Musty Odor in a Home

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Dear Home Ec 101,
Here’s my dilemma. The house is clean, but there is a fusty, musty odor, like a large dog is secretly living in our house. We have an older, small house with the kitchen being basically open to everything. Sometimes I think it is cooking odors that are being trapped in the rest of the house. We have hardwood floors with some area rugs, and currently, no pets. I don’t like to use room fresheners or Febreze products, because then it just smells like flowers and the underlying odor. Like shampooed skunk odor.

Any other helpful tips on keeping the house smelling like fresh line-dried laundry? (I know, I know…I can dream)
Musty Muff

how to find the source of musty odor in the home

Dear Musty Muff:

Our air conditioning stopped working on Tuesday, as I live near Charleston, SC, this would make life pretty annoying until nearly October.  While the most excellent repair guy was under the house (contact me if you are local and need a repair guy — good ones can be hard to find), he noticed there was a leak in our ductwork. Not only were we air conditioning the crawl space (ack!) there was another leak causing air to be drawn in from the crawlspace in addition to the intake. We had noticed a musty odor in the master bathroom and have been running a dehumidifier constantly, thinking it was due to excess moisture. The duct work has been repaired, and the smell is gone. Awesomesauce.

I contacted Musty Muffy to see if her problem could be similar. She does not live above a crawlspace and does not have central air, only heat.

Musty odors are most often attributed to mold.

It’s important to note that not all strains are dangerous, and the presence of an odor is not necessarily a useful indicator of the type of mold present. There are home test kits that can be used and mailed in for identification. Make sure they are unaffiliated with a testing service if you use a repair service.

It is important to locate the source of the odor.

Mold smells can be faint and will often only show up when the air hasn’t been circulating or when the humidity is high. The short-term solution is to open the windows and turn on the fan, not the central heat, and move the air in the home. This will help disperse the odor.

musty odors

Make sure none of the home’s vents are blocked.

This requires going on the roof to check. Houses must breathe.

If the home has had water damage in the past, wood is notorious for holding odors, and it may be an expensive fix or something you learn to live with.

Have the roof inspected for water damage and inspect the flashing around all the windows and doors.

A leaky door or window could cause water damage behind the drywall. Other possible but not obvious locations for old water damage are near washers, dryers (the vent could leak condensation into the wall), under sinks, near the hot water heater, and around the base of showers, tubs, and toilets -a leaky wax ring could cause significant damage to the subflooring.

Another potential cause is a dried-out trap under an unused sink, shower, or tub. If a sink or shower is unused for long enough, the water seal in the pipe can evaporate, allowing sewage gases to enter a home. This is actually a potentially dangerous scenario as sewer gases are no joke. Run some water into all rarely used fixtures from time to time.

Wash all the curtains and drapes or have them cleaned. These fabric panels are grease and odor magnets. If they have gotten damp from really high humidity after washing and drying, it may be wise to lay the curtains out in the sun for a few hours (not too long sunlight can bleach some fabrics).

If you’re sure it is odors from another cause, such as cooking:

I also hate air freshener sprays, plug-ins, and discs. Deep cleaning the cabinets in the kitchen may eliminate a lot of the funk. Grease particles float the air, land on solid surfaces, and go rancid. Typically that smell is more like a restaurant first thing in the morning. (If you’ve ever worked in food service, you know the smell of trapped kitchen grease).

Guide to Household Odors
Click the picture for lots more tips!

Two final funk sources are a potato that escaped the bag and rolled somewhere. A rotten potato can create an unholy odor and often draws flies. And last but not least is the dreaded dead animal in the walls or attic. If it’s inaccessible, time is the only cure.

Good luck!

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14 thoughts on “Musty Odor in a Home”

  1. Two years ago after Hurricane Ike, my co-worker returned home to discover the carpet in the MB closet and part of the living room was soaking wet. So all the furniture was moved out of the way, and she ripped up the carpet. The wall that separates the closet and LR was all rotted at the bottom. Several thousand dollars of testing later, it turned out that the flashing was not installed properly on one corner of her house, and that water had been leaking in there for 4 years. She said there was a small odor in the house but never thought much of it, and there was a couch against that wall so no one ever walked on the carpet to notice it was wet.

    Moral of the story, if there is a weird smell in your house, check it out. Had they discovered the leak earlier it would have been much simpler to fix, and chances are she would have had a claim against the builder and wouldn't have had to foot any of the cost herself.

    P.S. She is still fighting with her insurance and home warranty company to be reimbursed. The total bill (including new carpet) came to about $7000.

  2. I just wanted to add 2 things-

    1. This things can happen in a car too. I know this is a home-ec, but many of us keep cars at our *homes*, right? 😛 Ours has a bad leak (2000$ fix, don’t ask) that probably started as a small fixable leak only a year or 2 after it was new. Apparently a design flaw with the car. We’d noticed a musty smell, but figured we lived in a wet, humid environment or spilled some water or something. I would *definitely* check the car out in the future 🙁

    2. My friend had noticed a weird smell emanating now and again from their fireplace for a while. They recently started to take out the outdated fireplace and pulled… *34* bird carcasses from it. *shudder* They’re convinced that suburban fireplaces must make a sizeable dent on the bird population.

  3. Years ago I had a very small house in a poor area of town that had a mysterious musty odor that set off my allergies something fierce. I immediately thought mold and spent the first few months there looking for any sign of dampness, mildew, etc. Meanwhile, I also discovered that the house wasn't really vacant…there were roaches in the walls. Then I noticed scratching sounds coming from the attic…rats had moved in (it looked like they were feasting on roaches) and fouled what little insulation was up there. I am allergic to both roaches and rats, which explained why I was having such bad attacks when I was at home. Both roaches and rats create musty odors.

    I pulled out the insulation, sprayed Clorox solution all over, and poured about 5 lbs of Roach Prufe powder down inside the walls. That got rid of the vermin and most of the odor. The last of the odor went away when I painted the interior of the house – Kilz Primer seems to block odor trapped in wallboard.

    A few other things you might look for: if you have carpeting, pull it up from the tack strips and examine the flooring beneath. I've seen homes that had new carpet put down over NASTY subflooring in preparation for sale. Check the compartment that houses the central air for evidence that condensation may be dripping, and if you have window units, open them up as much as possible and clean them thoroughly. I had a window unit that kept growing mildew inside until I "bombed" it with Lysol spray. If the smell seems to be originating in the kitchen, first clean out under your refrigerator and empty the drip pan. Then run a bunch of ice through the disposal to eliminate any smells that might be coming from there. If you have a dishwasher, run it empty on the longest cycle with plenty of white vinegar…calcium can build up in the inner workings and trap odors. Lastly, pull up the bottom of the sink cabinet and look under there. I've seen old water damage and all manner of disgusting stuff lurking under kitchen cabinets. If the smell is in the bathroom, check the drains…I had a slow tub drain and a musty smell in a newly-purchased house, and pulled a wash rag out of the tub drain! Other sources of odor can be the wax ring under the toilet and the area under the sink cabinet.

  4. After I came across your post for the first time I became a regular one at it. The methods and the solutions that you provide over here are just the best methods keep the kitchen to be hygienic place. After all it is one of the first things that's required for the proper overall growth of a person even in a spiritual manner.

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  5. Definitely check your drains, there are a number of companies who come out and do drain surveys or even a look and see survey to see if you have any blockages or material that may be smelling. If anyone has a septic tank then make sure you get this checked, a regular septic tank empty is also a good idea, but just a thought…

  6. To avoid musty smell in your kitchen you must clean it after you use the kitchen.. If you have curtains and sometimes there's a splash on the curtain you must wash them..

  7. When my husband and I moved into an older house it had a really bad musty odor. We could not figure out what was causing the odor. We tried doing repairs, but nothing worked. The neighbor across the street (also with an older house) told me about a odor eliminator that she uses. It’s called Rooms Shocker and it worked great! It is environmentally friendly too! You can find it at

  8. I have found that musty household odors are usually caused by mold spore. In my case, our basement was the source and caused the rest of the house to smell awful. If you have a similar problem, I would recommend taking immediate action in mixing a solution of white vinegar and water scrubbing down all of the walls and flooring.  The white vinegar will work to cut through any mold spore that may be causing the musty stench and leave you home smelling fresh.  For more info, I found a helpful guide the walks you through this deodorizing process here:

  9. Great advice Ms. M :). Also, as a last resort (before tearing down walls/furniture), he/she might want to consider ozone remediation. It can get into tiny crevices that are EXTREMELY difficult to reach otherwise. I’ve had a handful of friends avoid major renovation with high level O3
    shock treatments…of course, every case is a bit different. GLTA.

  10. What type of service person can check all the areas of the house you suggest, i.e. Roof, central AC unit, ducts, under sink, etc etc ?


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