Dear PoP – What to do about Second hand smoke in apartments?

by Prince Of Petworth November 2, 2010 at 10:10 pm 57 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user Bogotron

“Dear PoP,

I recently purchased a condo on the second floor of a small building. The owner of the unit below me smokes, and I can often smell his/her second-hand smoke in my unit. I think the smoke is coming in through either the bathroom or more likely, the area where I have my HVAC system.

The smoke bothers me, and I’m wondering what I can do about it. He/She isn’t smoking in a common area; he’s/she’s in their unit. Our by-laws have a general nuisance provision, but I don’t want to invoke that because he’s/she’s in their property, he’s/she’s lived there for 30 years, and I have a nuisance of my own in the form of a dog that barks when I leave my unit.

I’m wondering whether anyone has tried to seal off cracks in the likely sources of entry, either with insulating tape or silicone. Does this work? Is this pretty easy and something I can do myself? Or do I need to hire someone? How much will this cost? Any recommendations?”

Has anyone lived in a unit where a neighbor smoked? Is there anyway to seal up the apartment. I know someone who rented an apartment that had a no smoking clause but was explicitly told that a long time resident smoked and was allowed to because they were grandfathered in. When you buy a condo, or rent a new place – should it be disclosed if a resident smokes? I can see a slippery slope argument here…

So really two questions – anyway to mitigate the initial situation sent in by a reader? And on a side note – should it be mandatory to reveal if a unit contains a smoker in a condo? In a rental?t

  • Anonymous

    Just curious, why can’t you train the dog not to bark?

    • fz

      how do you train a dog not to bark?

      • Anonymous

        One way is to shower the dog with praise the minute she stops barking, But that’s hard to enforce if she’s doing it when you’re not home.

        You could get a bark collar, but they’re somewhat inhumane.

        There really is no good way to do it.

        • Linds

          Citronella collar. Completely humane, works like a charm.

  • ab

    I don’t have a solution (yet) but, I will say that it is part of city living and part of living in a condo – these are things that you have to deal with and somethings you can’t solve. It is not something that would need to be disclosed. Unless you asked the seller and the seller lied to you…then you might have some kind of case against the seller of the condo (maybe). Even so its not something that is on the seller disclosure statement. I would attend a condo association meeting and bring it up and see what solutions the association may have. You could also bring in an inspector who could potentially determine where it may be coming in. Good luck…that, (pardon my pun) stinks.

  • RD

    you don’t even know the gender of the person that lives below you in your very small building? i’d suggest you go meet that person. then maybe discuss your issues. jesus of nazareth.

    • Prince Of Petworth

      The gender is known. I occasionally change these details to maintain the anonymity of the letter writers.

    • Maybe I am biased from having had bad college roommates and bad shared living situations after school, but how often does talking to someone about their habits actually work?

      It does sometimes, I’ve had that refreshing experience, but it seems like a tiny minority.

      Someone who smokes isn’t going to give up smoking for a neighbor.

      • Anonymous

        And why should they?

        • bland

          why they “should” is irrelevant.

          that they don’t is the reality.

          • anon.

            Why is why they should irrelevant?

        • Second hand smoke hurts other people.

          If you waved a magic wand and second hand smoke harmless, the woman is still smelling an obnoxious odor in her home,which she pays a mortgage on, through no fault of her own.

  • grumpy

    This is a major reason why I hesitate to buy a condo – you never know what kind of noise/smoke/bugs etc might affect you due to the close proximity to your neighbors. If I could find a building that forbids all smoking, has enforced noise policies, and allows cats but not children, I would totally go for it- unfortunately I think I just described a senior citizens home.

    • Word. A condo can easily become the worst of both worlds. The expense of paying for a house and the lack of control over your environment of an apartment.

      • ah

        It can happen with a house, too, with houses so close to each other as in DC.

        Only solution is a houseboat. The great thing is if you don’t like your neighbors you can just pull up the anchor and sail someplace else.

        • Good point, it can even happen out in the burbs if you get a really obnoxious noisy neighbor. Police all over seem to have an aversion to enforcing noise limits.

      • photodork

        They can also become the best of both worlds, the benefits of home ownership without the maintenance and headaches of a single family home.

        • True, and while you neighbors are less likely to move often, then can move and be replaced by someone it is hard to live next to. You are right it can also work out well.

  • Kate

    I have been in this exact situation for about 3 years. I bought my condo and the woman who lives in the unit below me starts every morning with a couple of cigarettes. It is stinky, but you just have to get some febreeze or scented candles and cope. Most mornings I leave before she gets up anyway, so I only really notice on the weekend.

    Don’t try to seal up your apartment. That’s just asking for dust and ickiness. I tried sealing the vent in my bathroom (it seemed like that’s how her smell was getting in), but then the bathroom got a little mildewy because the steam from the shower had no place to go.

    • A fan in front of the vent to blow her smoke back in?

      • ah

        Or ask the neighbor if they’ll run or install a fan. Pay for it if need be.

  • Sarah Lindsey

    That is tough. It probably goes beyond just annoying smells – given the health issues that repeated exposure to second hand smoke can cause.

    I like the idea about getting an expert opinion about physical changes you can make in your apartment. Maybe an air filter as well?

    • +1 to the air filter — if you can figure out where the smoke is coming in, try putting a HEPA filter near by. Certainly can’t hurt…

      • Heather


    • wow

      Really? I’m always skeptical about people who claim grave health issues from smelling smoke. Back when smoking was permitted in bars, the same people that would complain about a whiff of smoke in their apartment were miraculously fine when they went out.

      • Let me guess, you smoke ?

        • Anonymous

          Nope. But I know a few people who do…

      • ah

        You just couldn’t hear them complaining at the bar because they were busy choking.

        • wow

          Ok, but then why would they keep coming back?

  • Maire

    We have the same problem in my building. Some people live next to smokers and it sounds really miserable. We have tried to have discussions but the smokers never chime in or make any attempt to participate in finding a solution.

    It sucks.

  • NewShawNeighbor

    Try burning some really smelly incense and/or steaming old cabbage and blowing it back down the vent to your neighbor. when s/he complains, strike a bargain.

    Better yet, use what my uncle did back in the 60: he was poor, and his rich friends had new Cadillacs and Buicks, “Just smell that new car smell Lewis! Nothing like it! Too bad you’ll always drive a piece of junk that smells like dirt and snap beans”. So we’d go to Monarch Novelties on 14th Street (still there by the way), douse toilet paper with a few drops of “Morning Breeze” joke perfume and hide it under the car seat. “Why Wilmont, your new Cadillac smells like prostitutes have been turning tricks in it, then renting it out to the hobos for a bathroom.” I loved my Uncle Lewis, RIP.

    Send some of THAT your neighbor’s way. It may not solve your problem (and the whole building may call the HAZMAT team, but oh what fun.


    • I wouldn’t endorse anything you wrote in your post, but it made me literally, LOL. Thanks for the belly laugh.

  • LA

    I have the same problem, but I live in an English basement and my landlord (wife) smokes like a smokestack. The only thing I can recommend is an air purifier. As long as the stagnant, smelly air can be sort of confined (i.e. a small bedroom or small living room), crank the purifier to 100% and let it run for at least 10 minutes. They can be loud, but they’re well worth the agony of having to sit through second hand smoke. I have a Honeywell model: http://www.google.com/products/catalog?client=safari&rls=en&q=honeywell+air+purifier&oe=UTF-8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&cid=10096183403686123210&ei=emPRTM8xwoLyBpHNlK4M&sa=X&oi=product_catalog_result&ct=image&resnum=3&ved=0CDMQ8gIwAg#

    But I think the image above is the newer model. They’re worth the initial expense though…they help a lot in the summer with my allergies!

  • photodork

    When the condo below ours sold, the new owner moved in and began to smoke in the unit. We started to smell the smoke in the stairwell (this is a 4 unit rowhouse building) and then started to smell the smoke in our place. We politely told him we could smell the smoke, and asked if he could please smoke outside on his patio. He was embarrassed that we could smell the smoke and said he would gladly smoke outside.

    He is a nice guy, and we both had a mutual interest in keeping each other happy (we lived above him and had hardwood floors if you know what I mean). He ocassionally smoked inside when it was raining or snowing, but never enough that we smelled it in our condo.

    We did have to mention the smell a couple of times before he got the message.

    Also, we installed a flap on the bottom of our entry door to keep the smell in the stairwell from entering our unit, and it seemed to help a bit.

    If this doesn’t work, I did do some research about having the condo board vote and declare the building non-smoking. This would have allowed the condo board to levy fines against the unit owner if he continued to smoke in the building. Might want to look it up. Be careful with this tactic though. Not very neighborly.

    • photodork

      BTW, I realize you are in an apt…just offering the second option to the readership.

  • CheeseTriangle

    Smoke smells. There’s not much you can do to get around that fact, mask it, or redirect it.

    Sounds like your best bet is talking to the neighbor. Maybe he/she is smoking in a particular area that vents to your unit; if so, maybe he/she will consider smoking in another location…or near an open window.

    If not, then the reverse fan the air purifier sound like your best ideas. Masking an odor like that is only just going to create more scent particles that are embedded in your fabrics/finishes that have double smells: vanilla bean and smoke, cedar and smoke, etc…

  • Anonymous

    drip water on them.

  • Anonymous

    I completely sympathize! I never thought that the smell of cigarette smoke bothered me – I don’t even mind super smokey bars – until I moved into the condo that I’m currently renting. My next door neighbor must smoke a ton, because the smoke is constantly blowing out of the air vent in my bedroom. I just bought an air freshener. Really, I think that’s all I can do. I’d never say anything.

  • Jim Ed

    I’d recommend contacting a company for a duct leakage test… You might be (incorrectly) pulling air from her apartment. get the ducts properly sealed and add a heavy duty air cleaner that goes into the ductwork with a MERV 16 filter. That might do the trick.

  • wow

    I find it hard to believe that someone is so sensitive to smoke that having a smoker below would be such a problem. Thank god they didn’t grow up in the 1950’s, or else they’d have to live in a cave somewhere.

    • Anonymous

      See, this is exactly what I thought, too, until I moved into my current place. I generally have no problem being around smokers, don’t find secondhand smoke particularly offensive, etc. But after sleeping under an air vent blowing a constant stream of smoke for several months, it has really started to bug me and give me headaches. Makes me feel sorry for my neighbor – I can’t imagine how much he must smoke to produce that much!

    • photodork

      You find it hard to beleive even with all of the individuals who have replied to this post citing similar story after similar story?

      • wow

        Sure do. It’s understandable that lots of people want their home envinronment to be perfect, especially if they’re paying a huge mortgage on it every month. But the truth is that you have to learn to live with imperfection if you’re sharing a condo building with lots of other people. I prefer not to be around cigarette smoke myself– it makes my eyes red and watery and induces occasional sneezing and headaches– but I wouldn’t go as far as to claim a smoke allergy and forbid someone from smoking in their own home just to make myself as comfortable as possible. Not saying the person shouldn’t see if there are options to mitigate this issue, but one should recognize that living in a condo or apartment building requires some give and take from everyone involved.

      • wow

        I should also add that most of the buildings I’ve been to, or lived in, had a smoky smell to them, but the residents seemed to be coping just fine. If the smoke is actually billowing up form an open vent that’s obviously another story and an issue that should be addressed with the building management.

    • Sarah

      As a moderate smoker who never smokes inside I get it. I don’t think its the smell of the actual smoke, but the smell it leaves behind, the two are pretty different and I find the second obnoxious. A friend moved in to an apartment with a similar situation and bought a true HEPA filter to run a few hours a day on medium power. The smell isn’t noticeable, but the filter makes some noise. Trade-off I guess.

  • Jessica

    There’s a smoker on our floor (sometimes two when someone’s boyfriend visits) and it’s pretty horrible. I’ve brought it up, but goes nowhere. They try to ‘smoke out the window’ which doesn’t do anything, so not only does my condo smell like I’m trying to cover something up (with how much Febreze we use) but the hallway smells really bad – not good for resale value.

    But I also have a barking dog on my floor. I’ve given the renter information on separation anxiety and it doesn’t do anything. Trust me – the smoke is far worse because when you’re a non-smoker who doesn’t really go to bars or have friends that smoke, you can really smell it and it does make you feel sick after a while.

    I’d say talking to the person wouldn’t hurt, but knowing what I do about condos, it probably won’t do anything, either. Invest in an air purifier, make sure the ducts are working properly, and if you have to, open a window and buy the new Febreze thingies that have the pouch of air freshener but don’t have to be plugged in. We have three in our condo – took a few days to get used to, but it has made some difference.

  • Where

    I had a smoker next to me. After many complaints the apartment building ripped off the drywall and sealed any gaps with foam insulation between units. Been great since.

    I lived in another building where it was someone down the hall. You’d come home and the whole place stunk. This was a large building – 200+ units. Mgmt didn’t care and it was horrible.

  • Tres

    I would personally do all of the above helpful suggestions in the interest finding a solution that works well for everyone, but after a certain point I’d look into a way to petition for a condo-wide smoking ban. I wonder if and how that’d work. After all why should it be on me to accommodate someone else’s bad habit in my own home?

    • Trixie

      Um, because it’s a shared space? And because that sort of works both ways – they have a right to do things that are legal under the law in THEIR homes, too.

  • Anonymous

    All of you need to mind your own business! Get an air purifier, and if you really are unhappy or uncomfortable, MOVE!
    Trying to enforce your lifestyle on others is incomprehensible.

    • photodork

      I think the smoker is enforcing their lifestyle on the non-smoking neighbor…totally incomprehensible!

    • wow

      + a million

      Like I said above, if it’s an issue with the condo not being properly sealed, then that’s something for the building management to take care of, otherwise, learn to live with it.

      And for the record I am NOT a smoker, never have been.

  • My2Cents

    Since it is coming from below you, try popping the base boards off and using a spray foam. It did the trick for me.

  • Adam

    Just for those who believe this is solely a “smell” issue:


    “Previous studies have shown that children with cotinine levels indicating tobacco smoke exposure have higher rates of respiratory diseases, decreased cognitive abilities and decreased antioxidant levels.”

    • Anonymous

      Oh sorry, I didn’t realize the person had kids.

  • Enos

    I think it’s funny that more and more people don’t like smoking, second hand smoke, etc. DC has gone to the level of banning smoking in most bars and restaurants…

    And yet, the city if working very hard to get marijuana legalized.

  • Anonymous

    I’m pretty sure no one on the council is really pushing for legalization. They just legalized what is supposed to be highly controlled medical marijuana this year. Anyway, marijuana doesn’t pose anywhere near the same health risks tobacco does, especially if used in a vaporizer.


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