Why One Home Inspector Says to Be Wary of “Basement Smell”

published Sep 5, 2023
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Aah, the smell of a musty basement. It’s one you most likely know — and have known since childhood. Consider it the “classic basement” smell, if you will. Perhaps the musty scent brings back memories of causing a ruckus with your cousins or being ordered by your parents to organize the bins in the crawlspace.

Now that you’re reminiscing, I have something to say about that basement smell: It’s not good. According to George Gaves with WIN Home Inspection in Ann Arbor, Michigan, any kind of basement smell is really not a positive thing.

“Basements are oftentimes built underground,” he says, noting that some basements are walk-outs or similar setups. “This prevents them from getting the proper ventilation and, as a result, can lead to musty odors accumulating in the space.”

That means any basement smell is one you don’t want — unless you have an air freshener plugged in, Gaves says. Overall, the “smell” signals that your basement isn’t dry. And if your basement isn’t dry, that’s something that needs to be handled pretty quickly.

“Typically, if a basement smells damp and musty, it’s a sign of excessive moisture,” Gaves says. “The moisture could be caused by foundation leaks or a lot of humidity, especially in older homes with block or brick foundations.”

He has a solution, though: Get a dehumidifier. It should be running constantly for six to eight months out of the year in order to keep your basement dry. It should also help get rid of musty odors. If you’ve run one for a while and it didn’t help eliminate the smell, you may need some more investigation. The same goes if you’ve already got one going before you read this but your basement still smells.

If you can’t kick the smell, have an inspector come by. They should check your foundation for any cracks that might be letting water into the basement, or any other cause of moisture — like if you have an older basement that was never waterproofed. The inspector should also check the gutters and downspouts, as well as the grading of your yard, to make sure nothing is dumping rainwater back toward your foundation. That’ll be a whole other problem that needs to be remedied.

Ultimately, no matter what anyone has told you is “normal basement smell,” you’ll want to get anything less than fresh looked at.

“Not addressing excessive moisture or humidity in your basement could create microbial growth, which can be hazardous to your health, resulting in illness and respiratory issues,” Gaves says.

That’s a big “no thanks” from me.