Smelly Old House

flyingtim01May 29, 2012

So we purchased an older house (1910) and have been in it for a couple months now. We repaired plaster in the living room/dining room and gave the walls, ceiling and trim a fresh coat of paint in those rooms, not to mention a thorough scrubbing of the entire place. The second floor has sort of a stale-ish smell to it (you don't smell it when the windows are open) and I'm sure that will go away once we paint upstairs.

My biggest problem with the odor of the house is coming from the basement. It's damp. Its a stone foundation that seeps some, like they all do. Years ago, they poured cement on top of the dirt, which I'm sure helped things. However, its cracked and broken in some places, and there are even some chunks missing in some spots. The worst of the damp/mildew smell comes up the basement stairs, which is right at the front of the house, which means you smell it as soon as you walk in the front door and into the front hall.

I'd like to make the basement as dry as possible and keep it that way, which I'm assuming means that I'll need to get a dehumidifier, fill in the holes in the floor, etc. I'm just wondering if the damp/mildew smell emanating from the basement is something I'll ever be able to get rid of, and if anyone has any ideas on how best to minimize it.

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99% of water problems are originating outside the home, so that would be the first place to start. Make sure all the gutters are working properly. Make sure all the downspouts are diverting water away from the foundation. Make sure that the grading around the foundation isn't allowing water to run toward the house.

Once you make sure all of the preventative stuff is in place, then you can start addressing the water that is still making its way in.

And any problem can be fixed. You just have to be willing to spend the money it takes to fix it.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2012 at 9:15AM
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Thanks Bill. I did some work outside the house, cleaning gutters and re-attaching downspouts, as well as adding a couple of those flexible plastic extensions to divert it farther away from the foundation. I also need to add a gutter to one side of the small addition off the back of the house. The lack of a gutter/downspoint on that side is probably contributing to the dampness in the crawlspace under that little addition, which is right next to the real basement. We may need to do some regrading in the future, but it hasn't presented itself as a big problem yet. We've had some very wet weather in Southern CT the past few weeks, and the most water I've seen in the basement is about 1" in the bottom of the 24" deep or so sump, nowhere near enough to get the pump to kick on.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2012 at 11:41AM
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Can you put a dehumidifier in there, or some sort of a vent or air exchanger?

Air Exchanger Ventilator (AEV) is designed to provide fresh air into a building while exhausting an equal amount of stale air.

Here is a link that might be useful: One AEV

    Bookmark   May 29, 2012 at 2:12PM
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Yes, a dehumidifier is definitely in my future. And the air exchanger is an interesting idea. I'm wondering more about the smell that's been there for years already. If I eliminate the source for the most part, what can I do to get rid of the smell? Just paint exposed wood?

    Bookmark   May 29, 2012 at 3:06PM
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If you get rid of as much old dirt and crud as possible, caulk up small cracks, then paint the exposed walls and wood with the sort of sealant used for fire damage (KILZ Original, not the latex) it should make a dent in the musty smell.

But get air moving through the basement. Check for blocked vents, and figure out a way to put some sort of exhaust fan in there.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2012 at 9:15AM
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Sophie Wheeler

Rent an ozone generator after all of the possible repairs are done. And learn to co-exist. Old basements are just naturally musty smelling. Short of rebuilding them entirely to modern standards with a complete drain system on the exterior and under the floor, there isn't much you can do to eliminate that mustiness completely.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2012 at 10:50AM
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Our basement had a musty smell for two years until we did the following.

Chased all outside water (gutters, drains etc) and made sure it was all eliminating at least two feet from the house.

Cut carpet around walls two inches from brick.

And the biggie, removed all plantings two feet around the house, digging down and making a moat (as we like to call it) of pebbles on impermeable fabric all around the structure. This eliminates all of the need to water items hat were close to the house and has dried up the brick considerably.

Oh and added heat as well as dehumidifiers and an air exchanger in the old dumb waiter shaft.

The heat was painfully expensive but worth it as the warm rooms stay dry even with the horrible almost wall to wall carpet. Our basement is a daylight basement and we keep all modern stuff families like down there so getting rid of the smell was important to us.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2012 at 12:40PM
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Thanks for all the suggestions...we're definitely going to have to learn to live with it to some extent, its 100 years old and I'm sure it's been damp for 99.5 of those years. I'd just like to minimize the dank and the smell as much as I can. I'm hoping that since the basement doesn't get any standing water on the floor in the wet weather, it will be a simple thing to stay on top of, once we fill in all the chunks and get a dehumidifier down there. I'll just have to get a little creative with sealing off the basement from the rest of the house.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2012 at 3:15PM
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We have a 1904 farm house with broken cement in a Michigan type basement. It also smelled musty. A dehumidifier running for a week eliminated most of the smell. You should not have to close off the basement and definitely should not wait to put a dehumidifier in.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2012 at 11:25PM
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Thanks hendricus, if you had good results, I hope I do as well. The upside to this type of basement is that I can just run a line from the dehumidifier straight to the sump and have the pump push it outside every now and then, and not have to worry about emptying the bucket. I can just let the dehumidifier run and do its thing.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 4:38PM
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We just let it run and don't worry about the cracks, holes and missing concrete. It's actually quite pleasant now for an old basement.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 10:17PM
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We are in a 97 year old home, bought it 2 years ago at 95 years old. It has a floor drain, and someone had thought to do a French drain, but no sump pump. We don't get much standing water in the basement unless there is severe weather, and I do mean severe. However, of course it still does have that smell you describe as it's pretty much unfinished for the most part.

We had good luck by replacing our gutters, fixing drains, and repairing our chimney (which was leaking). Since then, the basement isn't nearly as dank smelling as it had been prior. There is still some kind of issue where water is coming in from outside during large rainstorms, we can't figure out exactly how but we have some suspicions and unfortunately, I think it's going to take major excavation to correct - and I don't have the money to fix it at all right now. Since it rarely happens, I'm not concerning myself too much with it. The house has managed to hang on for nearly 100 years with this happening so hopefully it will last long enough until I have the cash to take care of it!

    Bookmark   June 9, 2012 at 10:01PM
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Just wanted to do a little follow up. I picked up a Frigidaire 50 pint dehumidifier, hooked a short piece of hose up to the rear drain, and left the other end hanging into the sump well, and let it rip.

It's been running for about a week, and while I'll stop short of calling the results miraculous, I'll go so far as to say they were stupendous. The hygrometer started at 90% humidity on the day I installed, and it has been consistently falling, registering as 65% yesterday when I last checked. The atmosphere is markedly better. It still smells like a musty old basement, but the air is no longer thick with the smell of moisture and god knows what else. We had a hard, driving rain storm yesterday morning as I was leaving for work, so the house was basically closed up with the windows only open an inch or so. By the time I got home at the end of the warm, humid day, all I could smell in the house was the dog, no more musty, earthy basement smell. Bad news for the dog, but good news for me.

Now, on to other items. Like sivyaleah, I also have an issue with water coming in on one corner of the basement, though it only seeps. You never see water down there, you just feel it, I guess is a good way to describe it. I feel like the dehumidifier could keep up with it, but I still would like to correct it. But I feel much better about the current state of things now that the dehumidifier is happily humming away down there. I'd recommend one to anyone who asks.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2012 at 9:09AM
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Your next step (besides stopping water from coming in... which is very important) is to add a small heating fan in your basement and set it on low. My basement is bone dry during the winter and without any smell, but in the summer, even if I ran the humidifier to its full potential (yesterday the humidity down there was at 40%), I could still smell a bit of a musty smell... but with just a bit of heating, it has completely disappeared. I identified this solution after reflecting on why it was so dry during the winter and still a bit musty during the summer. It is because some pipes from our water heating system go through the basement before coming up. Even insulated, they leave a bit of heat out during the winter, so I replicated the same thing during the summer by using a small fan and it works wonders. I can now enjoy my basement to its fullest.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2012 at 11:18AM
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The farmhouse we're moving out of had almost a spring in the cellar. No way to keep it from being damp, but the sump pump kept out any hazardous water.

I'm allergic to mold, so the smell coming up from the cellar really bothered me. The cellar also has an outside entrance. So we floored over the inside stairway (giving me an extra closet) and just use the outside entry.

The house we just bought has the exact same situation, which we'll resolve similarly... instead of a closet, the stairway area will become a new first floor laundry area.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2012 at 7:04PM
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My house was built in 1880. Remodeling the kitchen we removed multiple linoleum Masonite and thin plywood floors. The odor is horrible. Like old gym shoes. Is there any way to get rid of the stink in the original tongue and groove flooring short of tearing it up and putting down new subfloor ?

    Bookmark   October 18, 2012 at 10:59PM
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