguishable due to the sheer volume of stuff—boxes, newspapers, empty cans, and dirty dishes. As we picked our way to the adjoining living room, we were forced to squeeze past a sullen teenager, who’d apparently just rolled out of bed and was slurping what appeared to be a bowl of milk.
We didn’t buy that house. Or even tour the rest of it.
The kitchen is the nucleus of any house, and if it’s not looking its best, every other part of the home seems icky, too.
“Most buyers have a 5-second rule,” explains Claire Groome, an agent with Warburg Realty in Manhattan. “If they walk into a [home] and don’t see themselves living there after 5 seconds, it’s not for them. How the kitchen looks is a very important part of that.”
Everyone has their own deal breaker, but these things that might be lurking in your kitchen are likely to make buyers run—not walk—toward the nearest exit.
Ashlie Roberson, an agent with Triplemint Real Estate in Manhattan, has encountered used dog potty pads splayed out in the middle of kitchens. But even that wasn’t her scariest kitchen tale.
One Sunday, Roberson took her clients to see a cool loft in the West Village. Although they had an appointment, when the seller’s agent opened the door, there were people passed out on the floor of the kitchen, surrounded by empty bottles.
“We slowly backed out of the apartment,” Roberson recalls.
The bottom line: If you want to throw a farewell bash, don’t schedule it for the evening before you show the house. If you must, build in a cushion of cleaning time.
2. Anything related to cats
You love Mr. Whiskers, but not everybody feels the same—especially if his bathroom is in your kitchen.
“You’d be surprised how many people leave kitty litter [out],” Groome says.
And even if a litter box isn’t front and center, seeing your feline friend roaming through the area where food is prepared and served might send potential buyers fleeing. One of Groome’s clients insisted on leaving a home showing when she saw cats lounging on the kitchen counter and open cans of wet, pungent cat food on the floor.
Remove evidence of your pets before you show your home. (They’ll forgive you.)
3. Stuff, stuff, and more stuff
Oddly enough, the kitchen—where you actually need room to do things—is often ground zero for stockpiled stuff, says Cedric Stewart, a real estate agent in the Washington, DC, area.
“Due to the lack of space, this phenomenon is usually accompanied by a crowded sink—and buyers can’t get past this,” Stewart adds.
While you might cohabitate just fine with your clutter, you’re going to have to clear it—or chuck it—before you show your home. Remove everything from your kitchen counters, Stewart advises, and free up your sink. While you’re at it, clear out the pantry of old foodstuffs, and remove magnets and photos from the refrigerator.
4. Straight-up weird things
While touring one home with clients, Stewart discovered commercial hair dryers and a salon chair parked in the kitchen.
“The house was also operating as an unlicensed hair salon,” he recalls. “Big turn-off.”
During another tour, all was going well until Stewart and his clients peeked into the fridge and freezer. “They both contained a lot of meat,” he says. “Like, really big sections of meat and nothing else. Freaky stuff.”
Neither home was purchased by his clients.
If you’re unsure whether something in your home is odd, let’s be honest: It probably is. Find a temporary storage plan for your weird stuff before someone asks, “What the heck is that?”
5. A fast-food vibe
Would buyers walk into your kitchen and see fryers with grease still in them? Could they possibly spot spatter all over the walls, hood range, and cabinets? Might there be a heavy odor as well?
“Some kitchens get put through their paces and it shows,” Stewart says.
Now, no one’s telling you to stop eating at home. But if you cook foods that cause a mess, “buyers will be too concerned about leaving with a smell on their clothes to properly consider your home,” Stewart says.
Buy a Magic Eraser (or several) and go to town on the grease. Once your kitchen’s sparkling, try to keep it that way.
6. Pests—or evidence of them
Pat Vosburgh, an agent in St. Petersburg, FL, recently took some clients through a home in an upscale area—and discovered piles of termite droppings in the kitchen.
“Our clients actually kept stepping in the debris, it was that bad,” Vosburgh says.
Although the owners promised to get the pests under control ASAP, Vosburgh’s clients didn’t bite.
“Most buyers know that if there’s one bug or one mouse, there are likely many more,” says Christy Murdock Edgar, a real estate agent in the Northern Virginia and Washington, DC, area. “Buyers don’t want to find out that what they thought was one random cockroach is, in reality, a massive infestation.”
Pests are inevitably drawn to the kitchen. But if you’re fighting the good fight, hide the evidence while showing your home. Stow away traps, poison, and bug sprays. Even better? Complete your campaign against the little critters before you open your kitchen to the public.
7. Neglected appliances
Nashville, TN, broker Leneiva Head admits that her clients make a beeline to the kitchen of any house they’re interested in. What they want to see the most? The appliances—specifically, the inside of them.
“They equate a clean oven with the level of care the owner gives to their home,” she explains.
Many buyers will even pull out the refrigerator or lift the stovetop, warns Bruce Ailion, an agent with Re/Max in Atlanta.
“A filthy home is a turn-off for all but investors,” Ailion cautions.
Don’t have the fortitude to clean your refrigerator coils or scrape old marinara off the inside of your microwave door? Hire a professional crew. That will ensure all your appliances get the deep clean they—and your potential buyers—deserve.
Stephanie Booth’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Real Simple, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Psychology Today. Follow @stephanieBbarth