How to get rid of that old house smell

There are many possible reasons for a house to smell “old”, and each reason comes with a different approach to fix it
By
Updated on May 16, 2024
Written by
Amparo Lopez
Amparo is a staff writer for HouseFresh, having joined us in 2023. She is a sustainability advocate, holding degrees in communications, human-centered design and environmental policy. Her work has a focus on air pollution and climate change.
TL;DR

The key to dealing with old house smell is finding the root cause. Dampness is one of the most common sources of musty smells and is usually related to malfunctioning HVAC systems and insulation problems in foundations, attics and roofs. 

Excessive moisture creates the perfect environment for mold and mildew to thrive. It can grow in old wooden items, inside walls or furniture. Mold releases microbial volatile organic compounds as part of its natural metabolic process. VOCs are common sources of musty smell.

Avoid unwanted smells from accumulating by increasing ventilation. Reduce dampness by investing in a dehumidifier. Fix leaks and insulations. Deep-clean furniture and soft goods around the house. Also, regularly clean appliances, floors, baseboards and fixtures. An air purifier with HEPA and activated carbon filters will help tackle any lingering odors. 

The “old house” smell is something we all know about and probably have felt at some time or another. However,  there is no universal definition of it: 

  • Some may describe it as a ‘musty’, ‘funky’ or ‘stale’ stench
  • Others might refer to it as a ‘dusty’ or ‘stuffy’ odor
  • There are those who would compare it to ‘BO’ or ‘smoker-house’ smell

The list goes on, but you get the idea. 

For what it’s worth, there are many possible reasons for a house to smell “old.” Depending on the sources, the odor will vary. And the means to tackle the issue will, too. 

Living with that smell can be tiring. The good news is that there are simple things you can do today to help you remove that old lingering smell. Let’s get to it!

6 quick-fire tips to get rid of old house smell

When houses are not properly ventilated, dampness and odors become trapped inside, lingering. In addition to dealing with high humidity levels and more structural fixes, you should address some common causes of stale smell. 

Step 1: Ventilate the space to allow fresh air into the house

Increasing airflow is a straightforward and highly effective way of reducing humidity levels. Fresh air and sunlight will prevent home spaces from becoming damp,  reducing the presence of mold and lingering odors in the long run.

To boost airflow, consider using fans to create cross-breezes, ensuring the air circulates into the darker corners of the house. 

Tip

The sun’s UV rays are natural deterrents for microorganisms like bacteria, viruses and, most importantly, mold. Regular window glass filters out UV rays, so letting in the actual light is key.

Step 2: Thoroughly clean soft goods

Furniture and soft fabrics, like carpets, curtains or even the blanket you use to get cozy in front of the TV, hold onto odors. If these are not regularly cleaned, they will contribute to the stuffy smell in the house because over time, moisture can get trapped in the fibers of the fabric.

Give your furniture, upholstery and carpets a deep clean: 

  1. Sprinkle baking soda over your furniture and carpets
  2. Leave it overnight to soak up the odor 
  3. Vacuum it up the next day

It usually takes at least 24 hours to do its job, but it might need a few days for stubborn smells. If the odor persists, you can repeat the process. 

Tip

Mold spores are airborne and easily spread all over a room, including furnishings and upholstery. To clean the mold you must follow these steps:

  1. Wear a mask and open the window of the room where you will be cleaning
  2. Spray your furniture with 50% white vinegar, 50% water and a few drops of Tea Tree Oil mix
  3. Scrub lightly any visible mold or mildew. Don’t get the furniture too wet in the process and make sure it dries completely. Otherwise, moisture will build up again.
  4. Vacuum the surfaces with a HEPA filter vacuum. Regular vacuums will only spread the spores into the air.

Pro tip: For machine-washable items, adding borax and vinegar to the wash will help eliminate any spores.

Step 3: Deep-clean old appliances

Over time and with regular use, everyday appliances can unknowingly become reservoirs of old bits of food, grease and dirt. Leaks can also be hiding behind them. Vent hoods can get old and smelly and fail at removing odors from the air while you cook.

A thorough cleaning will go a long way:

  1. Pull out your stove, fridge, washing machine and dryer to clean under and behind them. Make sure there are no leaks.
  2. Vaccum the fridge’s coils and clean the top as well.
  3. Keep vents clean and replace old filters.

Step 4: Clean your floors, baseboards and fixtures

Unwanted odors can come from dust accumulating in floors and corners. If you have pets, pet dander and fur around the house will also cause smells to linger for longer. Dust, mop and vacuum frequently to maintain a clean and fresh environment.

Even seemingly overlooked areas like baseboards, light fixtures, ceiling fans and hard window treatments (such as blinds or shades) can absorb odors. Make sure to give these areas a thorough cleaning as well.

Tip

You can make your own natural DIY cleaner using:

✅ ½ cup of borax
✅ 2 cups of distilled white vinegar
✅ 16 ounces of hydrogen peroxide

  1. Mix the borax with 32 ounces of hot water
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix
  3. Use a sponge to apply the mixture to your walls and ceilings 
  4. Open a window and let it air dry
  5. If there are still some areas where the smell lingers, just give them a touch-up

If you prefer a more radical take on walls and paint them anew, you can try using an odor-blocking primer.

Step 6: Clean and maintain your drains

Regular maintenance of drains will make a notable difference. Baking soda and white vinegar make an efficient, pipe-safe cleaner:

  1. Put two tablespoons of baking soda down the drain
  2. Pour ¼ cup of vinegar
  3. Let it fizz for a few minutes
  4. Pour hot water into the drain
  5. Don’t use the sink for a couple of hours
  6. Bonus: You can add a few drops of Tea Tree Essential Oil. It will give the drain a fresh-smelling scent and it also has an inhibitory effect on mold.
Tip

Regularly unclog kitchen and bathroom drains to reduce funky smells due to clogged p-traps or pipes.

  • In the kitchen, throwing greasy materials down the drain is rather common.
  • In the bathroom, soap residue can react to calcium in the water forming “soap scum” that will deposit in the lines. 

Step 6: Use smell neutralizers

It takes time to completely banish lingering smells from a home. While you’re working on repairs and a whole house deep clean, from cupboards to furnaces and upholstery, having some natural odor absorbers distributed around the house can make a huge difference. 

These absorbents will reduce the odor and freshen up your living space:

  1. Place small bowls with baking soda, distilled white vinegar or coffee grounds in unintrusive spots around your home.
  2. Slip dryer sheets into built-in cabinets and closets to help absorb excess humidity.
  3. Place activated charcoal bags in enclosed spaces like kitchen drawers or closets.

What to do if the old house smell persists

A thorough clean will go a long way. It will improve your indoor air and eliminate more than a few lingering odors. However, more often than not, some stubborn smells are related to structural issues. While these may seem challenging to address, there are specific and actually manageable steps to take.

1. Check for pests

Rodents and roaches are not uncommon in old houses and buildings. They can hide and nest in walls, attics, crawl spaces and behind baseboards. Any small crack or damaged insulation is an entry to your home. Roach infestations produce a nutty, ugly odor, while rat pee and droppings will smell like musty ammonia. 

You need to deal with the intruders to get to the root of the smell. However, you can use natural odor absorbers to ease the issue.

💡 Pro Tip: Looking for a pest control specialist in your area? Check out Angi’s database of certified professionals. If you are positive about having pests in your home, call a few different companies to compare budgets and proposed solutions. Good technicians should do a full inspection before issuing a quote. 

2. Clean the air ducts and pipes of your HVAC system

The heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system removes moisture from the air before redistributing it through the whole house or building. As the system dries the inside air,  water vapor is removed through the condensate drain line. However, pipes can get clogged with dirt and debris, accumulating moisture and potentially leading to mold and mildew growth inside the system or the walls. 

In particularly old houses, air ducts may accumulate dust, cigarette smoke residues, mold, grease and even the remnants of possible pest infestations. As a result, the air coming from the HVAC will smell stuffy, and the system will distribute the unwanted smell throughout the whole house.

Make sure the HVAC system works properly by doing regular maintenance. Check air intakes and replace filters every 60 to 90 days. With old, stuffy air filters, the HVAC unit needs to work harder and is more susceptible to malfunction. 

💡 Pro Tip: Duct cleaning is not something to take lightly. If you plan to have the air ducts clean, take these EPA suggestions into consideration.

3. Uncover the most humid corners of your home

One of the most frequent causes of bad smell in a house is dampness, which can, in turn, lead to mold and mildew. According to the EPA, the ideal relative humidity in a home should be between 30% and 50%. 

Fixing excessive humidity should be a top priority, as it can ruin your floors, paint or carpet and lead to mold lurking around the house and eventually to structural problems. 

Here are some places you should check with the help of a humidity sensor:

Area of the HouseHumidity CausesHow to Reduce Humidity
Foundations & CrawlspacesIf not well insulated or air-sealed, the base of your home will release an earthy, musty odor known as a “rising floor smell” that will soon impregnate the whole house from beneath.Fix problems with seals and insulation. If the relative humidity is higher than 55%, a crawl space dehumidifier can help keep moisture levels in check.
Attics & RoofsLeaky roofs, condensation, deficient insulation, or poor ventilation can cause excess moisture in your attic.Fix any leaks and insulation issues. Consider getting a dehumidifier as it will extract water vapor and recirculate dryer air. 
Pipes & DrainsSlow but constant drips under the sink or within the pipe chases will create a perfect humid, dark environment for mold and mildew to thrive, releasing a musty smell in the space. Check the whole house for leaky pipes and fix them.
Walls When walls are under-insulated or have no insulation, air can leak and condense inside, leading to moisture and dampness. Air leaks in the wall frequently lead to mold growth.Keep an eye out for these common signs to detect mold growing inside a wall:
🚩 Yellow or brown water stains or discolorations
🚩 A cooler feeling on the wall compared to the surrounding areas
🚩 ‘Weeping’ walls (condensation)
🚩 Discolored spots, often mistaken for cooking oil splatters
🚩 Cracking, peeling, or bubbling paint 

4. Call the chimney sweep

If your house has a chimney, make sure to get it swept at least once a year. This will ensure there are no dead animals, leaves or other debris clogging the chimney, leading to unpleasant smells in the room.

💡 Pro Tip: Look for certified, insured chimney sweeps to do the job. There are no licensing requirements for chimney sweeps in most U.S. states, so the safest way is to call a certified professional. The NCSG is the largest US chimney guild, with a comprehensive list of trusty sweepers. 

5. Treat old wooden furniture and fixtures

A somewhat unexpected source of musty smell is old wood that, with time, has accumulated moisture and potentially developed mold to some extent. 

All of these are oftentimes overlooked and yet a common source of unpleasant odors:

  • Doors
  • Trim around windows
  • Window treatments (such as blinds or shades)
  • Cupboards and cabinets

When it comes to these items, the best course of action will depend on the state of the wood. If it’s too degraded, it may be best to replace it. If that’s not the case, a fresh coat of paint will eliminate the musty smell stemming from them. 

6. Get an air purifier

Air purifiers are efficient at removing airborne pollutants from your home air. Think dust, pollen, pet dander, mold spores and toxins. But they are also quite capable of dealing with the old house smell. 

However, not all air purifiers are designed to tackle odors. When it comes to combating stubborn smells, air purifiers equipped with HEPA filters (which can trap over 99% of airborne particles) and activated carbon filters (which neutralize and eliminate odors) are your go-to choice. 

Here are some tips to help you find the right unit for you:

  • Look for filters with a minimum of 5 lbs of loose-fill activated carbon to get the best results. Two large air purifiers that have large amounts of activated carbon are the Austin Healthmate and IQAir Healthpro Plus.
  • Get the right air purifier for your room size, guaranteeing 4.8 air changes per hour which is what the EPA recommends. If you have your floor space figure, you can use our CFM calculator to find what CADR you will need:

Final thoughts 

The ill-famed old house smell is something we all want to avoid in our homes. Besides, it can be a sign of structural problems — the more reason to deal with it sooner than later. While finding the root cause is essential to address the issue, there are many DIY steps you can try to tackle the smell.

Dehumidifiers and air purifiers are efficient devices to consider. However, if you choose to get any of them, remember to keep your dehumidifier clean and regularly empty the water collection bin. For air purifiers, change the filter regularly, according to the manufacturer’s instructions and be sure to check that the CADR matches the room site you want to use it in.

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About the author

Amparo Lopez

Amparo is a staff writer for HouseFresh, having joined us in 2023. She is a sustainability advocate, holding degrees in communications, human-centered design and environmental policy. Her work has a focus on air pollution and climate change.

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