Robbie Zanko hasn't smelled any of her own cigarettes since she opened her closet 28 years ago and was overpowered by the smell on her clothes.

"I couldn't stand it," she said. "I quit."

Now Zanko, 60, doesn't have to smell other people's smoke, either. Last month the apartment building where she lives, Waterstone Place in Minnetonka, adopted a nonsmoking policy that covers all 164 units, common areas and outdoor grounds.

Zanko said she's never allowed smoking in her apartment but now has an extra measure of comfort knowing she won't be exposed to other residents' secondhand smoke.

"I remember sitting out on my balcony last year and being able to smell someone smoking," she said. "Even if you can't smell it, there's toxins in the air."

The number of apartment buildings with nonsmoking policies -- while small -- is growing, according to Live Smoke Free, a program of the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota funded by a Minnesota Department of Health grant.

The group has identified about 280 multiunit apartment complexes with at least one nonsmoking building, said Carissa Duke, community outreach coordinator for the organization. About a half dozen housing co-operatives and condominiums also have gone smoke free. All told, the smoke-free buildings account for about 2 percent of the state's rental properties, she said.

Waterstone Place is the fourth area smoke-free apartment building managed by Steven Scott Management, which handles 62 buildings in the Twin Cities. Earlier this year it began renting units at the Pointe at River Crossing, a new smoke-free apartment building that is part of a complex near W. 7th St. in St. Paul.

Steven Scott expects to establish non-smoking policies at a few other area properties in the next year, according to Brenda Hvamsbal, director of marketing. One will be the Ellipse, a 133-unit building planned for the corner of France Avenue and Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park.

Hvamsbal said the Pointe was about 60 percent preleased before it was completed in March, with many renters specifically interested in living in a smoke-free property. "There are a lot of people out there who not only prefer it but really require it because of health issues, like asthma," she said.

While there may be some initial costs to convert a building, such as repainting, cleaning or replacing drapes and carpeting, Hvamsbal said that in the long run, nonsmoking buildings are likely to have lower property management costs. There's less cleaning and repair work to do when a unit turns over, and insurance costs are lower. Hvamsbal didn't have figures, but believes turnover is less with units in smoke-free buildings, reducing the cost of advertising and showing vacant units.

There's another, less quantifiable benefit, according to Alison Guthrie, property manager at the River Crossing complex.

"You spend less time solving the issues that might come up between smokers and non-smokers," she said.

Even people who don't allow smoking in their own apartments can be affected by secondhand smoke seeping through bypasses for plumbing, air conditioning and electrical systems.

Claudette Hegel is well aware of how smoke from a neighboring apartment can affect another. Hegel, a nonsmoker who developed a sensitivity to cigarette smoke after a bout of bronchitis, began having trouble breathing after smokers moved in below her. "I would wake up in the middle of the night, grabbing for my inhaler," she said.

Hegel said her health improved markedly after she moved last August to France 98 in Bloomington, a nonsmoking property. She's paying more rent, mostly because her unit is larger and has amenities, like a washer and dryer, that she didn't have before. But even without those things, Hegel said she'd pay more to be completely smoke-free.

France 98 is managed by Seattle-based Pinnacle Realty Management. Thomas Backstrom, regional vice president, said the company converted its first area property three years ago after rebuilding it after a fire started by a cigarette.

Chasing down guests

Going smoke-free can be complicated in a building where residents own, rather than rent their units. La Rive Condominiums, a 118-unit building near St. Anthony Main, went smoke-free last year after residents voted for the change. Heike Rucker, property manager, said a handful of units were grandfathered in to allow their residents to smoke until the units are resold. That already has happened to one unit, she said.

Real estate agent Michael Sharp has sold several units at LaRive, although none in the last year. He said property sales records indicate fairly normal turnover since the smoke-free policy went into effect. Sharp, with Remax Results in Minneapolis, said it's too early to say whether the policy will help or hurt resales in the building and said it's especially difficult to draw conclusions now about resales because of the general downturn in the condo market.

Rucker said she's heard favorable comments about the nonsmoking policy from prospective buyers. She also said there have been very few problems enforcing the rules.

"We've had to chase a few guests down, and we sometime have to talk to contractors who come in to work," she said. It's just a matter of re-educating people."

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723