Old house smell: Those three dreaded words evoke something rather frightening and repellent to most homeowners. You know what we’re talking about, right? It’s that musty odor that creeps up and greets you the instant you set foot inside an older home.
What is this mysterious stench, anyway? And most importantly: Is there a way to get rid of it?
Stale. Moldy. Damp. Stuffy. Are these words that come to mind when you pull should-be-fresh clothes out of the dryer? Or when you walk down to the basement? What you’re smelling is often described as a “musty” odor. While this is not exactly pleasant, it is important that humans can smell things that could alert us to potential danger. In fact, research has shown that “people who couldn’t smell at all were at least three times more likely to have experienced a hazardous event than people with intact olfactory capabilities.”
Though we have evolved a keen sense of smell, our olfactory experience of the air we breathe is varied. Some people can smell moldy or musty odors in dry places, while others cannot smell odors even in places that are clearly damp and moldy. And none of us can smell a truly hazardous air pollutant, carbon monoxide. We may smell odors that seem pleasing and natural, but in reality are not healthy. Thus, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that odor is not a reliable test for air quality. If you can see or smell mold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that a health risk may be present. One thing is certain: dealing with musty smells in your home and on your clothes can be frustrating, especially when you work hard to keep things clean. And because a musty smell can be a tell-tale sign that there’s mold or mildew lurking, it’s not just a matter of unpleasantries.
The good news is that you can get rid of musty smells from your home, your clothes, and from your life. Let us take a look at how you can identify the source of a musty smell, what actions you can take to remove the smell, and, most importantly, how you can keep the musty smell from returning.
Why does my home smell musty?
If your home or clothing smells musty, chances are you have mold or mildew hiding out. While other things — like a lack of ventilation or high levels of humidity — can make a musty odor more noticeable, they typically are not the primary cause of the smell.
While the term “musty” often brings to mind an old library or your grandma’s attic, mold and mildew can grow practically anywhere—even your modern home or apartment. Essentially, all mold needs to grow is the presence of mold spores, a surface to grow on, warmth, darkness, oxygen, and moisture.
The last ingredient — moisture — is the biggest problem. When all of the other environmental elements combine with condensation, moisture from humidity, or leaking water, mold begins to grow. As mold forms, grows, and spreads, it emits gasses known as microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs). So that musty odor you are smelling is not “just” mold but is a result of the chemical compounds released at different stages of the mold’s growth.
While volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are categorized as man-made or industrial chemicals, MVOCs are naturally occurring. They have a very low odor threshold, which means you may smell them easily and, when you do, the odor is strong. There are hundreds of different MVOCs formed by mold and mildew and many of them may pose health risks. Though more research is needed, some common symptoms of exposure to microbial volatile organic compounds may include:
- Nasal irritation
How to remove old house smell: Dry the place out
“Opening up the windows and airing the place out—like your mother did when spring came—can help,” says Carroll.
If your house tends to be humid and you’re sure you don’t have any leaks, “Keep your air conditioner or a dehumidifier running,” suggests Carroll.
Oh, and if you do have a leak of some kind—even if it’s just a leaky faucet?
“That needs to be fixed before any progress can be made,” notes Carroll. (Progress meaning “fresh-smelling house.”)
Let the sunshine in
“Light, especially sunlight, with its ultraviolet component, is a good disinfectant,” Carroll notes. After all, UV is used to disinfect water in some pool systems.
Letting a little more light into an old house can do wonders for the musty odor and can help protect against mildew and mold.
Clean your couch
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if that old house smell is coming from your couch, it may be more of an “old couch smell” instead. In fact, all upholstered furniture and your carpets could be culprits.
“Soft stuff absorbs ambient moisture,” says Carroll, which can lead to mold growth.
If you work hard to reduce the humidity in your house, over time, the soft stuff may relinquish some of its ambient moisture as well, dry out, and start resisting mold growth.
“But that takes time, because it takes a while for the moisture deep inside the furniture to migrate out,” Carroll says. And that may not be good enough.
“Worst case, all the soft stuff has to go or be professionally deep-cleaned,” says Carroll. “And a good cleaning of the hard surfaces with a disinfectant doesn’t hurt either.”
If the smell is, in fact, coming from your furniture or carpet, cleaning and reupholstering is an option. But, sometimes it might be easiest to simply get rid of those musty items.
If the carpet is starting to smell, or that old couch is emitting an odor, it can be easiest to just remove the item and get rid of an odor quickly. This is especially important if you have buyers planning to look at the house soon, if you’ve got an open house scheduled, you don’t want the smell to linger.
Deep-clean the guts of your house
“Furnaces and air ducts can have a tremendous amount of mold that can grow in them when they’re not being used,” says Leslie Reichert, cleaning expert and author of “The Joy of Green Cleaning.” Not to mention that air conditioners can also trap mold and mildew in their filtering systems.
If you think these little tunnels are the source of the odor in your home, hire an HVAC professional, who can actually use a tiny camera to make sure all the gunk is located—and removed.
Declutter under every sink
“Nope,” you may be thinking. “I don’t have any leaks.” But if you’ve got a gazillion cleaning supplies and sponges under your kitchen sink and two gazillion beauty products, would you really know? So clean it out.
Leaks under a sink can definitely cause an unpleasant smell, and if you haven’t inspected the area in a while, the musty smell may have gotten worse and worse until the whole house has an odor.
“Getting things out from under the sink lets you see if anything is dripping or molding,” says Reichert. “Also, you can check for dampness or leaking in the piping.”
Wash your walls
If you’ve tried everything and still haven’t found the source of the odor in your old house, the musty smell may very well be coming from the walls.
Reichert advises dissolving a half-cup of borax in a bucket of hot water (32 ounces), then adding 2 cups distilled white vinegar and 16 ounces of hydrogen peroxide. Right away, wipe down your walls and let them air-dry.
“This will remove grease, dust, and mildew, and also remove smells that have embedded into wall surfaces or wallpaper,” Reichert says. Repeat whenever you catch a whiff of a stale smell.
Neutralize the air
An open container of baking soda or white vinegar, kept in an unobtrusive place (for example, on top of your kitchen cupboards), can help absorb musty smells and clear the air.
Experts also recommend FreshWave or DampRid, two all-natural substances that absorb smells and trap excess moisture in the air. These can help you get the musty smells out of your house—and get your place ready for company!