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Sellers and Realtors Working Together May Make More Homes Smoke-free and Easier to Sell, Drexel Study Says

November 30 2020

Sellers and Realtors Working Together May Make More Homes Smoke-free and Easier to Sell

Even in a strong market, tobacco smoke residue in a home may discourage buyers from considering a property, according to a survey of 329 realtors in four Philadelphia-area counties published this month in the journal Tobacco Regulatory Science.

This smoke residue, also known as third-hand smoke, can cause lingering odor and discoloration that can remain for weeks or months on walls, carpets and other surfaces — long after a cigarette is extinguished. Third-hand smoke chemicals can also be reemitted inside and attach themselves to aerosol particles, a 2018 Drexel College of Engineering study found.

The 2019 online survey showed that nearly all realtors (96%) reported experiencing greater difficulty selling a house where smoking takes place. Growing data on long-term effects of third-hand smoke on health links exposure to third hand smoke with potential for increased cancer risk and damage to DNA.

The findings come as demand for homes is at record levels, driven by more Americans working from home during the pandemic, and economic stimulus efforts keeping mortgage interest rates low. United States home sales are up 4.3%, the fifth consecutive month of rising sales, but that leaves a shortage of homes for sale –  a total of 1.42 million available units were available at the end of October (down 19.8% from a year ago), according to a report last week from the National Association of Realtors.

The study also found that many realtors are receptive to requiring sellers to disclose history of tobacco use in the house before sale. This would be similar to current requirements that sellers disclose hazardous conditions, such as radon, carbon monoxide and lead-based paint, that have been detected in the house. Among those surveyed, 27% see a requirement like this as positive, 53% predicting a mixed impact, and only 20% viewing it as negative. 

“Realtors are uniquely positioned to educate buyers and sellers on the health benefits of smoke-free home,” said the study’s lead author Ann Carroll Klassen, PhD, a professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health. “Preparing a home for sale could be a teachable moment for smokers, and an untapped tobacco control opportunity. We know that establishing a smoke-free home protects everyone’s health, but is also an important first step towards successful quitting.”

Realtors in favor of requiring sellers to disclose tobacco use most commonly cited convenience, as it allowed them to avoid showing homes to buyers when they would not be a good fit. They also noted the health benefits for buyers and their families. They also said the information helped buyers make an informed decision about buying their future home. Those who see the disclosure as a negative most commonly reported that disclosure of tobacco use during sales shames sellers for a personal choice they made on private property, and such a requirement reduces foot traffic for sellers, with fewer potential buyers looking at the property.

“Creating a tobacco-free home prevents exposure to toxic chemicals that are found in tobacco products and promotes healthy living,” said co-author Muna Tefferi, of the Philadelphia Department of Health. “The study indicates that prospective buyers have strong preference for smoke-free homes, which can be another incentive for homeowners, condominium associations, and multiunit housing managers to keep their homes and units free from tobacco smoke.”

The authors’ responses drew from Philadelphia and three surrounding counties, with varying rates of tobacco use, but may not be representative of responses in another region. In Philadelphia, less than 20% of adults smoke, therefore the probability of a potential home buyer preferring a smoke-free home is extremely high. Also, researchers did not ask respondents demographic questions or about their personal tobacco use.

Exposure science should continue, the researchers note, to build evidence regarding harm associated with varying levels of exposure to third-hand smoke, as well as the effectiveness of different strategies to remove third-hand smoke residue (washing or painting surfaces, removing carpets, etc.). In the meantime, disclosure gives home buyers additional information to consider when making this important purchase. 

Funding for this project came from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and its Master Settlement Agreement funding to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, as well as the General Fund of the City of Philadelphia.

In addition to Klassen and Tefferi, authors include Nora Lee, PhD, Jessica P. Lopez and Chloe Bernardin of Dornsife School of Public Health, and Ryan Coffman of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.