Aine McCarthy’s house had been on the market for 18 months and while she had a succession of viewings and even a couple of tentative offers, for one reason or another, no-one seemed to want to sign on the dotted line.
So McCarthy decided that she was going to have to try another tactic and ignoring her husband who didn’t believe anyone would be swayed by a ‘staged’ house, the Dublin woman set about creating the perfect homely environment to try and entice a buyer for their three-bedroom family home.
"Our house was in a nice area and we had plenty of people interested enough to come and view it, some more than once, but we just couldn’t secure a sale," she says.
"I had heard that homely smells and nice touches can make a world of difference when it comes to getting a sale through so decided to give it a try. My husband John thought it was pointless, but I decided there was nothing to lose and so before viewings I had a pot of coffee brewing and a tray of scones freshly baked and cooling on a wire rack."
"I also put flowers in the rooms along with scented candles and had the fire burning in the sitting room with the lamps on instead of the main light – even John thought it looked lovely."
McCarthy, who has two teenage children, says taking the time to look at her home with an objective eye really made a difference to its saleability.
"We all rush around our houses every day and even relax in them without really seeing what we have built around us," she says. "I made a conscious effort to look at everything as if I was seeing it for the first time and added a few touches which I thought would make it seem more homely."
The knock-on effects were immediate. On the next viewing, McCarthy’s home attracted real interest.
"Perhaps it was coincidental but the viewers asked for a second visit a week later, and two weeks after that we had agreed on a price. It may have been nothing to do with my beautifully arranged flowers or my fresh batch of buns, but I secretly think this is what sealed the deal – I made my house look like a home and this appealed to someone who was looking for a home for their family."
Psychologist Peadar Maxwell says creating that homely feel can affect how people see a potential future home. Baking in particular can be a good method as smell is "embedded in our memory."
"Our liking of certain smells is thought to be based on our experience of that smell," says Maxwell, referring to a 2014 study by Brown University which found that the "neural wiring map between the nose and the brain" is established from a young age.
"So different people can love or hate the same smell which can awaken a nice or not-so-nice memory. But there are some smells that most people are positive towards and they tend to include food, cooking or garden scents – so a house filled with the aroma of freshly cut sweet pea or baking might cause us to associate the house with nice, comforting thoughts and images."
However, beware of overkill. A 2013 survey carried out by Washington State University found that overdoing it on the scent front can confuse home hunters. So, don’t fill your house with a mix of pot pourri, baking and herbs and keep the buyers guessing about he smell. Instead, keep it simple and go for one sort of smell.
Although these little changes may seem trivial in the grand scheme of buying a house, they can be enough to awaken feelings of pleasure amongst potential buyers which may encourage them towards a sale.
"Buying a home comes with far more emotional weight than any other investment we will make in our lives," says clinical psychologist Deirdre O’Donnell. "Potential buyers are looking at huge financial commitments straight up, with a large time frame and many years of their lives to make repayments. Therefore they have to ‘get it right’".
A 2013 psychology of house hunting report in Canada found that 80% of potential buyers know if they will buy a property "as soon as they step over the threshold." First impressions count so how you prepare your home ahead of viewings could determine if it sells or not, according to O’Donnell.
"If someone fails to make a good impression on us in the first few minutes, the likelihood is we won’t develop a strong connection with them. So if someone who is buying a house disconnects with the space within the first few minutes, it is going to be difficult for them to change their minds later on."
O’Donnell adds that staging properties has been an effective sales tool employed by sellers over the years.
"Research has shown that our sense of smell is widely considered to be our most emotionally charged sense and that we immediately get ‘a feeling’ when we smell something - so having the smell of freshly brewed coffee or newly baked bread wafting about a house when potential buyers call, may sound odd but it can impress them and make them feel welcomed and more relaxed. Similarly, a fresh smell of polish or scented candles can be equally as impressive."
But there is more to buying than the influence of smells, says O’Donnell, a Clare-based psychologist. Staging also needs to involve the visual, she says.
"Many potential buyers want to visualise their space and feel a strong connection with it. This could be garden where they can de-stress from busy lifestyles or a space they can put their own stamp on. Some house buyers are immediately put off if they are over stimulated by the paint and textile colours used by the present occupants and the thought of having to repaint and refurbish can be too much. Similarly, being met by an untidy, unkempt interior can be an immediate negative for many buyers - hence, the importance of neutral clean spaces which allows the creative mind to come into play."
Estate agent Brian McMahon, who runs the Ennis-based Brian McMahon & Daughters, agrees and says there are many aspects which can help to influence a potential buyer.
"It’s important to paint the property in as positive a light as possible," he advises. "There is really something magical about walking into a house on a winter’s evening and seeing a roaring fire in the grate, and everyone is swayed to some degree by this."
"The preparation for the sale starts at the front gate, and particularly at this time of year garden maintenance is a must - so out with the pressure washer and clean off those mossy paths, empty those gutters and wash those grimy windows. It’s probably a little early for full external painting but a lick to the front door, window sills and plinths creates the right impression and won’t cost the earth."
A book is often judged on its cover so the property expert says a clean, tidy house will make people feel more relaxed and at home.
"Keep colours as neutral as possible, whites and creams may be boring but they maximise available light in our sun-deprived island," he says. "Floor coverings and carpets should be cleaned and if very worn you should consider replacing."
"Most of us live amongst a certain amount of clutter and this is one of the essential things to look at when selling. So get rid of all unnecessary items of furniture, ornaments and books but try not to cram them all into the built-in wardrobes as viewers will probably have a sneak peek and wind up buried under a pile of clothes."
But staged or not, certain properties can just ‘feel right’ to an individual, says Maxwell.
"Taste in homes is as varied as the number of potential buyers," he says. "Where one person sees character another sees maintenance. Where one sees bright, bold and modern another is left feeling cold. Often it is to do with our memories of our previous homes or maybe grandparents’ homes or our common sense versus romanticism ratio."
"In other words we may approach a potential home as having to make sense or as a project to be lovingly restored."
This article was first published in The Sunday Times in partnership with Bank of Ireland. Publication of this article is not seen as an endorsement of the content by Bank of Ireland.