What's that old house smell?

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

For as often as old house owners talk about the wonderful quirks and charms of old house living, it can seem as though they are wearing rose-colored glasses. But those who us who love old houses definitely recognize the downsides -- we just choose not to acknowledge them with as much vigor as the good stuff.

But there are a few points that we simply can't ignore, and one of those is the smell that hits you the first time you walk into an old house that has been closed up for a while. Sometimes, that smell lingers even after you have aired the place out. Any old house aficionado knows what we're talking about -- that unique smell, a little musty, a little dirty, a little strange. It's unfortunately a quite common occurrence.

So what is that smell, and what does it take to eradicate it?

Water and pipes

The most common source of that old house smell is mold and mildew. Over the years, water eventually gets into a house, no matter how well-built it might be. Pipes leak. Roofs get damaged. Water gets splashed onto floors. It creeps into the soil underneath the house. Overall, it combines to create a musty smell.

Hire a pro to inspect the house for mold, just to be on the safe side. Mold problems can result in serious health problems down the road. Call in a plumber to inspect every inch of those old pipes. Sometimes the pipes themselves give off an unsavory odor, and they might need to be replaced.

What's in the walls?

Another common reason is right in front of you: the walls themselves. Over time, the walls absorb the odors that they are subject to on a regular basis. If anyone ever smoked in the house, the walls might be holding that smoky odor. Does your kitchen smell like old cooking oil? That's probably just what it is, right there in the walls.

In most cases, a fresh coat of paint will be plenty to eradicate the bad smells. But what if the walls are quite dark with buildup? In that case, it might be time to replace the drywall or give the plaster a very thorough cleaning.

Look at the floors

The floors have seen their share of everything, from dust to water to spills of completely indeterminate origin. They might have also seen their share of pets. And where there are pets, sometimes there are odorous accidents. When the scent of pet urine gets into the floors, almost nothing works to get it out.

The solution might be to completely replace the flooring. If you can ensure that's the source of the smell, consider pulling up the carpet or hardwood and replacing it with something fresh. If the hardwood is original to the house, consult an expert on how to best clean it, one board at a time.

The air itself

Don't forget that ductwork is subject to the same odors the walls experience. It never fails: Old ductwork is a grimy, dusty mess on the inside. In some cases, filters haven't been changed often enough, and registers have never had a good scrubbing. The scent might also be coming from the heating units in the home.

Again, a good cleaning is in order. Have the ductwork swept out by an HVAC company. Replace the filters and clean all registers. When it's time for maintenance on the heating system, pay extra for a solid cleaning of all elements.

Those unwelcome visitors

One of the more unfortunate sources of old house smells is the death of a little critter or two. Old houses are notorious for small open areas that allow various wildlife and pests to roam as they please. They get up into the attic or enjoy the crawlspace for a while, and sometimes that's where they die. When that happens, the unpleasant odors are quite evident.

Again, a good cleaning is necessary -- though hauling out tiny critter carcasses can really ruin your weekend, it has to be done. Then remove anything they might have used for bedding and clean the area with a disinfectant. Finally, carefully seal up all the holes where they might be getting in, and stay vigilant for those that try to find other ways to get inside.

No matter what the cause of the smell, remember: Old houses need cleaning more often than modern ones do, and airing them out on a regular basis is always a good idea. So get out that dusting rag and throw open the windows!