Should I be worried about an apartment building's smell?
July 12, 2005 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I looked at an apartment that seems really great (big, cheap, etc) except for a particular and not quite pleasant bouquet varying in strength and odor from mothballs to 'old house', to just plain stale. Should I be worried? How worried?

More details:
* It's an old row-house style apartment building, with 3-4 units in each 'house'. The apartment in question is on the third (top) floor at the end of the 'row'.
* The entryway and stairwells share a rather strong mothball smell while the apartment itself varies from weak-mothball, to 'old house' to plain 'ol stale in various areas.
* There's hardwood, tile, or laminate floors in all rooms. (i.e. it's not shoddy carpets/padding), if it's coming from anything it's the walls (my fear), the furniture (which will be going), or the people (also going).
* The whole apartment has drop ceilings, and some rooms in have wood paneling up on the walls. This makes me suspicious of what's being hidden.


What can I do to gauge the source and severity of the problem on my next visit to the apartment? What questions can I ask? What tests can I perform for myself? How can I determine if a good scrubbing and regular cleanings will allow me to live smell-free?
posted by ThePants to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should add that I've read some other answers and got some good ideas about what to do once I'm there.

The difference here is that I'm not committed yet.
posted by ThePants at 10:12 AM on July 12, 2005

Best answer: Get up close to the actual furniture and smell it. If the smell of the furniture is significantly stronger than the general smell of the apartment, it's the most likely source, and implies that it's the people and their habits that have caused the problem. With no carpet in the place, if these are soft material smells, they'll go away with the tenants and a little air.

Do the same for the walls, and in terms of the walls, also look for signs of water damage - peeling paint, stains, rough patches especially near the ceiling, since that would often be associated with mildew. If it seems like the walls are the source, you're pretty much SOL. Run away.

On the floors, look for dark patches and stains. If you can, smell them, too. Animal urine, especially, is very hard on hardwood floors and will stink to high heaven for a good long time, but it creates visible dark patches in the wood.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:31 AM on July 12, 2005

Adding to the above, those drop ceilings can hide all kinds of unpleasantness, including stale-house-smell. Also, a lot of times the area between the drop and real ceiling is used as a catch-all for contruction/remodeling debris by lazy remodelers, which would amplify the stale smell.

There's also the possibility of the drop ceiling hiding stagnant dampness. (I once had a litter of baby mosquitos hatch from my ceiling and cascade into my bedroom through a hole in one of the tiles. Yes, it was gross.)
posted by desuetude at 11:02 AM on July 12, 2005

Do keep in mind that many smells will be at their worst during the summer - something that bothers you now may disappear completely in the winter, only to reappear when the weather gets hot again.
posted by Coffeemate at 11:22 AM on July 12, 2005

I've moved into apartments before where they told me the smell or noise would go away or I wouldn't notice it. Neither was true. My feeling is - don't trust anyone. They'll tell you anything to rent the apartment.

I wouldn't take the chance.
posted by kdern at 11:24 AM on July 12, 2005

Cat or dog (or human) urine will glow under a black light.
posted by winston at 12:47 PM on July 12, 2005

Paneling and drop ceilings are bad news, IMO. If this is an old building there is a good chance that it these are there because it was falling apart a bit and it was easier to cover the damage and decay up with paneling than fix it. In any old building the condition of the walls, floors, and ceilings seem to be the most important indicators of whether you will have pests, whether the place will have mold/mildew problems, etc.

I say this only from personal experience living in a neighborhood with lots of old apartment buildings, some well cared for and some neglected. Paneling is a red flag.
posted by mai at 2:31 PM on July 12, 2005

Ugh. Sorry for the typos.
posted by mai at 2:32 PM on July 12, 2005

Best answer: If you can, check the basement for mold. Look for signs of leaking pipes in the basement - especially the soil stack. Look for yellow stains on the drop tile - water can allow mildew, which can cause odor. See if perhaps you can lift some drop tiles to investigate the cavity. Look for places where the paneling may not be tight against the base wall and look behind it. See if perhaps the closets weren't finished well. Look under the sinks. Look for P traps instead of S traps. Check that the tubs and showers are water tight. Check that the floors in the bathroom and around the sink in the kitchen are water tight. Look at the bathroom ceiling - if it's peeling, that's a sign that too much humidity builds up in that room. If you're really talented, see if the bathroom vents into the attic or outside. Bring a flashlight. Shine the flashlight into every crevice, crack, cranny, closet, and cupboard you can find. Don't forgot to look between the joists in the basement.

What are you looking for? You are looking for mold, signs of water damage, and hints of excess humidity such as condensation. You may also be looking for bugs, which can be a sign of poor housekeeping by the previous tenants or the neighbors. Based on the fact that you think the common areas smell funky, I'd be more suspicious that the odors came from the building than from the tenants.

Do the current people ever open the windows?

Keep in mind that your potential downstairs neighbors may be really stinky people. Take kdern's advice. Mai's comments about paneling are entirely true. Remember that there is always another apartment.
posted by arabelladragon at 2:57 PM on July 12, 2005

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