How can I eliminate strong odors in an old house?
June 21, 2004 11:34 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I moved into our new (old) house over the weekend. It's a great place, but already the list of projects is ballooning out of control. I'm sure I'll have lots of questions regarding these at a later date, but first an easy one (I hope):

Our dwelling has "old house smell". Now, I generally quite like old house smell, but ours is actually too strong at times. I can't tell if it's from mold and mildew in the cellar/crawlspace or from old carpeting in the utility room.

In any event: what can one do to elminate/reduce strong odors in an old house?
posted by jdroth to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
my experience has been:

get rid of old carpet and old wood. They seem to be the paces with the most stink. Any old wood like cabinets that can't be replaced should be sanded down and restained, if possible. Any old wood that you can get rid of, do so. Old carpet is also usually a huge stink factory, replace it if you can, it will make a world of difference that you cant appreciate until you do it.
posted by chaz at 12:01 PM on June 21, 2004

Seconding that. Fresh carpet smell lasts for a loooong time; new wood floor-smell lasts pretty long, too.

Cheaper solutions: Leaving windows open in smellier spots, Yankee candles (spiced pumpkin is my fave).
posted by GaelFC at 12:29 PM on June 21, 2004

I agree about replacing the carpet. It makes a world of difference. Also, what we found to be true was that if you have any paneling in the house, either tear it out and refinish the wallboard and paint, or replace the paneling (if you happen to like paneling). In fact, the "old house smell" that we had vanished almost completely when the paneling was thrown out the back door.

Also, really clean the kitchen. Use a toothbrush if necessary and make sure that every nook and cranny has been cleaned thoroughly. The elderly lady we bought our house from had kept it fairly clean, but she hadn't been able to move the stove or evidently clean the highest cabinets for a while, and there was some grease in corners and other out of the way places. Getting rid of that also helped.

AC/heating ductwork is also a major culprit. If you don't have the time and money to have them cleaned just yet, at least make sure the vent area is cleaned out as best you can. All manner of dust, mold, grease and whatnot liked to hide there.
posted by Orb at 12:52 PM on June 21, 2004

Don't throw away all that old wood! Man, they hardly make wood floors like they used to. Cabinets and wainscotting, maybe chunk that unless you like it.

A friend of mine just did this (bought a poorly kept 1910 house that needs looots of work. The first thing he did before he moved in was repaint everything. Every room. Use a really good stain and smell-hiding primer like killz. Prime everything, and plan to paint as soon as possible (even primer isn't a good undercoat if it's exposed to open air long enough). Painting made a very good improvment to the house. The previous owner smoked and there were dead white patches where pictures used to be, the rest of the walls were kind of brownish. Ew.

Next he refinished all the floor. Rented a drum sander, went to work, put several coats of poly on. Looks wonderful.

Find and remove all mildew, mold and fungus. You may need help doing this (professional help). At the same time find any water leaks as soon as possible, to prevent future mold.

Good luck!
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:12 PM on June 21, 2004

And if you're feeling disheartened about the smell, check out the weblog at House In Progress and start reading it from the beginning; their experiences will almost certainly make yours seem like child's play!
posted by bcwinters at 1:39 PM on June 21, 2004

get rid of curtains. surprised to hear the objection to wood, but i stripped + revarnished everywhere. also, just living in the house helps.

isn't their something about vinegar or bicarb of soda? or is that smelly fridges?

ps might be better to sand the floors before painting - there's lots of dust, so if paint is at all not-dry, it might turn ugly.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:02 PM on June 21, 2004

Oh, also, some HVAC filters are better than others for filtering smells out of the air. The good ones are probably the carbon-filter ones. You don't have to use them all the time, maybe just for the first few months. Having someone clear the air ducts may really help also.

Speaking of AC... at least here in texas it's a good idea to pour a half cup of bleach down the (proper) tube twice a year, to keep the mold and fungus at bay. Otherwise it clogs up the drainage pipes.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:05 PM on June 21, 2004

ExStink. Seriously. Buy this.

Every time someone Asks a question about getting rid of smells, I answer the same thing. And it really, actually, genuinely works. I ought to get a kickback from them, but I'm just happy the throw the business their way.
posted by majick at 2:06 PM on June 21, 2004

Don't forget to check the plumbing stacks. If any of those are blocked, you can get some backflow of sewer gasses.
posted by joaquim at 3:03 PM on June 21, 2004

I don't like using anything that you have to sprinkle in carpets, but I found that the mesh bags of activated charcoal that you can buy and leave in a place where air circulates a lot can work wonders for stink in a room. The condo I rent was rented by an indian couple before me and smelled strongly of curry when I moved in ... a few of these bags took care of it nicely, and they're reuseable even if they lose their smell-reducing ability; just leave them in the sun for a few hours.
posted by SpecialK at 3:51 PM on June 21, 2004

Getting rid of any soft furnishings will remove almost all of these smells. If you have ever seen a carpet being pulled up that has been down for 10 years or more, even with being regularly vacuumed and cleaned, you will understand why my house has tiled floors instead. Yuck!
posted by dg at 4:13 PM on June 21, 2004

Stinks love humidity, so a dehumidifier will help keep them at bay.
posted by archimago at 4:31 PM on June 21, 2004

In the long term, get rid of the carpet padding and/or the carpet, but in the short term, a very cheap solution is to break out a couple of boxes of Arm & Hammer- just leave them where the smell is the worst, and it will absorb the scent. You can also sprinkle it on the carpet and let it sit for a few, then vacuum it up, to help dissipate the scent. It's a cheap, safe for the environment and people in the environment, solution to odor problems.
posted by headspace at 4:48 PM on June 21, 2004

Old varnish gives off an "old wood" smell. Cleaning it and using a little boiled linseed oil & turpentine rub smells nice and makes it glow. Old, dirty painted wood can be washed. Decaying roller blinds, wallpaper, rugs, and fabric also smell old and need to be removed. If it smells like mildew or mold, it's really important to make sure it's dry, then clean really well with a bleach solution.

I like the smell of pine cleaner. It's mildly disinfecting and smells clean. After that, it's all about fresh air and sunshine.
posted by theora55 at 5:44 PM on June 21, 2004

Here's the cleaning and deoderizing tips from House in Progress... ... Thanks, bcwinters, for pointing me to that site ... I'm a renovataholic, or I will be when I get the opportunity to own a house in a few years, so that was a great thing to find!
posted by SpecialK at 10:50 PM on June 21, 2004

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