Smelly House, Smelly House, It's Not Your Fault...
December 3, 2012 12:03 PM   Subscribe

The family needs to make some decisions about selling my father-in-law's house soon. The problem is, you see, that in it also used to reside as many as 35 cats and 10 dogs at one time. And by that I do mean, at one time, about 30 years ago - not over 30 years.

When I first met my in-laws, they were down to about 15 cats and three dogs from the all-time high during my husband's high school years.

My MIL, when she was alive, tried to stay on top of it and my FIL was hale and hearty and handy too. But then he got sick. Within weeks, without the constant all-day cleaning they'd been doing, came the squalor. We hired Service Master for a disaster clean, and the family worked harder to help them maintain it from there. We had a "no additions" rule for animals. We were able to keep the house almost pleasant on a weekly cleaning schedule. My MIL passed away last year, as did a few of the unhealthy cats. And the attrition rate means that we're now we're at 4 cats (including one incredibly unhealthy 23 year old cat with gastro issues) (no pics - sorry!) and two dogs (one enormous yellow lab, and one thing). Which is almost do-able, if not for their various peeing and gacking issues of all of the elderly and not terribly fit animals. And the fact that now my FIL can't even walk far enough to let the dogs outside.

My FIL is terribly sick, and can't live on his own for much longer - in fact, after last week's trip to the hospital, maybe not again. My husband's sisters and I have been visiting regularly, cleaning and maintaining the house. But the deal is, it still smells. It's stronger when the furnace comes on - the cats have no doubt sprayed onto the air returns over the years (considering one used to love spraying on the burners of the stove...) It's in the furniture and baseboards and in the grout in the only six-year-old basement floor. I fear what's in the crawlspace.

After reading this previous question, and particularly this answer to it, I know that we can't do this work ourselves. I'm already taking a leave from my job to help care for my FIL and will possibly take the dogs, deal with the remaining cats there, and deal with emptying the house and such.

When we have our family meeting about this tomorrow night, my husband and I need to decide how we feel about whether to even attempt to have the house remedied before putting it on the market, or if there's a way to just sell it "as is" to someone who'll flip it. Personally, I'm leaning toward getting everything over with as quickly as possible - the house is paid for; my FIL is moving in with one of my SIL's; money isn't an issue. My husband is the executor, but my SILs don't know that yet. My SILs have said that it might be worth putting money into it to get a higher sale price. We will probably seek advice from a local realtors - but we don't even know what to ask them. What should we ask a realtor? There is a will, and the lawyer that helped my FIL write it - but we're not considering it at this point because my FIL is still alive, and he's considering his kids' wishes.

If it makes a difference, the house is in the "Ben Jungle" (Toronto area) and it's a typical period house that needs other updating in so many ways, beyond the smell - I'm not sure how well the market is doing there compared to where we are downtown.

So, tl;dr: Is it better to sell a former pet hoarder house "as is"? Or should we try to make it as normal and salable as possible? What are the pros and cons for either option? What do we need to consider?
posted by peagood to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you get go back to Service Master or whoever, explain the problem and get a professional recommendation and/or estimate?
posted by easily confused at 12:11 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Now, I have heard of hoarding cases that were so bad that the whole house had to be stripped down to the studs to get rid of the odor. I'm assuming that this is not the case here and that most of the damage is to the floors. I'd say, depending on the extent of it, you should try to fix it up before you sell. If it's simply a matter of pulling up carpets/vinyl linoleum and replacing some of the plywood sections of the subfloor, the cost might be pretty managable. Hardwood floor damage however, would be a lot more expensive to repair/replace but could still be doable. It's be a good idea to talk to some DIY-loving friends to see what work they think that you could reasonably do your yourself.
posted by echolalia67 at 12:16 PM on December 3, 2012

You're in a healthy real estate market. That said, it's time to do the math. Call a realtor and have a professional appraise the situation.

For sure, any carpeting may need to be pulled up (probably revealing trashed wood floors.)

I would also pay for a professional inspection, this will uncover any unpleasant surprises (lead pipes, knob and tube electrical work, unpermitted additions, etc.)

Once you have this information, you can decide how you want to handle it.

If things are relatively minor, such that deep cleaning, new carpeting, etc will tart it up, putting a couple thousand into the home could yield a decent return. Sure, you may still have ugly paneling, cabinetry and small closets, but those are the kinds of projects that DIYers enjoy and it won't put them off the house too much.

If it turns out MAJOR issues are at hand, like needing to rewire, massive pipe leakage, replacement of the furnace, etc. It's time to put it on the market AS IS (show prospective buyers your inspection) and price accordingly.

The last thing anyone needs at this stage of the game is to have reno ulcers on top of sick people, pets, and moving ulcers.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:19 PM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, after pulling up carpet, vinyl, etc.. If the subfloor isn't beyond repair, several layers of Killz before the new floors go in will help. I would definitely say do something to repair before selling.
posted by pearlybob at 12:21 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My parents bought a pet hoarder house back in the 80s. Then my Dad decided to save money by pulling the carpeting ourselves. I may never get that smell out of memory. It's a simple math comparison. It'll be easier to sell the house cleaned up, and you'll get more for it. Factor in the cost of the professional clean up, which will probably require a complete interior paint job, factor in how much headache you are willing to deal with getting it done, and compare that to what your real estate agent says you can get for it dumping it as it.
posted by COD at 12:21 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a last resort, teardown lots are getting decent money in my neighbourhood of Kennedy Park. I'd guess that the Bendale houses are about the same age.
posted by scruss at 12:50 PM on December 3, 2012

Enzymes baby enzymes. Crime scene and other professional cleaning companies often use enzyme based cleaning products to eliminate odor causes. Look up Crime scene cleanup in the Yellow pages or call the local cops and ask for a referral.

As far as selling the house goes, IANYL, but you should talk to an elderly law specialist to be sure that selling the house won't trigger all sorts of payments toward your FIL's care. I know you are in CDN, but in USA a sale of an elder's home, especially if the elder is receiving Medicare/medicaid would set off all sorts of alarms with the IRS.
posted by Gungho at 12:53 PM on December 3, 2012

You say that your husband is the executor, implying that he has final say over what happens with the house, even now while your FIL is still alive. But I do not think that is what is meant by "executor." It is my understanding that an executor's role only comes into effect after a person is deceased, and then, the executor's role is only to see that the deceased's will is executed.

I am certainly not a lawyer (and this is SO not legal advice), but I think you might want to consult one to be certain of exactly what role your husband has legally, at this point, and going forward, with regards to decisions about your FIL's property and care. Questions you might want to ask are, Does FIL have someone appointed to have Power of Attorney or Healthcare Power of Attorney* in case he is incapacitated? Who has the legal right to sell the house on behalf of FIL before he dies? After he dies? After he dies, is that right limited to the executor, or is that right held in common by all the heirs of the estate?

Those are the questions I'd be asking if I were in your position.

*Terms for these roles may be different in your area.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:39 PM on December 3, 2012

(And I hope that you are all able to find a smooth way through this difficult time. I'll be thinking of you.)
posted by ocherdraco at 1:41 PM on December 3, 2012

I don't know how effective it would be on the prolonged/extensive exposures in this case, but I'll second enzymatic cleansers. It would be worth trying out in one room, anyway. Alden Odor Solutions is pretty amazing stuff. (I have no affiliation with the company etc. etc. - just a very happy customer. Their stuff is used a lot by dog breeders and handlers, who tend to have lots of dogs, and subsequently lots of messes, to clean up.)
posted by usonian at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2012

Oh dear. Call in a real estate agent to give you some advice on what needs to be done to get the best price for the least amount of effort/cost/headache on your part.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 2:04 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could use a UV flash-light to find out just how bad the pet stains are. They are also useful if you like to make your Gin and tonics fluoresce, or for hunting scorpions. Anyway, it's a pretty inexpensive way to begin assessing to problem.
posted by annsunny at 2:18 PM on December 3, 2012

Thanks everyone, very much.

I'm still afraid if we go to a lot of trouble to fix it up, the return won't be worth the months of stress of doing what amounts to a quick flip. We're not professional house-flippers - just three busy families who don't need a project, but have to figure this out. And is there a guarantee that we can get the stink out doing that? What if we do all that, and there's still a whiff of cat?! This is quite possibly a house that was never quite TV show Hoarders-disgusting (though it was never pristine), but which had cats thoroughly abuse it. It's not gross - it's just that...that...that cat smell that gets so many other Ask questions.

We have always used enzymatic cleaners - it's beyond the surfaces. There used to be sheet metal guards my FIL built to surround things keep cats from peeing on things like the broiler and the fridge's rubber gaskets. The smell is in everything. All of the furniture will have to go, and in the basement I can see all along the walls that there's been spray over time. The grout's seal has long been eaten way, and it's in the ceramic floors. There's a whole tool room in the basement that hasn't been touched in years, and it's all raw wood... The floors have been built around wooden closets that have been sprayed, so we'd have to re-build closets in the basement if we don't have to replace the ceramic tile. We've enzymed and steam cleaned and painted before, but when it seeps between the wall and the baseboards...

There is money to do whatever we decide to do as a family. We have had one disaster/crime scene clean up already, with steaming and washing every inch of the house with special cleaners, and that was about $1500 and it was reasonable for what they had to do. That still did not get rid of all of the smell, and of course, more has been added since. It's a 3-bedroom split, and we know that the hardwood upstairs, the engineered floors downstairs, the kitchen and basement tile all need to be replaced, and possibly the subfloors treated and baseboards definitely replaced. The bathroom was last updated in the 80's - it's mauve, but it's the least smelly room. The walls throughout will no doubt need Killz and re-painting. The kitchen cupboards were homes to cats, so they likely need gutting too. We'll have an inspector before whatever we do.

Our cousin actually works for such a company, so we know who we'd call to do it. Each family member has a real estate agent to get advice from, so we will, and compare notes. Our FIL's lawyer would happily meet with us, but we're not at that stage yet. At the hospital, during my MIL's passing and during his episode last week, we're all there for all decisions. He's told none of us who's named for what - we're just all in a room working it out. We all get along, but nobody's had to pull rank yet. I will ask the specific questions though, and thanks ocherdraco.

But has anybody done this? Is there anything we could miss?
posted by peagood at 4:49 PM on December 3, 2012

The smell is likely to have penetrated the drywall and the flooring. You won't be able to get the smell out by cleaning.

As I see it you have only three real choices:
1) Sell as is. This will mean a significant discount but not as much as if the house had been condemned or had serious structural problems. There are quite a few people out there looking for just this sort of fixer upper because it can be lived in while making renovations room by room. You'd still have to clean as well as you can to minimize the discount.

2) Gut the house and install all new insulation, flooring, gyproc, paint, cabinets in kitchen and bathroom, possibly windows if wood framed, furnace. Probably update the wiring considering the walls are exposed. Usually this sort of work doesn't return the investment unless you are putting in all the labour yourself.

3) Tear down the house and build a new one. Or sell as a tear down. This is similar to 1 but with a deeper discount though you'd have to do zero prep work.

I've done 1 a couple times including a house that I had to jack up to replace the sill on 70% of the perimeter. It's a lot of work.
posted by Mitheral at 8:04 PM on December 3, 2012

My grandparents live in Bendale and I am pretty familar with the area. The neighbourhood has not really begun any large scale tear down and rebulds like the surrounding areas. Most of the homes are smaller side splits without garages so the renovated homes don't seem to be selling at sky high prices. Also the neighbourhood gives the feeling that there is a pretty firm price cap on housing values. I would consult a realtor for an expert opinion but my gut is that you should go for a good cleaning and maybe a couple fresh coats of Kilz paint to help prevent the total lowball offers and so that it looks like someone cares (at least a bit) about the house. I would be inclined to sell low for someone else to do the renovation work as I don't think there are huge profits to be made by your family.

There are several home models and some of the little pockets can be quite different then the rest of Bendale so maybe your FIL's house is not at all like I think. Have the realtor pull comps and go from there. But given the extent of the smell and damage I think you are looking at all new floors (and likely subfloor), baseboards and cabinets just for starters. Unless your FIL has done recent renovations most of the homes are at new roof and windows time too.
posted by saradarlin at 12:59 AM on December 4, 2012

And is there a guarantee that we can get the stink out doing that?

My wife does real estate appraisals. I get to accompany her on the dodgy ones (foreclosures, anything sitting vacant for any length of time, anything really trashed). I've seen a few houses that made for wonderful before-and-afters. But all of the afters, no matter how clean they were, still had an undercurrent of mold/cat piss/general wrongness. And my mother-in-law, in her 20-odd years as a realtor, saw the exact same thing.

There's nothing you can do to restore this house. I'm sorry, I know it's got an incredible amount of sentimental value, but that's exactly why your husband needs to walk away. By all means, contact a professional cleaner/house restoration company for their appraisal, but get someone dispassionate to look at that appraisal.

It's okay if he doesn't want to dump your limited resources into this house. It's okay to let it go the way it is. Your sisters-in-law are the ones suggesting renovation? Then they can be the ones to take the risk of investing money that I can tell you they'll be lucky to even make back.
posted by disconnect at 8:29 AM on December 4, 2012

Thanks, all, again. The last three answers are kind of what I need to bring to the table too. We've postponed the meeting until the weekend, due to illness. This will give me time to consult realtors too.

saradarlin, you have described it exactly. There are new windows and doors and everything is well-maintained. I think the roof is good for quite a few more years. Nothing was done on the cheap. My FIL was an electrical engineer and used to be very handy and thorough, and spent his retirement years on improvements. And he's sad, because he knows the animals have "done a number" on the house - but he and his wife loved them and that was their life together. If you were to look at a picture of the house, you'd see a pretty tidy old person's house with lots of ceramic animal tchotckes and slipcovered furniture, the walls in 90's paint colours. There's nothing gross to look at it, but if it were a scratch-n-sniff, you'd recoil from it because the cat odor has impregnated it.

disconnect, your answer is not what I was fishing for - I'd love to hear success stories - but because it's not about the money to do it, but the reserves within us, I will continue to support my husband in urging his sisters to do nothing major, and value time and energy more. It's really helpful to hear what happens as an end result.

We'll probably empty it, employ a company to do a major cleaning again, and repainting with Killz try to sell it without huge amounts of renovation. Thanks everyone.
posted by peagood at 1:34 PM on December 4, 2012

My family inherited a house in a downtown Toronto west-end neighbourhood a couple years ago and it took 2+ months to de-mold the basement, paint all the walls really nicely, put on a new roof and install new carpet. It was my first time doing such a thing, but it was my main gig for those two months and I'm not convinced we increased the house value substantially more than we paid for improvements. Having said that, it was still worth doing because it meant we felt like we'd done all we could to improve the asset before selling it and that made the whole family feel happier about the sale.

Since then a couple of friends have turned to realtors to help them prep their homes for sale and in other downtown neighbourhoods, and I've realized a slightly less expensive set if finishes would have been cheaper & likely just as good. I've also witnessed from a distance another set of 3 siblings go through this, and it has took them 6 months to get a decently cared for Scarborough home sale ready and it was alternate weekends all summer long to empty clean & paint.

Lessons for you from this?
1) it is work
2) it might be worth it to maintain family harmony

BUT you don't necessarily have to coordinate it yourselves,
Coordinators for those sort of work abound in Toronto - not just interior decorators and house stages, but professional organizers, or elder move specialists, or just personal assistants can be hired to do everything from research flooring options to let contractors in.

Bottom line? I would totally take it on, but only if I could hire coordinating help. MeMail for specific referrals if you'd like
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 3:35 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

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