Old houses have lots of charm, but they might also have mold, mildew, dust, pet odors and decades-old skin flakes. Eek.
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to combat old house smell. Here are some of the best strategies to freshen up your fixer upper, ranging from easy to more advanced solutions.
Note: This article contains affiliate links. See my disclosures for details.
Easiest Ways to Get Rid of Old House Smell
If there are no obvious sources of stench, like a leaky roof or moldy bathroom, you can start with these quick and simple ideas to de-stink your home.
1. Clear Out the Dust
Wipe off the shelves, counters, appliances, collectibles and other surfaces to remove as much dust as you can.
2. Open the Windows
Pull back the curtains and open the doors and windows to get fresh air and sunlight flowing. Let the sunrays work their ultraviolet cleaning magic.
3. Refresh the Closets
A lot of clothes sit around for years without being used, and they can collect odorous particles as they hang in the closet without much ventilation.
You might want to do a smell check and give all your clothes a good washing to revive them. Or, even better, donate the clothes you aren’t using to a charity.
4. Spruce up the Floors
Mop the hardwoods. Vacuum the carpets and give them a vigorous shampoo job. I love my cordless stick vacuum to quickly move between floors to clean the whole house.
5. Wash the Walls
If walls could talk, they would have to cough up dust mites first. While a lot of us remember to clean counters and floors, we often forget that walls could use some attention, too. Wipe them down with a damp sponge.
And don’t forget about wallpaper. A lot of mid-century houses have textured wallpaper, like my 1960s grasscloth. We were able to remove years of dirt from it with a damp (not wet) sponge.
Just use caution and test your sponge in an inconspicuous area first to make sure your wallpaper can handle it.
6. Wash the Curtains
You might think of curtains as set-it-and-forget, but they need a periodic cleaning, too. Pull them down and send them to the dry cleaners to make them spring fresh.
7. Clear off the Basement Floor
Basements are notorious for must and mold, and if you have a cement floor it could be wicking moisture up into your home.
Try moving most of your basement items onto shelves and off the floor whenever possible so the moisture can escape. Check under rugs to make sure they aren’t breeding mold babies.
8. Add Charcoal Bags
Activated charcoal can help absorb some subtle old house smells. I use charcoal bags in closets and basement rooms. Every few months I put them out in the sun to reactivate the charcoal.
Intermediate Strategies to Get Rid of Old House Smell
If a quick cleanup didn’t retire the reeking, consider these ideas that require a little more money or elbow grease.
9. Attack Your House With OdoBan
OdoBan is our secret weapon for cleaning the most pungent of surfaces. It can remove decades of smoke smells, pet smells and other foul offenders. We use the OdoBan Disinfectant and Odor Eliminator Concentrate, which needs to be watered down.
Follow the directions on the bottle to find the right dilution ratio for your cleanup. And make sure you rinse off the OdoBan or let it dry completely before letting pets back into the room where you use it. See directions.
10. Clean the Forgotten Nooks and Crannies
Baseboard heaters, bathroom fans, window sills and under-bed dust vortexes…hunt down all these hidden nooks and crannies in your home and give them a good cleaning.
Pull furniture away from the walls, check the back of the closet, tidy up the attic. Leave no surface untouched.
11. Snake the Drains
Drains are a big producer of phantom smells. Over time they collect hair, muck and funk, all hidden from sight. Glove up and clear them out with a drain snake.
12. Give the Cabinets a Makeover
Got original cabinets? With 50-year-old contact paper? It’s probably time for a makeover. Remove the old paper, deep clean the cabinets and drawers, and consider giving them fresh shelf liners.
13. Use Air Purifiers
An air purifier with a HEPA filter can help reduce dust and smoke in the air. Check the square footage coverage and place air cleaners in your most offensive rooms, or get one for each area in the house.
14. Clean Your Washing Machine
Front-load washing machines seem like a great idea, but they can be mold party zones. Check the rim and detergent tray for mold and mildew, and keep the washing machine door open between loads so it can dry out.
A moldy washer leads to smelly clothes, then smelly closets, then a smelly house. Stop it at the source.
15. Run a Dehumidifier
For moisture-prone areas like the basement or laundry room, you might want to try a dehumidifier. Suck up the extra moisture before any mold can make a bed in it.
16. Declutter Your House
A lot of smells are attached to stuff. Dust and allergens move into all that clutter you gather over the years. So a good way to fight old house smell is to do a house-wide declutter of all the items you’re no longer using.
Less stuff = fewer surfaces for scent particles.
17. Grow Lots of Air-Cleaning Houseplants
Houseplants can help clean the air in your home, especially if you become addicted and start collecting lots of them, as is usually the case. So keep adding to your urban jungle! Snake plant, pothos and philodendron are some easy-care heroes for purifying the air.
Advanced Strategies to Get Rid of Old House Smell
If your home’s odors stem from a bigger problem than dust, it might be time for a serious solution. Here are some things to try.
18. Paint the Walls
The right kind of paint can undo decades of smoke damage. For serious smells, try oil-based Kilz primer/sealer. And don’t forget to paint the ceilings.
19. Remove the Carpet
Carpets and their hidden carpet pads hold on to everything. We sent our basement carpet out the door on day one, immediately eliminating years of grime.
New carpet will help, but hardwoods or cork might be even better so you can easily see and remove dirt.
20. Reupholster Vintage Furniture
If you like older houses, you might also like vintage furniture, and that can be its own source of aged smells. Luckily, you can give your furniture a fresh reupholster job, restoring it to last for years into the future.
21. Fix Leaks
Where there’s mold, there’s often a leak. Check pipes, bathrooms, floors and ceilings for possible leaks, so you can fix the source of the mold and its resultant smells.
We used to get flooding in our laundry room on severe rain days, but we solved it by adding a French drain outside to divert the water away from the house.
22. Retile the Bathtub
Your bathtub or shower might look mold-free, but it could have problems behind the tile. Check to make sure the tile is well secured to the wall. Ours was held up by soft, damp and damaged drywall, and one day the tiles started falling off.
If that’s the case in your house, it’s time for a shower makeover. Hello, fresh walls and tile!
23. Get Professional Mold Removal
If you have a serious mold problem or you can smell it but can’t find the source, it might be time to get professional mold removal.
There could be mold hiding in the walls. The roof could be leaking water into your attic, leaving you with moldy insulation. Hiring help could be the answer to make your home healthy and clean.
Make an Old Home Smell New Again
Once you get rid of the old odors, you can freshen up your home with scented goodies. Try candles, wax warmers and plug-ins, or ideally a fresh-baked batch of cookies to make your home smell amazing.