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Musty Smells in the House – Finding Them and Getting Rid of Them

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If you have musty smells in the house or basement and want to get rid of them, the first thing you need to do is ask some questions. If my house is musty, do I have mold? Does my house get musty in summer? Does my house smell musty only when it rains, or only after I've been on vacation?

Smelly basement floor with mildew

Once you've narrowed down the symptoms, you can focus on eliminating the problem. The only lasting way to get rid of musty smells in the house is to find the source. In this post, we'll discuss sources of musty smells in the home and how to deal with them.

Note – I'm not a fan of air fresheners. We want to eliminate musty smells, not just cover them up.

Is it Moldy or Musty?

Houses old and new have issues with mold and mildew. Older houses develop leaks over time, letting moisture in where it shouldn't be. New houses are built so tight they trap too much moisture inside.

As a homeowner or renter, you need to be mindful of indoor air quality. If you feel congested or have watering eyes at home, but feel better when you're away, that's a red flag.

So what's the difference between mold and mildew? They're both fungi, and both like damp conditions. Both have a funky, musty odor, but mold tends to be stinkier.

Mildew is usually powdery or downy (think powdery mildew on plants). It forms a thin layer on the surface.

For instance, we have a litter box for the cats down in the basement. The box is plastic, so it doesn't allow the floor to breathe where the two make contact. We get mildew under the litter box. It's easy to clean up, but something I know I need to watch.

The same thing will happen with plastic storage buckets. (See Preparedness Storage for more bulk storage information.) We tried keeping an area rug in the basement for a time, but found it was prone to cause mildew under the rug.

Mold is usually thicker, and can penetrate into materials. If a mold infestation is bad enough, it can cause structural damage. Black molds are commonly associated with health problems and may require professional mold remediation.

Sometimes a home or basement is musty from other sources. Pet odors, VOCs and other chemicals from carpets, furniture or other items may also contribute to a stuffy, musty house.

My House Smells Musty in Summer

In the summer, humidity levels are often higher. (Cold winter air can't hold as much moisture, plus we add heat, which dries air even more.) These higher humidity levels feed the growth of mold and mildew. (Warmer temps encourage their growth, too.)

You may notice more of a musty smell in the basement as warm, humid air condenses on cool basement surfaces – feeding mildew growth.

If you go on vacation and come back to a musty house, odds are it's just a bit of mildew or stale bits. Open windows or kick on filters or fans to get air moving and disperse the stale smell.

My House Smells Musty After Rain

Moisture feeds mold and mildew growth. If your house smells musty after a rain, and it's a significant difference, rain is probably going where it shouldn't. The first spots to check are the roof and attic, but rain can seep into basements and crawlspaces, too.

Common Sources of Musty Smells in Homes and Basements

Water Leaks – Outside Seeping In

Check for roof leaks, especially around any roof penetrations like chimneys. Inspect basement walls for seepage. Check all exterior walls for signs of water damage.

Water Leaks and Drain Hoses

Inside the House – Watch for plumbing leaks. Inspect air conditioning units or heating units with drain lines regularly.

Even if drain hoses aren't leaking, over time outlet houses get buildup inside. This may have a musty odor. They may also trap and hold water, which grows all manner of “ick”.

Laundry Drains and Front Load Washers

Many front load washers retain a little water at the base of the unit. Over time, this water grows bacteria, leading to musty smells in your laundry area. We had problems with this in our first front loader. The new unit has a small drain hose, and I clear the stale water out every couple weeks.

An improperly installed drain hose may trap water in the line or allow sewer gases to escape into the home. (This can also lead to a frozen drain line.) Make sure drain lines are installed correctly.

Musty window with mold

Windows

Windows can be a problem in a couple of different ways. First, a cold window in a warm room is a magnet for condensation, which can lead to mold or mildew growth on the inside of the window. Second, if not probably installed, water can leak inside the window flashing and get inside the walls of the house.

Cleaning Mold with Borax

Adapted from Mrs Clean

Borax is a fungicide and mold inhibitor. It's also inexpensive.

Mix a solution of:

  • 1/2 cup borax
  • 1/2 cup plain white vinegar
  • 2 cups warm water

You can mix this in a bucket or use a spray bottle.

  1. Pour it over the affected area or saturate with a spray.
  2. Let it sit for 10 minutes
  3. Scrub the surface
  4. Repeat the process if necessary

Borax kills mold spores and retards spore growth on the surface.

Refrigerators and Freezers

Mold and mildew love to grow in those sweaty nooks and crannies of refrigerator and freezer door gaskets. Clean drip pans regularly – especially if you'd had any spills in the refrigerator. See Best Odor Eliminators for Refrigerators for more detailed fridge care.

Plants

The right plants improve indoor air quality, but plants can also be a source of musty odors. Make  sure you don't overwater plants, and allow plants to dry between waterings. Remove dead leaves and debris from your indoor plants and compost them. Give plant leaves and soil a spritz of microbial inoculant or compost tea to seed the surfaces with good bacteria and crowd out plant mildew.

Garbage Cans

Not surprisingly, garbage can make your home smell musty. We have weekly trash pickup, even though we're in the country, but smelly items can get pretty ripe in six days.

I try to get garbage dry before it goes in the waste basket. If there are meat scraps (and they don't end up as chicken treats), I keep them in a sealed baggie in the freezer until trash day.

If the trash can itself picks up a musty odor, I treat with a surface odor remover.

Food and Beverages

Often when food and beverage containers go into the recycling bin, there's a bit of residual food stuck in the container. If it dries up or the recycling goes on its way, not a problem. If it hangs out in your house too long, that's going to stink.

The same goes for baby bottles that roll under the couch, or glasses with a dab of milk left in the bottom. Like to eat on the couch instead of by the table? Over time, all those food crumbs build up, adding to the “unique aroma” of your home. Old food spoils, and it smells musty or foul.

I can't walk down the bread aisle in the grocery store without smelling the faint aroma of years of stale bread crumbs. (Which is why I always bake my own bread.)

Hidden Water Damage

Sometimes items that got wet in the past can still harbor mold and mildew. If you've had flooding or other water damage, make sure to check everything that was affected. Carpeting is one of the worst offenders, but mold growth can hide in books, furniture, walls and more.

See “Best Odor Eliminators for the Refrigerator, Freezer and Carpets and More” for tips on dealing with musty carpets.

Pet Odors

I think most of us have walked into a home where all you can smell are the pets. When you share your home with beasties, regular cleaning is a must.

Try to use washable pet bedding or bedding covers so you can simply throw them in the laundry from time to time. Use throws over sofas and chairs for easy washing. Vacuum frequently.

Consider an air purifier for the room where your pet(s) hang out the most, to pull pet dander out of the air.

Getting Rid of Musty Smells in the House and Basement

Once you've identified the source of the musty odor, it's time to get rid of it. For spot sources like plants, garbage cans and laundry, clean them up. If you find exterior leaks, get them repaired, and clean/remove/replace water damaged materials.

Moisture is the root cause of most musty house smells. If you have musty odors in the kitchen, laundry room or bathrooms, improve ventilation. We use ventilation fans with timers in the bathrooms. Switch it on when a shower starts, and it shuts off automatically.

If at all possible, stove vents should vent outside, not simply circulate air through a filter.

Enviroklenz Mobile Air cleaner for musty smells

If you have a finished basement, add ceiling fans – and use them. Moving air helps prevent condensation.

Air Cleaners

Consider an air cleaner such as the Enviroklenz Mobile. We received one to test this winter after dealing with a moldy batch of firewood, and it's made a huge difference in the basement air quality.

Before we got it, the mildew/moldy stuck around long after the wood was burned. Once the unit fired up, it de-stinkified the room in short order. It sounds about the same as a food dehydrator – not terribly noisy.

Dehumidifiers

For musty smells in the basement – add a dehumidifier. We recommend the Vremi Energy Star dehumidifier. It has a hose connector so you can run it continuously if you put it near a floor drain. There are both 1500 and 4500 square foot models.

Be aware, a dehumidifier will use a lot of electricity, so you will notice it on your electric bill.

If you suspect mold but aren't sure, get a mold test kit. (This one includes three samples and a professional consultation.) If you're dealing with leaks or flooding, you have about 48 hours to get everything dry before mold starts growing.

If you smell mold or mildew but can't find a source, call in the pros. Many companies now offer both mold testing and remediation. This is serious stuff, so please be careful. I've had several friends driven from their homes due to mold contamination and associated health problems.

Clean Your Home, Clear Your Mind

As you're hunting for musty smells, it's a good time to clear out clutter. Open spaces promote better air flow. Those cluttered, forgotten corners are prime turf for dust and mildew buildup.

If you need some ideas to help you get started, check out Spring Cleaning – 6 Steps to a Clean and Organized Kitchen6 Ways to Get the Musty Smell Out of Clothes and Towels includes tips for dealing with musty closets.

Several studies have shown that folks who have too much clutter also tend to suffer from higher rates of depression. I don't know if this is because they're too depressed to clean, or the mess makes them depressed. Either way, I figure it's a win-win to clean up your space. Less odors, and more room to tackle the next project.

You may also find these useful:

Sources of musty smells in the house and how to deal with them. Identifying mold versus mildew. Why your house only smells musty at certain times of the year.

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44 Comments

  1. I have a musty smells under the stairs and in my wardrobe and condensation behind the picture on the wall facing outside . Which tradesman man do i need to look at this for me ?

        1. I would check the yellow pages or online service directories for your area, such as Angie’s List. You could also try asking friends or neighbors if they’ve heard of a service that they recommend.

  2. Water comes in through my basement walls, fine cracks, painted surfaces bubbling up, concrete debris in some spots. The basement smells awful and the smell is coming upstairs through the wood floors. I realize that I need to stop the water from entering the basement. What do I use? Special paint? I bought a concrete type mix but it seems to be for larger cracks and says to chisel the cracks ‘square or undercut’. I think this must be for larger cracks. It’s called hydraulic water-stop cement. Please advise me what to do, I can’t afford to hire someone and this is overwhelming me.
    Now I’ve discovered that my clothes (upstairs) in the bottom 2 drawers are also smelly- mildew I think. I have a couple of fans blowing in the basement. Should I spray the concrete walls with chlorine and water solution? HELP!

    1. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not the sort of thing that paint or a layer of concrete on the inside of the wall will fix. You need professional help to route water away from your basement, seal it from the outside (water trapped in the walls can cause serious problems) and remediate the damage that has already been done.

      If the location I determined from your IP address is correct, there are programs available to help you get the help you need. The state of Vermont has some options listed here – http://accd.vermont.gov/housing/resources-rules/home-owners, and the federal government has some programs listed here – https://www.hud.gov/states/vermont/homeownership/homerepairs.

  3. Who do you call if you cannot find the source of the musty smell? In my case, we have checked everything and have no idea where the smell is coming from.

    1. Look for local remediation services, such as those who do cleanups after fires and floods. They typically have experience finding and clearing mold and mildew issues (and the associated odors) from the home. You might also want to get your heating and cooling system checked, and air ventilation system cleaned, if you have one.

      If you’ve gone through all the trouble spots listed in the post, what about the attic? Though less likely to be an issue, it is possible for animals to get into most attics. Once they get in, they bring an assortment of odors with them, too.

      Is there carpeting? Carpeting tends to trap and hold odors (and debris) more than hard floors, and be very difficult to clean completely. We use area rugs in a few spots instead.

      Good luck on finding your trouble spots. Once you find them, if you think of, I’d appreciate learning more. There may be other readers who are in the same situation.

      1. My pipe under my house had a couple of leaks for a while. I had the pipes replaced, but the smell ftom the water that leaked into a puddle in the dirt has caused a musty order. What xan be done?

      2. I have a similar issue. We rented out the house until recently. I always smelled a funny odor when I visited, but now that it’s empty and I’m in there more the musty/moldy smell is awful. I tore out kitchen cabinets, most flooring including all carpets, and the odor is still there. Going to try remediation companies to see what they advise.

  4. I’ve got a musty smell eminating from a corner in my kids’ room in my apartment that had an old telephone jack outlet. We’ve had some pretty heavy rains the past 2 months here in FL and I suspect water seeped in the wall or foundation from outside. It doesn’t help that our complex doesnt have gutters. I told maintenence and they said they’ll get a contractor on it and think that its coming from outside. What exactly should I make sure they accomplish? Should I insist they get a mold remediator or cut open the wall to find the source? Should I be concerned for my kids? Could this musty smell harm them? I keep the room door and window open day & night with fans and an air purifier going.

    1. I’d suggest finding the source of the odor. If it is mold, then yes, there’s a possibility it could cause health issues. The air purifier and ventilation is a good idea. Once you know for sure what’s causing the odor, talk to the professionals about the best way to remediate it. One step at a time.

    2. Donna,
      Did you find the problem of the musty smell? If you are still dealing with it and haven’t taken care of problem I would suggest Not to keep your kids in the room. I had musty smells in my apartment and took to long to get answers. It ended up being black mold. I developed asthma and health issues related to that. I hope you have remedied the issue, if not Please don’t stop looking for answers.

  5. While on the roof trying to clear vent stacks that were frozen shut I poked a hole through my kitchen ceiling. I patched the hole but rain must of been getting in the ceiling area and made the insulation damp because I can feel it when I put my finger through the hole. There isn’t any access to that part of the attic. The house usually smells musty after it is shut down for a couple of days. Can that be a problem?

    1. If the insulation is wet, it sounds like there’s an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed. Maybe the flashing around the vent was damaged by the ice buildup or attempts to clear the ice?

      Whatever the cause, if you have unwanted moisture trapped inside the building, this could lead to serious long term issues with mold and/or more structural damage. Investigate it on your own if you feel confident in doing so, or call in a roof repair tech. Money spend now will help avoid much bigger problems in the future. While they’re checking out the current leak, maybe they can do something to help avoid future ice buildups, too.

  6. A little water rained in at top of window making the stop molding wet and some Sheetrock now I have a moldy smell how could I fix that ?

    1. Depending on the severity of the water exposure, you may need to replace the damaged sheetrock to completely get rid of it. You can start with surface treatments listed in the post and getting a dehumidifier in there to get the area as dry as possible.

  7. Hello, I have a mildew smell that comes and goes in my laundry room. I don’t see any water any place. What could the issue be? Thanks

    1. One of the most common culprits in a laundry room is the clothes washer, as many of them end up holding some stagnant water in the bottom.

      Another possibility is a p-trap in a drain that isn’t aligned properly, so that you get a whiff of sewer gas from time to time, or the musty water in the trap gets disturbed and smells.

      1. We found when we replaced our dryer that the vent pipe needed to be nailed into the floor and then the dryer pipe attached secure. After this was done no more musty smell. Our dryer is on second floor of home.
        The dryer was blowing air into the crawl space in the home.

  8. I live in Florida, I have musty odors in a sink drain in my bathroom and in the living room …
    can a dehumidifier help to eliminate the musty odor..
    Btw I am the only person that smells this odor ..

    1. It depends on what’s causing the musty odor.

      Is there carpet in the living room? Then carpet cleaning in combination with the dehumidifier would be a place to start, but you may want to have a professional evaluation. If you have slab on grade construction, floor moisture is much more common, especially in humid areas.

      For the sink odor, a dehumidifier likely would not help. I’d check the p-trap under the sink for build up. You may also want to use a drain cleaner tool to clear out hair or other debris, and then flush the drain with hot water.

  9. Hi Laurie, I have a musty smell in my downstairs, ground level. It seems to be around heavy rain times but I think it is lingering now.
    Do you have a dehumidifier that you recommend?
    Thanks so much for your informative blog.
    Karen

    1. Hi Karen.

      Almost any dehumidifier you pick up at the local hardware store will get the job done. Right now we’re recommending the Vremi. It’s well rated, energy star certified (dehumidifiers can suck a LOT of power), has wheels so it is easy to move around, and has a catch tank and drain hose.

  10. we have flagstone floors and live in a one bedroom floor apt, our place smells musty, we’ve bleached everywhere and have cleaned everything, but no matter what we do, we’ve even ozone’d with a professionally ozone machine, and a UVC germicidal light, what ever we do nothing keeps the place from smelling musty/moldy, there is zero visible mold or mildew, what should we do? is it coming from under the stone floors, or in the walls, if so there is no visible sign… we can’t move at the moment, thanks, anna

    1. It’s probably time to call in a professional mitigation service to see if they can find and address the problem, as it sounds like you’ve done everything you can in terms of surface treatments. More air circulation may help bring the odor levels down, but if there’s moisture, mildew or mold trapped in the floors or walls, then changes need to be made in those areas for long term improvement.

      Regarding the duplicate comment issue, I hold comments for moderation and review before they go live on the site. Unfortunately, some people leave comments with bad links that lead to problem sites, so I manually check everything that gets past the automated spam filters, just in case.

  11. We just bought a home in FL and I can’t find the source of a smell -just smells Old!! Not sure what it could be but no amount of cleaning is helping. HELP

    1. If you’ve cleaned all accessible surfaces, and addressed moisture and air flow throughout the home, it may be time to call in professionals. A good remediation services company should be able to help you identify where the smell is coming from, and give you options for how to fix it.

      Many older homes have inadequate air handling equipment, especially when dealing with high humidity levels, so that’s one possibility. Dust and mildew can build up in duct work, too, so that’s another area that could be checked. Foundations often settle with age, or the moisture proofing can degrade, so that should be looked into as well.

  12. Hi Laurie, we purchased and have lived for the last few years in a house that was built in 1959.
    This was a flip. Every summer there is an annoying noticeable Musky smell Lingering around our main entry way and up our stairway. It is more intense around the general foyer area by the main door.
    This smell of only comes in the summer time. In fact it hits you just as soon as the temperatures start to rise in spring and lingers around till fall then it’s gone. It is annoying, and very worrying. As I recall This house had sat empty on the market for a long time prior to us purchasing it. And when we purchased it mold was supposedly not an issue As per the inspection. It was late fall when we purchased the house and so didn’t notice the smell of course until our first summer here. At first I just assumed that with time and airing the place as we do that it would go away, but oh no it just persists.
    I’m not sure what to do. I’m worried that we could have a mold problem but It’s strange that is confined to just this one area that of the house. And it can also be embarrassing when entertaining.
    I’m dying to Get rid of this smell and for once have clean air in the summer.
    But I’m also nervous to find out What could be causing it and Also worried that I may not be able to afford to find out or remediate. We don’t want to have to rip anything apart 🙁
    I’m a clean freak so I know for sure it has nothing to do with That. We do not have any pets. I do not notice the same smell in the basement. I Love the house but I just feel like there’s a history with it that we’re missing. Something is amiss somewhere.
    Any ideas or suggestions? I would really appreciate some direction. Kind of desperate for answers now.

    1. It sound like a moisture/seasonal condensation issue, but it’s weird that it’s just in the one spot. Maybe old damage around a leaky door that was covered up?

      Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to figure out the issue without either tracking down the history of the house through previous owners (or maybe long term neighbors) or hiring a professional remediation team. If it’s not something visible, then it has to be in the support structure, which means opening things up to take a look.

      If you do hire pros, make sure you get them there when the smell is most noticeable to improve their odds of finding the problem. Intermittent problems are some of the toughest to identify.

    2. My friend, Devin, shared her experience when I asked if other had dealt with something similar:

      ..take the drywall down and peek. 🤷 Not exactly that hard. We live in an1830s home and it is a seasonal moisture issue. It can be from basement moisture (get an estimate for sealing the basement floor and walls) could be a mold in the walls and/or not enough air return from crawl spaces or attics.

      Louvers placed strategically can alleviate some of this.

      If they take a wall down, use a respirator and have a 2 to 1 bleach and water solution handy. Simply spraying bleach (not disturbing the mold) and letting it dry will help a lot. Removal instructions available online (It’s been a long time. Google knows)

      Proper ventilation and containment (sheets of poly hung and taped shut around the area in order to seal off the mold from the rest of the house.) should be observed and an air sample can be submitted to a lab for analysis.

      Nate and I only wiped with bleach water the studs and removed all removable materials.

      Our moisture issue stems from a ghost wall under a crawl space that cannot be accessed but allows moisture to rise into a closet (bad ventilation… moisture…).

      But, I am putting a dehumidifier in that closet as soon as we can afford one. Options are limited at this point. 🤷

  13. We bought a tufted headboard that’s really tall and had to be attached to the wall for safety measures. It’s been 6 month after and I noticed the funky smell. We moved the headboard and there is no mold but a strong weird misty smell (like old apartments). What could it be? Lack of air in between the headboard and the wall? How do I get rid of it? I tried washing it with vinegar and soap twice with no luck, will try baking soda method but can it be prevented ? The headboard is velvet not leather. Please help!

  14. We have a reverse house, the living area is upstairs and bedrooms are down, fully finished. We have a musty smell downstairs. We have searched and cannot find any moisture. We run a dehumidifier constantly..
    Where should we turn from here? Who should we call?
    Thanks

    1. I’d search locally for remediation specialists, or companies that specialize in water damage restoration or basement remediation. There may be some moisture wicking through walls or up through the floor that doesn’t leave things damp to the touch but is enough to harbor mildew.

  15. Hi Laurie,
    We have a wood cabin in Alvin TX, on the buoy, water is always under the house. The tide gets high and the water rises. Under the cabin is well vented…. but it always smells., It has flooded twice since we had the place.
    Can I and/or need to replace the subfloors? Put on some kind water proofing? put a running fan under the cabin. Also the cabin is built on the subfloors, so I wouldn’t be able to replace that part of the subfloor, does that make a different?
    Any help you could suggest would be help for.
    Cecelia

    1. I suspect you meant “bayou”, not “buoy”, as it sounds like the house in not floating.

      With recurring water damage, it’s best to get a remediation professional to take a look at the situation and offer advice. Even if you end up doing the work yourselves, they should be able to determine the extent of the problem and suggest a course of action.

      If you search on “alvin tx remediation company”, it should give you several options. I’m not nearby, so don’t have a personal recommendation for a service.

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