informed about smells!
July 28, 2019 8:10 AM   Subscribe

I have an issue in a new house with a strong smells and before I hire people that come and charge me a lot of money, I want to be informed. How do I get help with this without getting ripped off?

I have a few theories that include mold, dead animal, or even Freon leak. Since the smell does seem to exist even with the AC off, I am thinking Freon is the least likely, however, maybe Freon could still be leaking whether the unit is off or on? Unfortunately, it appears a lot of these problems can cost a hole lot of money to get tested, just to find out that's the wrong option! The other concern is that from what I have heard a lot of people want to sell you a LOT of extra services and make them seem needed. What should know if I do hire a mold remediation specialist? Would it be reasonable to try to find an AC repair person to at least do the easy version of Freon check (just do an air test by the smell) for free or should I expect to pay? How much should I be expecting just for testing, and are there any other home repair type services that might help me identify the odor? It's causing eye burning and discomfort so it's more than simply an annoyance, and I have confirmed other people smell it also. There is no carpet and we had the toilet replaced. We've had a plumber out and did not see anything obviously wrong, we've had the gas lines checked though it's not a gas or sulfur smell and that seems fine. It's more chemically than moldy to me, but I have no idea how accurate my smeller is to determine that. I have literally cleaned all the walls and the floors and scrubbed everything multiple times and no impact. The bathroom never fully airs out even with the windows open though the rest of the house does.

I'm used to having allergies to tree pollen and mold and they are usually sinus related so the symptoms are unusual for me and remind me most of when we had a freon leak in an apartment many years back. What should know about costs related to Air conditioner replacement? The last leak they kept refilling, they said they "fixed the leak" multiple times (and didn't) and I think I would want to go with replacement before a bunch of failed and costly supposed fixes which ultimately lead to replacement anyway.

Where should I read to get good info on this, and be an informed home owner? I'm new to this, always apartments before! I really don't have any money to do the testing myself and might have to ask family for help- since this is really embarrassing I really want to at least pick the most likely sources before asking for a lot of costly help with this from others. If there are any sources I can get checked for free or for under 30 dollars, those could be options. The mold testing kits seem to all run over 50 once you add in sending it in for testing. I will eventually be able to save that, just seeing if there are any ideas I've missed that I can check for free or lower cost. If I can identify the source with a test, it would then make more sense to ask for help from there. I will be working more within the month and have few more options (so I want to hear about the more costly options too), however I'm a little concerned that IF this is actually a harmful odor, waiting could be detrimental to my families health.

Finally, I am trying to google this without much luck, is there any chance that I can find out about repairs that were previously done to the house and what are the ethics/etiquette of contacting the previous owner for that information? Should I already have that info? If I knew is there were issues with water related leaks or with refilling lost Freon this would obviously help me immensely!

Thanks for your help, helping me be more informed and prepared!
posted by xarnop to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might get a professional home inspector to come in. They have seen (and smelled) a great deal, and might be able to pinpoint the exact smell and cause. They are also not selling you anything, and have a fiduciary duty to you alone. For an hour of their time, it might give you the answer.
posted by nickggully at 8:27 AM on July 28 [6 favorites]

A lot of this advice is going to be location dependent. Your local environmental conditions will influence what you're likely to run into, so what's below may not apply to your situation. Sorry this is long, you're asking a lot of questions. The TL:DR is that from what you describe, it doesn't sound like mold or dead animal to me exactly. Do this in this order: 1) eyeball house for mold as described, 2) spend time on Angie's list as described, 3) do research on your house type, and 4) consider a radon mitigation system in the near future if appropriate for your area.

Big question - is the house new to you, or new-new? Because new houses can definitely off-gas and bad, and everything I wrote here doesn't pertain if it's a new-build.

Did this odor not come up during the closing period? Did you not have a home inspector?

You probably don't need to run a mold test right off the bat. If you live somewhere temperate that gets rain, mold *usually* smells on the earthy to earthy-bad spectrum. It rarely smells chemical-y or make eyes burn, and if it did, you would have visually seen it by now.

There are some key places that mold likes to hide, and you can find it just by looking. Start in your attic or whatever you've got between your ceiling and your roof. Mold tends to grow in attics that are poorly ventilated.

Next, bathrooms. Check behind the vanities, look for signs of water damage dripping behind a shower or tub enclosure, check to make sure all the gaps are caulked, and eyeball the baseboards (it'll grow behind there.) If a bathroom is not ventilating properly and people are showering in there, you probably have mold somewhere. Also, this isn't fail-proof, but if you look at the bathroom ceiling from inside the bathroom and you can see the outline of the joists, that's a sign you aren't pulling the bathroom air all the way to the roof. You would be surprised how often people vent bathrooms to a crawlspace or an attic. That'll lead to mold.

Check around doors and windows. Flashing notoriously fails and it can be hard to find this kind of damage because it's usually behind trim. There are moisture meters that you can hire a professional to come out and use. Do you have homeowner's insurance? You can get a water finder guy for the cost of the copay, or you can pick up your own moisture meter from the hardware store. You can also pick up a infrared thermometer from a hardware store that tells you relative temperature differentials and aim it around your doors and windows. If you get a hot (or cold, depending on time of year) spot, air is getting through, then water may be getting through. Bonus, this will tell you where you need more insulation or weatherstripping, although it's a less direct way to find leaks. You could probably pick up both tools for under $100, or work out tool swapping arrangements with neighbors/friends.

Next, basement / crawl space / whatever you have under the house. Same thing - look for signs of water incursion. Water will leach through concrete block and leave salt stains, which can look fuzzy and white, but mold tends to be black or green. (Most black mold is not SUPER SCARY DEATH BLACK MOLD.) Mold can have white parts but one of the neat things about mold is that it will be different colors. (Next time you've got a moldy piece of fruit, notice that the edges are probably white and the middle is green - that's pretty cool!) Anyway, if you have white fuzzy on your concrete block, you DO have a water problem, but don't panic that it's mold without further investigation. Mold needs water AND something organic to eat. Concrete block isn't organic. But, think about it like a puzzle. If you have a concrete block wall running the length of your basement, and there's water incursion on the block and then you have a finished drywall space, or carpet on the floor? You probably have mold on the backside of that drywall or carpet, especially if they didn't use green board or proper waterproofing. The pain about basement waterproofing is there isn't really anything you can do from the inside that's effective. There are reasons why people get snippy about finished basements.

If you see mold, you can do a mold test if you want, but whether or not it matters is dubious since the treatment is always the same. You do different things based on if it's little or big, and that's all outlined on the CDC website. Generally, you'll need to throw away anything porous that's contaminated - this can mean redoing a bathroom to remove drywall, vanities, wooden baseboards, or if you have water coming up through concrete slabs, throwing away carpet. If it's up in your eaves, you can pay someone to gas your house. This will all kill the mold, but 1) you'll still need to remediate the water problem or it'll come back and 2) the allergenic parts of the dead spores will still be in the house. If you get to this point, and I doubt you will, the mold remediation people can talk to you about what you need to do at this stage.

You can also see signs of water damage repair. There are the obvious waterline marks but look for water spots in a ceiling, especially under things like second floor toilets. You may even have access ports or clearly repaired ceiling plaster under a toilet or a tub. (Access ports behind a shower are no big deal, that just means someone wanted to replace the handles at some point.) Bubbly/wavy drywall or plaster that's been painted over is another sign. Depending on where you bought, this sort of stuff is supposed to be disclosed before you buy. I wouldn't contact a previous owner, but I would look very closely for clues. In general, walls and ceilings are flat when the house is built. If it's not flat, there's a reason.

Also, what's the age of your house? All houses have problems based on the materials that were used at the time they were built. For example, if you have an 80s house, you may have ABS pipes that are prone to springing leaks. Researching the materials in your house can help you find likely problems and give you heads-up for other things you're likely to face. There's an online building inspector's forum that's a lot of fun to plumb around in. I like inspectapedia, but NACHI is fun too.

Dead animal doesn't usually make eyes water except for maybe a few days during the worst of it, and it tends to get better with time. It can stink up a whole house, though. Unfortunately, if the critter died in a bad location, your choices are "bang holes in the wall and try to find it" which is hard, or "wait until it stops stinking."

Freon leaks are not something I know about. I would hop on Angie's list and look for a repair person who offers something like "free diagnosis" or "free price quotes" and if that failed, I would look for an HVAC person advertising something like "$100 winterizing inspection" and I would just go ahead and pay for it. Describe the problem over the phone and ethical HVAC people will tell you if they do or don't think that's their wheelhouse, and might have other ideas based on your local conditions. Cost to repair would then depend on your system and the exact problem.

One last suggestion - do you have radon mitigation and are you in an area where they're common? Radon is odorless, but depending on the mitigation system, sometimes especially in damp areas, it helps to air out the area under the house and can help with house-funk smells. If you were planning to get a radon system anyway, this might be another reason to bump up your plans. Keep in mind, if you're American, that the radon intervention level in the US is much higher than it is for the rest of the world. I recommend getting a system if you're hitting anything close to the EU/WHO standard, and also remember that radon numbers vary seasonally.
posted by arabelladragon at 8:48 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]

It is not uncommon for smells in the carpet to become more noticeable during the absent period between owners -- sunshine and stagnant air are a nasty combination on carpets.

It might help to grab an UV light, wait until dark, and scan the floor and do a sniff test on any suspicious glowing marks. I have two warnings, however: (a) never look directly at the UV light itself; it is highly concentrated UV light and is bad for your eyes (b) a lot of cleaners will fluoresce because of so-called "optical whiteners". If you see a lot of fluorescing stains, it does not mean you're living in a biohazard.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:17 AM on July 28

Drains? Do the plug-holes smell sweet?
posted by StephenB at 10:13 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]

to elaborate on StephanB, if a house has been vacant for a while, your drain traps may have dried out. Pour water into every drain, don't forget the basement.
Smells from this would be sewage, not chemical.
posted by H21 at 10:47 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]

If there's a strong chemically smell that's eye burning, I'd have the HVAC thoroughly inspected. Freon smells sweet, but there are a number of smells that can come from a malfunctioning HVAC system. Find some companies that do free estimates and get a few quotes to see what's they suggest.
posted by quince at 12:10 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]

Some paints, varnishes, and other surface modifications can give off strong solvent smells for a long time (especially if improperly applied), to give you another avenue to check.
posted by janell at 12:24 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]

If you think it’s a dead animal, invite a curious cat or any normal dog over. As soon as they’re comfortable, they’ll investigate the source of the smell - if it’s animal based.

I once found a dead mouse I could smell but not see in this way- borrowed a neighbour’s cat and he tried to get behind exactly the right bookshelf.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:34 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]

I really appreciate all of these suggestions! I'm trying to create the least costly and most likely things to check first and this has helped me create a great list of how to get started! The home inspector idea is also a great idea if I can't pinpoint it with any cheap DIY- as it seems they can essentially test for all sorts of things. Thank you all so much!! -xarnop
posted by xarnop at 6:39 AM on July 29

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