My Old House Stinks!

Old houses can smell. Not always, but many do. Maybe your house had the crazy cat lady or a bunch of fraternity brothers who never cleaned up after wild parties. The older your house is the more likely you had a dirty occupant at one point in its life. The best you can do is clean it up and pray it takes care of the offending odor.

I have to give credit to one of my readers, Ted Innes, for the inspiration for this post. I’m just glad I wasn’t there in person to smell whatever motivated him to email me about this topic.

Here are a few possible sources of that frightening smell and how to deal with each.

    1. Mildew/Mold – Kind of a musty smell. This one can be pretty dangerous for health reasons if there is mold growth. Have a mold inspector check if you suspect this issue. If it’s just too humid in the home then a good dehumidifier will help. I even keep some packages of damp rid in our closets to keep the scent at bay. Also, if you don’t have a bath fan installed in your bathrooms you are likely having excess moisture in those areas.
    2. Dead Critters – If your crawl space or attic aren’t sealed up properly then you may have critters crawling around in your walls. They’ll leave excrement and occasionally die in your house and neither smells very good. Get some rodent proof wire mesh and spend a day in the crawl space sealing things up. It’s not fun work, but you’ll be happy you did it. While you’re at it throw a couple pieces of rat poison in the sealed up crawl space if you think you have critters living there currently. The smell will be pretty rough when they die for about 2 weeks, but after that you’re house will be much more human friendly.
    3. Stained Walls – Sometimes what the house really needs is a new coat of paint inside. From nicotine stains to dirt to old cooking stains, your walls and ceilings are likely covered with leftovers from the previous owners. A nice zero-VOC indoor paint on trim, walls, and ceilings can really make a difference.
    4. Old Pipes – Old plumbing has lots of corrosion happening inside of it. 80 or 100 year old cast-iron pipes are likely full of piles of rust. Or you could have a p-trap under a sink that isn’t functioning properly. A whole house repipe is expensive but it might just be a section of the plumbing that is particularly bad off. Have a plumber out to take a peak and see what he recommends.
    5. Dirty Ductwork – I’ve had folks have a HVAC company come out and use pressurized air and cleaner to clean out filthy ductwork to really help improve indoor air quality. While you’re at it change you air filters regularly and keep your system running smoothly. Properly filtered air makes the indoors nicer and saves money on the utility bills. A double whammy!
    6. Pet Stains – Pets Stains on hardwood floors are pretty much impossible to fix other than if you remove the damaged floorboards and replace them. (Visit our post How To: Repair Hardwood Floors where I walk you through the whole process) Until you remove the boards it will continue to smell despite the claims of infomercial hosts touting amazing new products.


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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and licensed contractor. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and sons Charley and Jude.


  1. Amanda Peters on said:

    Also, keep watch for discoloration of your walls, especially in walls you know have plumbing behind them, like in the kitchen and the bathroom. You could have a leak, however small, that’s causing mold and mildew growth.

  2. Dee on said:

    Make sure all that dry sand underneath isn’t being used as a litterbox by some animal.

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