Help me make my apartment not smell bad
November 3, 2011 5:16 AM   Subscribe

I clean my apartment (and myself) on the regular. So why does it smell like dirty laundry all the time? How do I make it stop?

Since winter came and I've kept the windows to my apartment closed, it has taken on a pretty bad smell. Not mold, not cat box, more like the smell of someone who's been holed up in their room with a bunch of dirty laundry. Which I haven't been, I swear!

The smell seems concentrated in the living room at the entrance to the apartment. Curiously, it gets better as one approaches my bedroom and kitchen, which would most likely be the locations of any possible offending cat box or dirty laundry odors.

Pertinent notes:
- Wooden floor throughout apartment, with the exception of one area rug in the living room
- Cat box is cleaned 1-2x daily (and smell is not of cat box)
- Laundry is done at least 1x weekly and not kept in living room
- Vaccuming and mopping done regularly
- I shower and use appropriate grooming products so I'm pretty sure it's not me

Aside from air fresheners or keeping the window open most of the day, is there anything I can do to improve this?
posted by schroedinger to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know why this happens--some places just have their own smell. I gave a plug on this thread for Lampes Berger--French alcohol lamps that burn a lightly scented fuel. Once you find the right smell for you, they're really great--the scent is very pervasive, but never intrusive. Run the lamp for 20 minutes a day, and it does a lot to refresh the air.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:23 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is the odour coming from the area rug by any chance? Maybe it needs shampooing. I'd also check the furniture and any heating grates near the entrance way.

Another possibility is that your apartment just isn't well ventilated.
posted by orange swan at 5:26 AM on November 3, 2011

If you're anti air freshened, you might try baking soda.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:28 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you just walked around and sniffed? Try taking a whiff of the sofa, the curtains, the rug, the walls where the floor meets the walls.
posted by iconomy at 5:37 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also is there carpeting outside your front door that could be funky?
posted by brilliantine at 5:45 AM on November 3, 2011

Cheap experiment: Try leaving out a bowl of vinegar and/or wiping down surfaces with a 50/50 vinegar/water mix.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:47 AM on November 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

If it's at the entrance to your apartment, it's probably some sort of accumulated dampness/mold because it would receive the most traffic and it's wiping off most of whatever is on your shoes as you come in. Even if it is wood, damp wood is just not a nice smell. If this might be the case, not sure how to solve it! Maybe a portable heater by it to dry it out? And then get a floor mat for outside your door.
posted by like_neon at 5:51 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by rmmcclay at 6:01 AM on November 3, 2011

Is your laundry actually clean? I say this with love, but many many men - smart, responsible, charming men - don't know how to wash clothes so their clothes and sheets, even "fresh" sheets the pull from the linen closet so you can make a bed on the sofa have a whiff of body oils.

If wiping down with vinegar and checking rugs doesn't help. Try changing your laundry products and following instructions exactly.

If you have a solid relationship with a slightly persnickety person, ask that person to stick their head in your closet and tell you the truth.

The smell of laundry in the basket is a different thing than this stealth smell I'm speaking of - and a laundry basket or cat box is easily identified and understood. Like the difference between onions cooking right now and the odor of onions that were cooked three days ago and have permeated the house.

Also, maybe it's not as bad as you think!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:45 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's probably curtains and/or throw rugs that need to be washed, as well furniture that needs to be vacuumed, and/or just general dustiness. People forget to dust things like the tops of ceiling fan blades, mini-blinds, and the tops of doors, door frames, and wall art. I always read that the dust in houses is mostly shed skin flakes, so that would account for the "dirty laundry" smell.

Throw whatever you can into the washing machine. (Check the labels on any curtains.) For furniture, you can sprinkle it with baking soda, let it sit for a while, and then vacuum, or spray it (and anything else not washable) with vinegar, or Febreeze or something similar. You could also make your own spray using about 1/4 alcohol (vodka or Everclear is best, but rubbing alcohol will work too), 3/4 water, and some essential oil or fragrance oil. Whole Foods sells a few essential oils, too - lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus, not sure what else. Don't think in terms of drops of oil - for instance, use two or three eyedroppers full in a standard 32 oz spray bottle. (Target sells these in section with the mops and brooms. I'll bet home improvement stores have them, too.)

If you're really feeling industrious, rent or buy a steam cleaner, and use it on your upholstered furniture. (Although I used it - twice! - on a sectional sofa someone had given me that had belonged to a cigarette smoker, and it didn't help. NOTHING got that smell out.)

One of the best ways I know of to make a room smell good is to make the spray and then spray the heck out of my curtains. It will smell good for hours or sometimes days. Right now, my bedroom smells like pumpkin pie. Mmmmmm! Don't do this if your curtains are silk or something like that - mine are cheapies from IKEA and Target, so they're washable anyway.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:02 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

you mentioned a cat box, so I'm assuming there's a cat. A cat marking a spot, unknown, could cause a problem.

I had a recent issue with one of the cats deciding to pee on a rug where I wouldn't see it, and a rug that had a mottled color that meant stains are hard to spot. I had no idea until the smell started. I looked all over the room (which wasn't used often anyway) and couldn't find the spot. I was eventually convinced there was something dead in the wall.

I finally found the offending spot using an ultra-violet light (like those neat ones they use on CSI) purchased for $20 at PetSmart. I treated it with an enzyme order killer...things are now much better. I wish I had purchased one of the lights long ago.

Do NOT, however, take that light into your bathroom, you'll never use it again until someone has come in with a firehose and a 100 gallons of liquid cleaner!
posted by HuronBob at 7:12 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have neighbors who smoke? When a tiny bit of smoke seeps through into my apartment, it smells more like dirty laundry than cigarettes to me.
posted by moonmilk at 7:26 AM on November 3, 2011

Is there a vent in that area leading to someplace else that could smell musty?
posted by peagood at 7:29 AM on November 3, 2011

When you say "laundry," does that include your sheets? Even if it does include your sheets, how about your comforter or blanket? What's the status of your couch and/or the blankets you use on the couch?

Those things, particularly the "it's too big/bulky, so I can't just throw it in the wash and blast it with Tide" stuff, just collect body ick all. the. time. I can guarantee you that our comforter is the cause of most of our bedroom smell, because we've just been too lazy to get it to the laundromat... for multiple years :P

At the very least, consider buying an extra comforter and rotating them out every few months. Even just a winter/summer rotation can help.
posted by Madamina at 7:40 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

When you say "laundry," does that include your sheets? Even if it does include your sheets, how about your comforter or blanket? What's the status of your couch and/or the blankets you use on the couch?

Oh, good point, Madamina! I didn't think of that because my cats tend to throw up on my blankets regularly, so mine get washed all the time.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:49 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Before you do laundry, do you let damp things sit in a pile? Whether workout clothes, or towels, or clothes that got rained on, whatever it is, unless they are going straight into the washing machine, LET THEM DRY! No throwing damp towels into the laundry basket, hang them up to dry first. Sweaty running clothes? Let them dry first! Etc etc.

Also, do you let laundry sit, damp, in the washer for a while before you put them into the dryer? That can start the laundry funk smell, as well.

I doubt this is the culprit, but I figured I'd make the suggestion. Good luck!
posted by teragram at 8:03 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

One time I left a very tiny bowl of soy sauce out on the counter from the night before, when I came back home from work the next day, the entire place smelled like soy sauce. So that tells me if you have one little area in your place, like a pee spot on the rug from the cat. Then ventilation system will carry the odor everywhere. Also keep your condiments sealed.
posted by udon at 8:04 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shoes that never get dry?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:07 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have not read all of the comments. Could it be an old musty mop? I know my mop head can get musty and then I spread the musty odor when I mop.
posted by Fairchild at 8:45 AM on November 3, 2011

Maybe you could frebreeze the soft furnishings and rugs in case it's general mustiness from that.

I am adding my vote that it might just be the tiniest bit of cat pee on something you can't see. Maybe they sprayed a little or had an accident, even the best house trained cat can have a drop or 2 stuck to their fur or something, with cat pee it doesn't take much to make a smell. Also do you keep shoes or coats by the door if they have gotten wet and not dried properly can get pretty musty smelling.
posted by wwax at 8:50 AM on November 3, 2011

I think the key phrase here is at the entrance to the apartment, where you would likely be able to pinpoint a cause if it was a current one that was your fault. I think you're either being visited by the stank of a previous tenant (and it could have been anything from a cat to a houseplant that stayed too wet), a former or current neighbor, or there's a structural issue that's letting water or organic matter of some kind into the walls or subfloors.

If you get things very quiet and listen near the walls, do you hear any movement? Scratching? Animal nests and animals have that sort of dirty/earthy smell like dirty laundry, though usually that smell is overwhelmed by their pee. But positioning might mean that you get the earthy smell and some other neighbor thinks you're letting your pet pee everywhere.

Also, A Terrible Llama has a good point about shoes. Even dry shoes might go feral on you eventually.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:01 AM on November 3, 2011

Lots of good suggestions here. Washing blankets (even having wool ones dry-cleaned) can really help. Leaving out a large bowl (like a mixing bowl) half-filled with white vinegar seems to absorb most smells. Change it after a few days, and see if the smell is gone within a couple of weeks.

Good luck!
posted by brackish.line at 9:25 AM on November 3, 2011

Re: shoes, many of us (me included) wear the same shoes every day. Rotating your shoes, even just switching between two pairs every other day, can extend the life of the shoes (and your feet).

Whether you're talking about leather shoes or something closer to sneakers, they will absorb the shape, smell and secretions of your feet regardless of season or what kind of socks you're wearing. Giving them a day to breathe will help them dry out completely so they don't get broken down as fast. In turn, that will help your feet feel more comfortable and better supported.

And then they won't be as stinky, and neither will your apartment. Ta-da!
posted by Madamina at 9:25 AM on November 3, 2011

When was the last time the air vents were cleaned? If you have forced hot air heating it could be a dirty vent, crusty humidifier, clogged filter etc. You could also have mold inside the walls. Check for possible leaks around windows and doors. These will be very difficult to find if they only leak to the inside of walls. tell tale signs are bloated drywall, bubbeling or peeling paint, outside siding that is peeling and of course damp wood. Check the door and window sills for stains that would indicate the wood is getting wet. It may not be wet now, but the damages is already done behind or underneath.
posted by Gungho at 9:50 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have lived in places that smelled of mold/must, of cat box/messes, of smoke, of hidden rotting food plates, and of dead rotting things in the wall, and it is definitely none of those smells. The best way to describe it is the smell of my older brother's basement room when he was a teenager--he rarely cleaned it and kept the door closed at all times.

Laundry is done outside the apartment--I have a smallish basket that I take care of once a week or so. I keep it in my bedroom, and my bedroom doesn't smell. This is the living room that has the worst problem, and the draft in my apartment goes from front to back so the smell would not be traveling up from my bedroom. I don't keep my shoes in the living room.

I guess I should mentioned my apartment is extremely sparse, especially the living room. Not a lot of bedding, blankets, soft furnishings, or the like. The only things made of cloth in the living room are two small pillows for the chairs and the area rug. The chairs are wicker.

I don't have a rug shampooer or really money to go rent one. Is there a sort of good way to clean the rug without it?

We have radiator heating.
posted by schroedinger at 9:53 AM on November 3, 2011

I'd use 25% white vinegar/ 75% water to do a thorough cleaning of floors, baseboards and anyplace where shoes, laundry, catbox, etc. live, and washable furniture. The pillows can probably be washed. Check behind and in radiators for a dead mouse, and vacuum thoroughly while you're there. Check to see if there's a bad smell in the hallway a floor up and down from you; maybe it's coming from another apt.
posted by theora55 at 10:52 AM on November 3, 2011

I would definitely wash all the bedding and then Febreze the mattress just for good measure. Air currents could be causing the smell to sort of pile up at the front door, I have seen it happen.

And then? Then I would get a Febreze Noticeables plug-in air freshener, plug it in as close to the front door as possible, and call it a day. Like we disapprovingly say in the tech support trenches, "That's a workaround, not a fix," but hey - that's what they are for.
posted by ErikaB at 11:08 AM on November 3, 2011

Could it be a particularly funky neighbor?
posted by frecklefaerie at 11:19 AM on November 3, 2011

Like many others are saying: Vinegar, white distilled. You can use it to clean the carpet. Google cleaning carpets with vinegar. Its also a great odor neutralizer. You can spot check it if you're worried but you can dilute it half water half vinegar.
posted by heatherly at 11:31 AM on November 3, 2011

Do you hang coats at the entrance? I've opened closets with jackets/coats that have been worn for several seasons without being cleaned and have smelled that funky smell. The items themselves don't seem to smell bad, but the closet or coat rack has a pit smell. Also, could it be coming under your door?
posted by BlueHorse at 11:56 AM on November 3, 2011

"The best way to describe it is the smell of my older brother's basement room when he was a teenager--he rarely cleaned it and kept the door closed at all times." this is what I thought you meant - boy smell!

Is the smell at the entrance when you come from the bedroom to the entrance/exit, or do you notice it most when you first come home. (that is, are you playing the Dave Attel game "find the smell" or noticing it when you come in?) Either way, take a weekend and do everything everyone says!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:05 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I get a big whiff of it right on stepping inside, entering the living room (door opens straight to the living room). It dissipates as I walk down the hallway to other places in the apartment.

My upstairs neighbors are kind of funky, and they do have their bedroom right over my living room . . . hmm . . .
posted by schroedinger at 12:18 PM on November 3, 2011

Go wash the neighbors!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:26 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

You might try putting a Bad Air Sponge in your entryway. It got the smell of pickled garlic out of my garage (don't ask). You can find it in the cleaning sections of building supply stores and some supermarkets.
posted by tully_monster at 12:36 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

How much sunlight does your apartment get in those rooms relative to the others? Because that stale funky smell, in my experience, is usually best taken care of by letting in sunlight as much as possible, ie, keeping all the shades up all the time.
posted by ifjuly at 2:05 PM on November 3, 2011

I get a big whiff of it right on stepping inside, entering the living room (door opens straight to the living room). It dissipates as I walk down the hallway to other places in the apartment.

Are you sure it's not just that the smell is, in fact, everywhere, and merely seems to be strongest at the entrance because it's just so unpleasant and surprising when you walk in, seeming to disappear as you just get used to it? I have this problem and was going to ask about it eventually. Like you, I want to know where the hell it comes from. As in your case, it seems strongest when I first walk in the door, but I know it's everywhere. I've given up. I'm starting to consider it just a Thing That Happens When You Can't Air the Place Out. I just continue to keep things as clean as possible and to cover it up with fragrance from an oil diffuser when guests will be visiting. The cleaning suggestions from everyone above are spot on, but seriously, how often can you really clean all that shit? Cleaning all the coats in the closet - which I did do in an attempt to get rid of the stale odor in the house - that's twice a year kind of cleaning. But the smell comes back in a couple of weeks.
posted by kitcat at 3:06 PM on November 3, 2011

Cat puke under or behind the sofa? or a small remnant of a dead mouse? And be sure to look under the area rug -- the last time my kitty caught a mouse, she stashed the leftovers under the edge of the little rug I keep just inside the door for foot-wiping. It took me days to find it -- looked like a small dried out lima bean. I don't know what internal mouse organ it is (liver? gallbladder?) but the cats always leave it, usually hidden.

Here's one good way to clean a carpet, cheap and easy: sprinkle some baking soda or Borax around (pretty generously) and distribute it with a broom. Let it sit for a little while (1/2 hour?), then vacuum thoroughly. This method works for most upholstery, too.
posted by Corvid at 3:33 PM on November 3, 2011

I have to try that Bad Air Sponge!
posted by canine epigram at 6:45 PM on November 3, 2011

I had the exact same thing about two months ago. There was an area in my house with a vent in the floor, and it smelled just like dirty laundry. Here's what I did: I worried about it. Then it went away. I don't know whether it's a coincidence that heating season has started and there's now hot air blowing through that vent, but it's gone. My advice is before you go on a cleaning rampage, wait it out for a few weeks and see if it goes away.
posted by Dolley at 6:01 AM on November 4, 2011

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