What's That Smell?! What to do When Your Home Stinks

Getting to the bottom of a bad stink is important as it may indicate a larger problem inside the home.


Smells are a funny thing. A particular smell or scent is so closely tied to our memory bank, and can instantly conjure up memories and images. We all strive to have a nice-smelling home, especially when we’re placing our home on the market or hosting a party. The problem with smells is that a person can actually become “blind” to a scent, unable to actually smell their home the way other people do. If you are concerned that your home has a certain odor, consider following these tips.

Smells: the worst offenders

You can probably guess the most offensive smells in the home: cigarette or cigar smoke, pet urine or general pet odors, mold and mildew, unappetizing foods, and bacterial types of smells like body odor. Unfortunately, many of the smells can permeate every corner of the home like the carpeting, drapery and furniture, making it difficult and laborious to remove. Getting rid of these strong odors is important, as they could indicate unhealthy or toxic things in the home. Mold and mildew smells, for example, not only indicate a potential water problem in the home, the spores can lead to a toxic environment for people and pets inside the home (read more about this here). Smoke from an accidental fire is another terrible and pervasive smell and can be difficult to remove. Usually homeowners contact a professional rebuilding and restoration services company – this is not only to rebuild and fix damaged areas but also to replace smoke-filled components within the home.

Masking the smell can make it worse

Often we reach for the air freshener or scented candle to mask strong odors and smells in our home. While this can work for small odors (like chopped onions or stinky shoes) or for short periods of time, it’s nearly impossible to completely mask large odors. Keep in mind that some room sprays and air fresheners contain toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are hazardous to your health. You can make your own air freshers quite easily with non-toxic ingredients (try these here) but remember that really strong and foul home odors will come back after your air freshener fades.

How to get rid of the smells

When you’ve found the source of your worst smells you’ll need to remove them with deep cleaning or removal. It’s usually easiest to focus on one room at a time, as well as one feature at a time (like carpeting). This will make your cleaning time more efficient and thorough.  Unfortunately, most of the worst odors will probably permeate the whole home as air ducts and heating systems can spread the scent into every room. Here are some common smell “traps” and how to tackle them.

  • Carpeting and area rugs: Hiring a professional carpet cleaning service is usually more effective than a do-it-yourself steam cleaning. This is because the industrial machines can heat up the water much higher and suck up more water. The pros might also have more experience with your particular stains and smells and can give expert advice as to what their machine will remove or not remove. Serious pet urine, for example, may have been soaking into the carpet pad and sub-flooring – this smell source will be impossible to remove in the carpet layer. It may be necessary for you to replace particular sections of your carpeting to ensure a clean underlayment. Area rugs can generally be cleaned as well, either at home or at an off-site cleaning facility.
  • Upholstery and furniture: Cigarette smoke and food smells easily cling to fabric and textiles. Drapery can be sent to the dry cleaners or look for a company that can remove drapery, clean it, and hang it up again. Many carpet cleaning companies will also clean upholstery like dining chairs and sofas. Like your carpeting, you’ll want to assess how deep the smell is: is it in the top layer of the upholstery or within the cushion? Mattresses can also harbor bad smells. Consider replacing it and make sure you purchase good quality mattress pads and protectors.
  • Closets and drawers: Wood and plastic furniture, as well as closets, can generally be cleaned and disinfected but first you’ll want to empty the contents. Sort through your closets and drawers, remove the objects that might be causing bad smells and clean them separately. Even if the source of the smell was from one object, it may have affected your other items. Once the closet or drawers is empty, start at the top and clean down to the bottom. While cleaning, inspect this storage area for water damage, mold, mildew or any other potential sources of the smell. You may need to make repairs, repaint or replace to ensure you’re starting with a clean slate. Cedar planks can be added to closets and drawers – they inherently smell amazing, absorb moisture, and can protect your valuables. To remove “musty” or mothball smells from wood storage pieces, you can place a bowl of baking soda inside each drawer, which will absorb smells. A bowl of vinegar will also work. You can often do a light cleaning using a mixture of diluted vinegar and water (I like to add several drops of lemon essential oil as well) to gently wipe down interior surfaces. Just be sure to test out an area first as water may damage your wood surfaces.
  • Basements and attics: Entire rooms like the basement or attic should be treated like other rooms in the home. If either of these rooms have become major storage areas this might take you awhile to empty them out and find the source of the smell. The reason these two places are extra important is that bad smells could be an indication of a more serious problem like a leaking roof, leaking foundation, leaking plumbing or a pest infestation. Not only can these issues ruin your belongings, they can ruin the structural integrity of your home.
  • Appliances, sinks, toilets: Appliances and fixtures can quickly turn smelly if not properly maintained or regularly cleaned. Fortunately, most of these can be cleaned pretty easily and the smell will dissipate. Kitchen sinks with in-sink garbage disposals can give off foul food smells. You can eliminate food odors by sprinkling baking soda down the drain and flushing it with water. A few small lemon or orange peels thrown in the disposal can also give a fresh scent. Be sure you always run the water when using the garbage disposal and don’t use your disposal as a garbage can. Appliances that use a lot of water, like dishwashers and washing machines, can have odors due to mold or food. Baking soda can also be sprinkled in both, just use a little at a time. After using these machines try wiping them clean with an all-purpose spray or plain vinegar. Toilets can become smelly for obvious reasons. Regular cleaning will help immensely, so will using your toilet properly and keeping it maintained. To read more cleaning tips, click here.
  • Garbage cans: The best way to keep the smell of garbage from filling up your home is to use a garbage can liner and empty it regularly. When you remove the smelly items, the smell usually goes away. If garbage has leaked inside the can you’ll want to clean it out thoroughly (it’s easiest if you take the cans outside and wash with soap and water). Compost bins inside the home can also smell so be sure to empty them on a regular basis and keep them clean as well.

When you can’t find the source of the smell

Some smells are obvious, some are not. It might be due to nose “blindness” or possibly just an odd combination of too many smells that make it difficult to determine. You might actually want a person living outside of your home help you out with this. They may be able to pick up on where the smell is coming from easier than you can. But if that’s not an option, you can actually hire professional cleaning services that provide deep cleaning services. They will probably recommend cleaning the basics like kitchens and bathrooms and carpeting, but might also recommend air duct cleaning or cleaning behind and underneath appliances. A dead pest can also be difficult to track down as they sometimes perish between walls or underneath the house. A pest control professional will be able to make an expert assessment and help figure out next steps. Always get an in-home consultation from a professional who will walk through the entire home and give recommendations for service as well as an accurate estimate. Find a cleaning professional on Porch.

Related: 8 Red Flags You Can’t Afford To Ignore With Your Home

 

 

Anne Reagan

Anne Reagan

Editor-In-Chief, Porch.com With a background in furniture and antiques, Anne has spent the last several years writing about home improvement and interior design. An avid traveler, she loves to collect pieces that tell a story and in her off hours she can be found hunting for vintage furniture and textiles.


Did you love the post? Tell us about it in the comments below!

  • Rob

    Thank you for the article. My wife and I recently bought a used wood desk and hutch through the Internet. It seems the previous owner stored cheap scented candles in one of the hutch cabinets and the scent is in the wood. We didn’t realize how strong the odor was until the desk was in our home. I believe those candles are often scented with synthetic fragrances and oil, and I think the oil was absorbed by the wood in the cabinet. I can even see rings on the shelves where the candles were placed, and sure enough, that is where the scent is strongest (although the entire inside of the cabinet has the smell.) My wife scrubbed the cabinet with Murphy’s wood soap, which didn’t reduce the odor. Then following a suggestion found elsewhere on the Internet, I sanded the shelves and coated them with water-based polyurethane to seal in the smell, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be working. Now I’m concerned that I’ve literally “sealed in the smell!” Or maybe it needs more coats to be effective. The desk is perfect in our office so we hate to give it up. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Rob! Great question and so sorry about the stinky cabinet! Sadly many candles are produced with synthetic scents, which can leave behind a smell many people just can’t handle (or are sensitive to). In the future, baking soda is a time-tested way to remove unwanted odors. You can simply fill an open bowl or jar with baking soda and let it sit in the cabinet to remove the smell. Since you’ve already sealed the wood, I don’t know if the baking soda will remove all of the odors however it will help.

      Another odor remover is distilled white vinegar. You can mix water and vinegar in a spray bottle and spray the inside of the cabinet and then wipe it dry. Any lingering vinegar smells will dissipate quickly. Another trick I like to do is add about 10-20 drops of orange or lemon oil to the water/vinegar bottle. Essential oils are a great way to get rid of bad odors and leave a clean scent behind. Because you’ll be using an organic product, few people have nose sensitivities to it so you don’t have to worry about replacing one bad odor with another. Please let us know if this works!

  • Zippo

    You
    can paint a permanent air purification system on the walls of your home or office, just add the ionic paint additive to the paint, turns the walls into a air purification system. Your home will me free of pet, smoking odors and toxins one treatment will remain as long as the paint on the wall surface is intact. http://www.ionicpaint.com