How to Get Rid of That Musty Smell in Your House Once and for All

published May 17, 2024
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ELMHURST, IL, USA - MARCH 18, 2019: A large, old dining room with a wood table and a chandelier hanging above while looking towards other rooms.
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Mustiness — that unique, stinky basement smell — can happen anywhere in your home. Instead of masking it with air purifiers or scented candles, take the time to find out what’s causing it and eliminate it once and for all.

Here’s how to get rid of the musty smell in a house.

What causes musty smells?

If you’ve ever been somewhere with high humidity and poor air circulation, you’ve likely encountered a musty smell. According to Bethayn Uribe, mitigation division supervisor at ASAP Restoration LLC, the smell is coming from one source: mold.

“Musty smells are only caused by mold and mildew,” she says. “Mildew smell is a specific odor that results from mold contamination and really nothing else. It also doesn’t matter if the musty smell is in a home, office, warehouse, or in a barn. This smell is singularly associated with mold contamination no matter where it is.”

What’s an easy way to find the source of the smell?

Use your senses of sight and scent to sniff out the smell in your home. Follow the scent as close as you can and locate the origin point. If you can’t pinpoint it, look around for water damage or mold or mildew growth.

“Rooms with poor ventilation and high humidity are typically the areas where musty smells accumulate,” says Kelly Russum, the owner of KC’s Plumbing & Air Conditioner. “It could be your basement, laundry room, or bathroom. Check these rooms in your home thoroughly, paying special attention to dark corners, behind furniture, and under sinks where moisture can easily build up.”

If you still can’t find any outward signs of the mustiness, Uribe says it’s time to start testing the air quality and surfaces. You can find kits at your local hardware store, but calling a professional is the best way to get advanced-level testing done.

How do you get rid of the smell?

Getting rid of the musty smell in your home requires immediately disposing of whatever is causing the problem. Remove any wet wood, musty fabric, or any other wet or musty porous surface that you find. If the material is part of your house structurally, sand back the surface until you reach a part that isn’t wet or musty, then spray it with antimicrobial spray.

“The only way to get rid of this smell is to get rid of the materials that are harboring the mold and mildew infestation to begin with,” Uribe says. “Even if you kill the surface of these contaminations, the depths will regrow from the darkness and bring the same odor right back.”

Wash fabrics with vinegar to see if the smell goes away. If not, you should think about throwing them out.

How do you prevent musty smells from returning?

The best way to prevent musty smells from returning is to prevent moisture buildup and water damage, Uribe and Russum say. Fix any plumbing leaks and remove any sources of standing water. 

“Some plumbing leaks are not easy to detect, so pay attention to unusual increases in your water bill, damp spots on floors or walls, and the sound of running water when all taps are closed,” Russum says. “These are the sure signs of hidden plumbing leaks.”

You should also properly ventilate your home, which Russum says you can do by opening all the windows in your home for 15 minutes to a half-hour every day, and anytime after you take a shower or cook. Use a ceiling fan to push air around, and keep the interior doors of your home open. You can also get a dehumidifier and keep the humidity level around 40%.