What Is That Musty Smell?

What is that musty smell?


That old musty smell. It’s a common odor, especially in older homes and basements – that musty, kind-of-like-a-library smell. Some of us associate it with grandparents, or other homes from childhood, but when the smell shows up in your own home it can be, well…unwanted. So what the heck is it?

Unfortunately that musty odor is the telltale sign of mold and mildew problems. Don’t panic – it doesn’t take much mold or mildew to cause the musty odor, but the source needs to be identified as quickly as possible. Mold can cause respiratory problems for many people, including constant coughing, itchy eyes, and even skin problems. There are a couple of mold types (black mold and aspergillus) that can cause more severe health problems, so you want to make certain that these aren’t growing in your home.


How to ID the Problem Areas

First, use your nose to sniff out the problem area – does only one room smell musty? Is the smell stronger in certain areas? This will help you narrow down where you should look for potential moisture problems. Next, check common problem areas – under sinks, near water lines throughout the home, the attic area for a potentially leaky roof – are there visible signs of water damage anywhere?

If you can’t find a problem area, you may want to call in a professional. They have years of experience in handling mold issues, and can run a test to see what the mold levels are in your home. If they find mold, they can also help to id the location – sometimes it can hide in tricky spots like carpets and padding, subflooring, or old cardboard boxes and books (mold and mildew love paper products, and will grow happily if there is enough moisture around).

In order to get rid of that musty smell for good, you’ll have to fix the source of the problem. If there is water damage, make sure it is fixed and that the area is given a thorough cleaning with bleach or another cleaning product that will kill mildew or mold. If the problem is large scale (e.g., mold is growing in the padding of your carpet or in large areas behind walls), a professional will likely have to help with the removal and clean up. But killing the mold isn’t enough – the source of moisture and growth has to be removed, otherwise that musty smell just won’t go away.


Getting Rid of the Smell

Once the problem has been corrected, just go ahead and give the whole house a good, thorough cleaning. Open up all the windows, turn on the ventilation fans, and bring in exhaust fans to areas that don’t generally get good airflow. The goal is to get the old, smelly air out and bring fresh new air in.

While the home is airing out, it’s time to clean the fabrics that may have come in contact with the mold or mildew. Fabrics are notorious for holding on to the musty smell you are trying to get rid of, so give the fabrics that can go in the washing machine a good wash. Color-safe bleach may be a good idea at this point, just as a safeguard for any mold or mildew spores that might be handing on. If you can’t put the fabrics in the dryer, give them a good line dry outside in a sunny, dry spot. For upholstery, a good airing out in the sun is helpful, but if you can’t get the piece of furniture outside, sprinkle some baking soda on the cushions and let it sit for about 30 minutes, then vacuum with an attachment or hand vac.

After your home has aired out, it’s time to place some odor absorbers around the home. You can use either plain old baking soda or cat litter – either will work. In each room that has the musty smell, place a small bowl of your odor absorber of choice. This will help remove any lingering odors.


Keeping Mold & Mildew at Bay

Once the source of mold and mildew has been identified and corrected, you should be all set. For some homes, however, the mold growth is due to overall high humidity conditions in the home. In this case, it’s time to invest in a dehumidifier – either one for a single room, or a larger solution to deal with humidity throughout the home. If you are having problems with high humidity, check out our recent blog post for suggestions, or give us a call at (205) 871-8111 with your questions.