Something has died in the walls
July 23, 2008 8:59 AM   Subscribe

There is a dead thing in my apartment.

So I live in New York, and we're in the middle of a heat wave. Last night I got home to find a horrible- really, really horrible- stench in our apartment. Like the smell of an animal that has died and is lying around rotting in the heat. It's not the smell of garbage or anything like that- it's definitely Dead Thing. And it's really incredibly foul. The apartment has had mice in the past, so I assume that's what this is.

My roommate and I have checked our rooms and they're fine- the smell is coming from the living room. The thing is we've checked everywhere, under things and inside things and behind things, and we can't find anything. And the smell seems to be coming out from behind one of the walls.

We called our landlady, who's notoriously bad at responding to our requests, and she basically said to look harder because she's not going to get someone out to knock out the walls and destroy the place just because we can't find it. So what do we do now? The stench is so bad it's impossible to be in there, and apart from the pretty severe ick factor, I'm worried about the health ramifications of having a decomposing animal in our walls in the middle of high summer in New York (it could attract swarms of bugs or cockroaches or rats or other things that don't even bear thinking about).

We can't very well take a sledgehammer to our walls (especially without the landlady's permission), so how do we proceed? Do we have to just cope with it till the thing is reduced to bones? And is there anything we can use in the meantime to at least mask the smell so we can live there? What should our next move be?


Oh also, I had to stick this in grab bag, because I couldn't figure out if it should be "home and garden" or "pets and animals" or what have you...
posted by Dormant Gorilla to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My cats will make a litter scraping motion ("this is shit") when they encounter the physical source of a bad smell. Can you borrow a cat and see if they might move to the source of the smell, or a dog? Dogs like horrible smells in my experience. If it's in the walls though, you are going to have to do some kind of damage to get at it.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:05 AM on July 23, 2008

At this point, you should almost welcome the scavengers that will follow the scent. They'll 'fix the problem' for you, so to speak. The key is to aggressively repel those wee beasties from coming further into your apartment.

Lay out some traps, some cockroach-b-gone, whatever.

Get one of those in-out fans and start sleeping with the windows open to dissipate the smell.

Good luck!
posted by unixrat at 9:07 AM on July 23, 2008

Have you invited your landlady into this rodent cemetery of yours? I wonder if she'd change her tune if she actually smelled it. Also, if you can afford to, I'd bring in someone from a pest control company or at least call one. A pro might know where to look without doing serious damage.
posted by katillathehun at 9:10 AM on July 23, 2008

A cat? Never bring a cat to do a dog's work. A dog will try to get at it so he can eat it. Surely you have a friend with a dog who can stop by for 5 minutes.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 9:15 AM on July 23, 2008

It most likely is in the walls. When I lived in Florida, I had a "citrus" rat die in the wall of my bedroom. (That was my landlord's way of somehow making me feel better that I had a dead rat in the wall)

We got an exterminator to come in to take it out but the problem was an opening in the roof so I don't recall much destruction. If you don't find it, you might call a local exterminator, tell him/her what you suspect and ask what the general procedure is for something like this. I grew up in Brooklyn and I'm pretty sure you guys wouldn't be the first to have something die in your walls.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 9:15 AM on July 23, 2008

I agree you should get your landlady to come over, with the aim of getting her to hire a pest control person. If she won't come over, or won't hire an exterminator, call your local housing authority (maybe you can call 311?) to find out what your options are.
posted by lunasol at 9:21 AM on July 23, 2008

These kinds of smells tend to "migrate," so the location of the source can be hard to pinpoint without some exploratory surgery on the walls.

When I had this problem, I drilled some small, easily patchable holes in the wall at regular intervals. Then I sniffed at each hole to find the culprit. When I eventually opened up the wall, I was within a few inches of the dead rat.

If demolition is not possible, you might have to live with the smell until the corpse is dessicated. From what I've read, that can take anywhere from two weeks to two months. In the meantime, vent and mask the smell as well as you can.
posted by Knappster at 9:21 AM on July 23, 2008

Unfortunately, as far as exterminators go, they wouldn't even send anybody over until they had a faxed signed authorization.
posted by canine epigram at 9:24 AM on July 23, 2008

The good news is that the smell will go away in a week or so as the dead rat/mouse/hideaway turns into leather.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:54 AM on July 23, 2008

Thanks so much for all the answers!

I should've mentioned, our landlady is in Florida. I would love nothing more than to have her get a whiff of this but I'd have to kidnap her and put her on a plane to do it.
We did think about getting a pro in, but you're right, they said they needed authorization from the landlady. So that's a no-go.

I never even thought about borrowing a cat or dog to find the source of the smell. Maybe that, combined with the small-hole drilling, is the way to go. I really don't want to wait for it to dissipate, since we can't even really be in the apartment without gagging. Yay, city living.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 10:02 AM on July 23, 2008

To check in the walls could you remove the outlets, and shine a flashlight around? You might be able to spot something if it's between those two studs where the outlet/light switch is? Just an idea.
posted by jesirose at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2008

If you have a regular old upholstered sofa, you might check that. I had neighbors who had a mouse die deep in the innards of their sofa. They had throw the whole thing out.
posted by kimdog at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2008

I asked pretty much this same question about seven months ago and wound up with nothing that really helped me get rid of the smell (or the mouse). We ended up just having to wait it out with the windows open and some very strong scented candles burning--the Votivo Clean Crisp White candle works well.

In the end, it took two weeks for the smell to dissipate. Not a fun two weeks, but it was pretty finite.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:29 AM on July 23, 2008

Just on the offchance - do you have one of those through-the-wall air conditioning units? My apartment in the East Village had one, and that's where we finally found the source of our smell.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 10:30 AM on July 23, 2008

Huh. Your question didn't come up when I searched, yellowcandy. Thanks for the candle recommendation- febreeze is NOT cutting it.

We have a leather couch, no air conditioner. The weird thing is these walls are THICK- they're solid concrete, I think. We can't even get a nail through them. I could probably get a drill into them but beyond that I'm not sure, come to think of it. And that compounds the problem. I'm actually amazed the smell is making it through but there's just nowhere left in the room that it could be.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 10:46 AM on July 23, 2008

I would call 311 in this instance; at the very least they can tell you what your options are.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:47 AM on July 23, 2008

Buy a dehumidifier. Crank it up. Dry out the corpse.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 11:12 AM on July 23, 2008

Open your screens, let some flies in. Their mogotty offspring will make short order of any rotting meat. You'll have a swarm of flies for a few days, but then it will be over with.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:29 AM on July 23, 2008

From your profile's lat/lon it looks like you're in NYC near Greenwich Village. Your landlord is required to keep your apartment free of vermin and you are entitled to live in a sanitary apartment. You've got a city bureaucracy on your side (for all that's worth) if your landlord's refusing to help, including possibly suing for rent reduction. Linkage.
posted by WCityMike at 12:22 PM on July 23, 2008

Have you asked the neighbor on the other side of the wall if they smell anything? I would try to contact the neighbor anyway, as the smell might be coming from their place. If you get my meaning.

Good luck.
posted by Koko at 12:53 PM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Could be the neighbor above or below, also.
posted by Koko at 12:54 PM on July 23, 2008

Nick Verstayne: Did a mouse or something crawl into the thru-the-wall AC and die? I recently purchased a AC like that and don't really see where a mouse could get in. Although, oddly, sometimes the air blowing out of it smells a little musty (but not like dead animal)
posted by dm_nyc at 12:59 PM on July 23, 2008

Do you have a drop ceiling? A friend of mine had a rat die above the drop ceiling in her apartment - it produced a generally localized stink for quite a while, until the landlord could be bothered to get it out.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:50 PM on July 23, 2008

Buy some of these odor eliminating light bulbs and use them near the stink.
posted by hellbient at 3:35 PM on July 23, 2008

Thanks for that link, WCityMike! That is hugely helpful.
This thread has been very comforting, if only because it's nice to know that so many of us are living with decomposing vermin in the walls.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 9:03 AM on July 24, 2008

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