If you are contemplating the purchase of a house previously occupied by tobacco users, you should know about potential problems – including possible health issues – associated with buying a house from smokers. Here are six important things to consider. (For more, see The Real Cost of Smoking.)

Buying a House From Smokers Means Thinking About Health Issues

Health issues arise from the presence of “third-hand smoke.” Third-hand smoke, also known as THS, refers to the sticky residue that contaminates indoor surfaces and contains nicotine and other harmful chemicals. THS can linger for weeks, months or even years if not completely removed, and it can be re-emitted into the air through a process called “off-gassing.” For this reason, if you have smoke allergies you should consult your doctor before buying a house formerly occupied by smokers.

Children and pets are especially vulnerable; in addition to inhaling THS they can ingest it through touching. THS-related health issues include cancer, liver and lung damage, hyperactivity and even insulin resistance that can lead to Type 2 diabetes. 

Also Staining

Although health issues are the biggest concern, the residue left by tobacco smoke produces a yellowish-brown stain on ceilings, walls and floors, in ventilation systems and even on appliances. The stain is very difficult to remove, often requiring lots of scrubbing; special primer and multiple coats of paint are needed on ceilings and walls.

Stains on some surfaces, such as blinds, window covering and carpeting, are frequently so bad that the items need to be discarded and replaced. Residual nicotine can leach through multiple coats of paint, sometimes weeks or months after an area has been treated. 

And Smell

The unpleasant smell of tobacco smoke can linger in a house long after the last cigarette was lit. Smoke particles attach themselves to almost any surface, but especially to soft and porous ones. Attempts to mask or cover up the smell with deodorizers are futile. Most non-smokers entering a house where smokers have lived can detect the odor almost immediately.

It’s important to realize that if you smell the odor of cigarette smoke in the house, it likely means that the carcinogens and stains are still there as well. So, in addition to the repulsive smell, you will continue to discover unsightly stains and – the bigger risk – subject your body to potential health issues. 

Not to Mention Burn Marks

Smokers don’t always use ashtrays. Countertops, carpeting, bathroom vanities and other surfaces can suffer permanent damage when a cigarette is left to slowly burn and eventually scorch the surface upon which it is resting.

If there were smokers in the house, chances are there will be burn marks. Anywhere a smoker spends time is a good candidate for telltale scorching. This includes bathrooms, bedrooms, the kitchen, basement or garage. Carpeting, especially near where a couch or chair has been, could have burn marks or ground-in ashes from an overturned ashtray. 

The Cost of Restoration

Depending on how long smokers lived in the house, you could spend considerable time, effort and money restoring it to pristine condition. If a professional restoration company has to be brought in, the cost could be thousands of dollars.

Even in a best-case scenario, ceilings, walls and floors will have to be scrubbed thoroughly, often repeatedly. After washing, walls and ceilings will likely have to be primed with a stain-covering product and painted with a minimum of two to three coats of fresh paint. Soft or porous items, such as carpet, drapes and blinds, will have to be professionally cleaned. More often than not, those types of items must be discarded and replaced. 

Plus the Effect on Resale Value

A survey of Canadian real estate agents in 2013 indicated that smoking can reduce a home's resale value by nearly 30%. About 88% of real estate agents surveyed said it is more difficult to sell a home previously occupied by smokers. Those same agents said about 27% of their clients will not even consider buying a home in which a smoker has lived. Even if you don’t smoke yourself, the difficulty of eliminating stains and odor coupled with growing concern about THS could mean you will lose money on the eventual sale of your house just because someone before you smoked. (For more, see How to Stage Your Home for a Quick Sale.)

The Bottom Line

Clearly, it’s better to buy a non-smoker's house in the first place. If you discover that the house you are considering is a smoker’s house, you should ask for proof of professional restoration or stipulate that the seller thoroughly clean the house, including replacing carpet and priming and painting all walls and ceilings. You should inspect the house carefully to assure yourself it is in tip-top shape and free of THS, stains and the odor of smoke. If the cleaning and restoration will be up to you, your offer should require a generous allowance for the steps you may need to take to return the house to a clean and healthy state.