Clients' Pets: Animal Angst

May 1, 2006

Judy Moses, ABR®, CRS®, broker-owner with Pathway Home Realty Group Inc. in Chestnut Hill, Mass., learned the hard way that pets can be a liability: A customer insisted that her lovable standard poodle, Hershey, be left inside the house during showings. She didn’t want him in the garage because of chemicals there, and she didn’t want him in the yard in case someone inadvertently opened the gate.

Hershey bit a prospect’s child. “Fortunately, the bite wasn’t serious, but it still resulted in a lawsuit,” says Moses. “After the incident, the seller said, ‘Hershey doesn’t like children.’ I wish she’d told me that before the open house!”

Pets shower their owners with love and dutifully guard their humans’ domain, but their barking, hissing, jumping, biting, and smells can put off even the most intrepid animal-loving home buyer.

Jodi Keiter-Wilson, a broker-associate with RE/MAX Alliance in Westminster, Colo., worked with buyer clients who bought a house despite strong pet odors, because the sellers promised to clean the problem carpeting. “The smell had disappeared when they moved in, but it soon returned,” Keiter-Wilson says. The buyers then asked the sellers to pay to replace the carpet, but they refused.

Only after her buyers installed new carpeting at their own expense and sent several letters from a lawyer requesting reimbursement was the matter resolved in their favor.

Holly Janney, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty Cityside in Atlanta, found that despite relentless pleas, her clients wouldn’t remove their rottweiler, Bruno, from the premises.

“They thought they were being cooperative by putting him in a nearby boat garage when buyers visited. But he didn’t like being there and barked and knocked against the door when people came through the house,” Janney says. Many buyers were so intimidated they couldn’t focus on the home’s features, she says. After three months, more than 50 showings, and no offers, the owners took their house off the market.

When you encounter obstinate animal lovers, be prepared to help clients understand that your motivation is to sell the listing and ensure their pets’ mental and physical safety and happiness, says veterinarian Bernadine Cruz, author of The Secret Sex Life of Dogs and Cats(Angel City Press, 2005).

“Pets don’t like change,” she says. “They may not be used to being around a lot of people except the extended family, so new noises, smells, and visitors can prove disruptive to them,” says Cruz.

Avoid problems by encouraging pet owners to:

Clean up thoroughly. Remind customers who fail to clean the litter box or whose animal has repeatedly soiled carpeting or floors: We can’t sell it if we can smell it.

“Most clients are impressed when you tell them they need to do something, since they’re paying for your advice,” says Bill Golden, GRI, a sales associate with RE/MAX Greater Atlanta. When one client had a very old dog that smelled terrible, Golden gently suggested his client bathe the dog and clean the dog’s bedding more frequently. The home sold.

You also might need to recommend that clients vacuum carpets, furniture, and walls that animals brush against; try a variety of room deodorizers or candles to see what works best; open windows periodically to let in fresh air; and ask an objective third party to do a sniff test.

If smells remain, suggest homeowners hire a professional cleaning service or replace the carpeting and pad underneath. Animal scratches can be removed from wood surfaces with fine sandpaper, then touched up with filler (usually sawdust and a bonding agent), says Don Bachmann, a contractor in St. Louis. In the worst cases—when urine has seeped into a floor or baseboard—tell homeowners they may need the section sanded and stained or replaced, says Kent Smith, owner of Ozark Oak Flooring Inc. in Valley Park, Mo.

Remove the pet. Simply keeping a pet behind a closed door isn’t enough. Buyers won’t heed a note on a door that says “Don’t open,” says Cruz. “Someone who wants to take a peek in a room may give a cat or a dog enough time to scoot out,” she says. Also pets that aren’t used to being confined could destroy furnishings or hurt themselves.

A better solution is for sellers to take their animal off-site or place the pet in animal daycare, particularly if there are successive showings. When those options aren’t feasible, suggest that sellers place the pet in a suitably sized crate or a cage from where it can see and hear a TV tuned to an animal show, says Cruz.

Finally, be sure customers or colleagues aren’t concealing a pet’s presence, thinking it won’t be discovered. Jeff and Grace Safrin of F.C. Tucker/Northwest Indiana, REALTORS®, in Valparaiso, Ind., had no idea that an alligator lurked in the cellar of a farmhouse they were showing. After Jeff groped in the dark for the light, the couple and their customer were shocked to find a pet alligator. “Fortunately my client made light of the matter and asked if it was included with the sale or listed on the disclosure,” he says.

For those just-in-case times when Captain Hook slithers forth or Fido leaps out, follow your postal carrier’s example and bring along treats, Moses suggests.

Have a Plan B. If you’re extremely frustrated that your advice isn’t being heeded, explain once more what you think needs to happen. Then, invoke Janney’s plan: Just say no. She’s considering not relisting Bruno’s home even though his owners talked to her about putting the house back on the market. “Bruno is such a psychological barrier. People hear him and are frightened, no matter how nice a dog he is,” she says.

In such situations, Cruz suggests offering customers an out: “Politely say, ‘I’m unable to meet your special needs. Perhaps it’s best if you seek someone else’s help.’ ”

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).