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New rental has phantom odors
July 10, 2014 9:25 PM   Subscribe

We just moved into a new rental - it's early 1900s with polished hardwood floors. When we moved in there was a bit of a musty odor, but we assumed that this was just "empty house smell". The odor has largely dissipated, except for the bedroom and the adjacent hallway where the smell is getting stronger and now smells a little bit like animal pee (though it could be just general mustiness too). But we cannot locate the exact source of the smell. How do we find the location of the smell and eradicate it!? More details after the fold...

The previous tenants were evicted for locking their (not included on the lease) dogs in the house and leaving town for the weekend. The house was professionally cleaned prior to us moving in and is generally in good shape. I'm concerned that somehow the professional clean missed something left from the dogs OR that some porous material has absorbed the odor. I did a quick mop of the bedroom the other day and it has helped quite a bit, but not completely. It has been raining a lot recently so there's a lot of humidity and dampness in general, which may be exacerbating the problem. There is a manhole in the floor in the vicinity of the smell, so it could also be coming from beneath the house I guess.

We do have two (included on the lease) cats, but: (1) the smell was there before we moved in; (2) it doesn't smell like cat pee (or like their litter box for that matter); (3) we've found no evidence of them not using their litter box (despite looking thoroughly!).

So how on earth do we: (A) find the source of the smell; and (B) get rid of it?

Bonus question: these are polished hardwood floors - surely they wouldn't have absorbed dog pee? There are no curtains or other soft furnishings apart from what we brought with us, and none of these soft furnishings smell at all.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace to Home & Garden (9 answers total)
 
It could be possums in the roof, or under the house.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:56 PM on July 10


Pee could have gotten under the floorboards if there was enough of it. Damp weather will always bring up old smells. Ask your landlord exactly how the floor was cleaned. Then maybe see if the service will come back or find one that knows what else can be done.
posted by emjaybee at 10:20 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


You can use a black light to locate any evidence of urine.
posted by amro at 10:34 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Whatever you do, put your concerns in writing to the landlord ASAP.

Besides dog pee, I might be worried about something was decomposing in the walls or under the floors (mice or rats trapped by and extermination treatment?) or mold.
posted by jbenben at 11:08 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


My 1917 house has wood floors throughout. Most of the house sits over a basement, but a portion of the kitchen is over a bare earth crawl space. A few months after we bought the place, when spring brought warmth and wetness, fairly strong odors of mustiness and urine manifested in that area. We discovered that the crawl space was poorly defended, and that rats and other furry vagrants had nested there in the past (and might still be visiting from time to time). We cleaned it out and fortified it against invasion, and the problem is much improved. We still get a little mustiness once a year or so, but it is not particularly offensive or long-lasting. The urine smell has not returned. I suspect a vapor barrier would fix the problem completely, but laziness thus far holds the field.

So, yeah, smells could certainly be coming from beneath the floor. Were I you, I'd check under that manhole for signs of vermin or excessive dampness, and bring either to the landlord's attention. Beyond that, you might just want to wait it out; as I said, our similar problem is seasonal and transient.
posted by pheide at 11:21 PM on July 10


Mould/mold can smell like urine and is part of the definition of musty.

Is there a water source near the location, like a sink on the other side of the wall? There are moisture meters that can show you the relative moisture levels of the floor/baseboards/"subfloor from the crawlspace"/walls in the smelly areas compared to the non smelly areas. Most house inspectors have them. They are usually a few hundred dollars but there are cheaper models. If there is a noticeably moist location, that could narrow down the source of the smell.
posted by Yorrick at 12:40 AM on July 11


Are you sure it is not the plastic housing of some light fittings giving off a urine smell? especially old plastic light fitting housing? Like in this Ask about wee smell?
posted by evil_esto at 2:49 AM on July 11


My first thought was mold as well. Mildew and mold have that weird pee smell. There may be a leak behind that wall.

One thing you could do is go to an inconspicuous part of the wall (down near an outlet) and using a keyhole saw, take out a chunck of the wall. (You can always put it back with some tape and drywall mud.) See if there is any evidence of mold on the back of the chunk.

There are also mold kits that they sell at Home Depot.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:14 AM on July 11


I can tell the difference between mold/mildew and urine. Untended dogs may well have peed in the house more often than 1 weekend. You can buy commercial enzyme products (Nature's Miracle is often recommended) that will take care of urine smells. Vinegar does a pretty decent job, as well. Make sure any air-conditioners are clean, and under fridge, as well. Sunshine kills germs and nastiness, so open curtains as much as possible. I also find cedar oil spray to help deal with odors, plus it discourages moths and other critters.
posted by theora55 at 9:59 AM on July 11


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