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What's that Smell?

Secondhand smells emanating from pets, cooking, cigarettes, renovations and even garbage can waft up, down and sideways among apartments (and occasionally town houses), sometimes hanging in one place — most objectionably, one’s own — like a stifling August afternoon.

Indeed, summer can be rankest of all: people are understandably reluctant to open their windows, while odors seem to cling to the humidity like sweat to the backseat of a taxi.

But many apartment dwellers believe — incorrectly, in many cases — that tainted air is an unavoidable price of living on top of one’s neighbors. They hesitate over whether complaining to, or about, the perpetrator is an invasion of a neighbor’s privacy. Even when the issue is toxic secondhand smoke, affected neighbors are unsure whether they have the right — legally, neighborly or ethically — to insist on their own clean air.

“I feel like it’s hopeless,” said Susan Stewart, a book promoter for Monteiro & Company in Manhattan and an actress in her 20’s “exasperated” by the cigarette smoke from two downstairs apartments. The smell pollutes the den and master bedroom of the three-bedroom co-op she shares with her boyfriend, Seth Berkowitz, a 29-year-old film restorer and musician, in Jackson Heights, Queens.

“Usually on weekends when I’m sleeping in, I have the window open and get to wake up to the fresh smell of cigarettes,” said Ms. Stewart, a former smoker herself.

Although her friendly neighbors agreed to her request several years ago either to stop smoking or do it in a different part of the apartment, nothing has changed, and Ms. Stewart believes she has run out of options.

Jacqueline A. Weiss, a lawyer who runs the New York real estate department of the law firm of Baker Hostetler, is also a former board president of her building who has mediated disputes over smells in her own West End Avenue building. “Notwithstanding the fact that in New York everyone likes to complain about everything,” she said, “as New Yorkers, we’re just not accustomed to having complete privacy in our ear-space, our sightline and our nose-space.”

Darren Sukenik, a senior vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman, agreed. “It’s very common that in a 200-unit building, you’re going to have something smelling somewhere.” Still, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. “We don’t let our cats and dogs run around our halls,” he said. “Why should we let our veal chops?”

Managing agents and the lawyers who advise landlords, co-op and condominium boards report an increase in complaints about secondhand smoke, although noise complaints continue to trump nose-related ones.

Stuart M. Saft, a real estate lawyer at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz in Manhattan, says his firm hears smoking complaints two to three times a month, on average. Cooking odors, on the other hand, arise only half a dozen times a year. The firm represents about 300 of the city’s co-ops and condos.

In February, New York City’s 311 phone line began to track calls about secondhand smoke drifting among neighbors; the mayor’s office reports that the calls average 96 a month. But the 311 line will not refer the aggrieved to an agency, because the city doesn’t regulate smoking at home.

And unless you are willing to wear an activated-charcoal respirator, “there’s no single magic bullet for any odor,” said Pamela Dalton, a research scientist with Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

But because the nose can so quickly become used to odors — older noses work less adeptly — the perpetrator may not know that he or she may be causing a stink. (Consider this unnerving fact: about 75 percent of the so-called musty odor that greets you upon returning from vacation is what visitors always smell, Dr. Dalton said.)

When dealing with offensive odors, a friendly conversation may prove effective — like encouraging opening a window or installing some other form of ventilation — while preserving neighborly relations. Residents who continue to be afflicted by uninvited aromas (oil-based primer, anyone?) are entitled to ask the landlord or co-op board to remediate. (The rights of condo owners may be somewhat different.)

Since odors often travel through pipe shafts, ventilation ducts, electrical outlets and holes or cracks in the walls, remediation typically begins with sealing up dwellings “especially in older buildings without central air-conditioning,” Mr. Saft said.

“In one building we found holes behind the medicine cabinet,” he said.

Tenements and brownstones built in the 18th and 19th centuries have thinner walls than their larger and more glorious prewar kin near Central Park, for instance, and may be particularly vulnerable and porous, said Arthur I. Weinstein, a co-op lawyer and the vice president of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums. Postwar buildings, on the other hand, frequently share common ventilation and may suffer from sloppy construction.

With some central ventilation systems, a specialist may try to plug unused airspace with a foam that hardens, similar to a substance used to provide extra insulation. Other buildings may benefit by changing the main filter (though one managing agent disputed the effectiveness).

In addition, said Mark V. Martinez, president of Interior Management, a large Manhattan contractor, “a lot of these old and newer buildings have a central ventilation system for all bath and kitchen systems with a huge fan on the roof pulling air from all of the apartments out — and a lot of times these things just don’t work.”

If your building has one, he said, “you would see a grill in the ceiling but no switch for it. You could test it by putting a tissue on it and see if it holds up.” An engineer can fix it.

Smells frequently snake through hallways. An elevator shaft can act as the Typhoid Mary of unpleasant aromas, sucking them up and distributing them throughout the building’s byways, for instance, or a fish-frying neighbor may prop open a front door. “Sealing the door works pretty well,” said Mr. Martinez, so long as the door is closed. A type of weatherstripping installed by a carpenter can be aesthetically discreet and make it close to airtight.

Smokers can be prevailed upon to light up in a different room, or install air purifiers with charcoal filters. Of course, some offenders require prodding.

“You can tell them it’s bothering their neighbors, and it’s offensive, and that they have to take some action,” said Paul J. Herman, the executive vice president for Brown Harris Stevens Residential Management, which manages 145 high-end co-ops and condos in Manhattan. “After some letter writing, smokers do tend to be cooperative.”

Ms. Weiss, the real estate lawyer and former board president, recalled successfully addressing a problem of smoke drifting from one apartment. “We debated what to do,” she said, citing a resident’s right to live freely within a dwelling. “We sent the super to smell and some of us went to the hall and sniffed and agreed it was rather strong. We knocked on the door and asked them to smoke on the other side of the apartment where there were no adjoining walls” and to put air filters near the door.

Among cooking aromas, Dr. Dalton said, the worst involve sulfur-rich vegetables like garlic, onions, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus. Also, she said, “fresh fish doesn’t smell, but when it is cooked, it contains chemical compounds giving it a characteristically fishy odor.”

With cooking, proper ventilation can be more important than sealing up dwellings. The best solution is a fan that vents to the outside, though that may be impossible because of building rules, historical preservation laws or the layout or placement of the kitchen.

Many open-plan kitchens dropped into the middle of today’s loftlike condos — in lot-locked buildings with windows only in the front and back — may inadequately provide for outside ventilation from the stove.

But architects and others who work on new buildings contend that secondhand smells are rarely much of a problem, given the attention paid to sealing up modern apartments against mold, leaks and energy loss.

Also, “keep in mind that a lot of people in New York love the showcase kitchens, but there isn’t really a tremendous amount of cooking that goes down there,” said Andrew Gerringer, the managing director and head of new development projects at Prudential Douglas Elliman.

Grills mounted on the wall drawing air out are another fine alternative, said David Mandl, the president of Meltzer/Mandl Architects in Manhattan. So are hoods fitted with charcoal filters — so long as the filters are changed regularly. Far less effective are hoods that simply recirculate air. Both types are common in lower-priced new construction, though anyone spending more than $1,200 a square foot should demand better, Mr. Mandl said. “For what these people are paying, they better not be smelling their neighbor’s fish for dinner,” he said.

And then there is a do-it-yourself method as old as windows themselves: creating a draft through cross-ventilation. One method is to lower the top of a double-hung window in one area of the apartment and the bottom of another in an opposite area, creating a draft and speeding air replacement.

Brokers say secondhand odors “can impact the sale and value of an apartment because first impressions are so important,” said Alexandra Bellak, an associate saleswoman at Prudential Douglas Elliman.

For Samantha Kleier Forbes, a broker and a vice president at Gumley Haft Kleier, “the best smell is no smell.” She recalled the $4.5 million Park Avenue sale she lost after her buyers realized that an elderly neighbor in the white-glove building frequently cooked fish, Brussels sprouts and cabbage with the door to the hallway open.

Some brokers’ solutions are more temporary than others.

Toni D. Haber, an executive vice president with Prudential Douglas Elliman, recommended “anything from a candle to air freshener to professional cleaning, including the carpets, to even painting.”

As for which secondhand odors downgrade an apartment’s appeal the most, “cigarette smoke is the kiss of death,” said June Iseman, a vice president and broker at Stribling & Associates.

Mr. Sukenik of Prudential Douglas Elliman, said, “Cigarette smoking and cats are big.”

(Scientifically speaking, Dr. Dalton said, cat urine is more offensive than dog urine because of the greater amount of sulfur, which is “easily airborne, very volatile, and humans have an incredibly good sensitivity for detecting.”)

Even as sellers should swallow their pride or confront their ignorance by asking their broker whether their apartment stinks, buyers can do some detective work of their own, because secondhand odors can materialize erratically.

A major problem will probably be discussed by the board and therefore emerge in its minutes, said Michael Messi, a Manhattan real estate lawyer with Swidler & Messi. “It’s caveat emptor here in New York,” said Mr. Messi, whose clients realized after closing that secondhand smoke was filtering up through floor vents. The couple were forced to rip out the floor vents to block the smell from leaking into their Brooklyn co-op.

Other red flags include “anything that’s an attempt to mask an odor, whether it’s those electric fans that send out scented oil, or potpourri or fancy candles actually lit and burning,” said Julie Friedman, a senior associate broker with Bellmarc Realty.

Access restricted to a certain time of day is another cue, she said, recalling the Upper East Side co-op that allowed her clients to visit only at midmorning and then again in the late afternoon.

“It turned out the broker was working around the fish schedule” of the fishmonger downstairs that was accepting its deliveries and preparing foods when prospective buyers were banned, Ms. Friedman said.

Sometimes it comes down to finding the right buyer, like one attracted to the aroma of roasting chicken, or the young cigar smoker in his 30’s who snapped up a one-bedroom two years ago that reeked of cigar smoke from an 80-year-old neighbor, said Daniel Berman, an executive vice president at Bellmarc’s Midtown office.

And then there are neighbors who could not care less about making or fighting over a stink. Ever since her broiler broke two years ago, Toby Leviton, a stay-at-home mom on West 79th Street, fries a cut of kosher meat three or four times a week for her husband, Ira. Her stove has no fan, the pan (which she cheerfully admitted should be replaced) is blackened, and her apartment is overcome by smoke and smell.

“My smoke alarm goes off, I open all the windows, the kids complain, and within half an hour the smoke is pretty much out,” though the smell lingers, she said. It also infiltrates the adjacent apartment of her friend, Adam Potter, the president of Cobis Alliance, whose “complaints” consist of gentle ribbing. Ms. Leviton, 41, said she would stop if asked.

The secondhand odor “maybe lasts an hour and a half,” Mr. Potter said lightly. “At this point you get used to it.”



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Office: 212.727.6111

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140 Franklin St

New York, NY 10013

Office: 212.727.6151

Mobile: 917.699.3229



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