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Heading off home odors

A real estate agent once advised us that selling a home is enhanced when the interior smells fresh and inviting to prospective buyers.

She said that when holding an open house or home tour she places a couple of tablespoons of vanilla extract in a pie tin and places it into the oven, which is set to bake at about 350 degrees, leaving the oven door ajar. The tin remains in the oven until the vanilla has disappeared usually about 15 to 20 minutes.

The vanilla aroma permeates the home leading visitors to believe that a batch of cookies has recently been baked. The real estate pro then treats her guests to freshly baked cookies from the local bakery as a treat and as sensory reinforcement.

Unfortunately, there are some odors in the home that even the vanilla treatment won't mask; furthermore, masking is a temporary resolve. The most sensible path is to find the source of the odor and correct the condition.

A major unpleasant aroma that our listeners often contend with has been described in numerous ways: a moldy stench, it smells damp, cheesy or rotten!

The smelly descriptions vary, but, for the most part, they often stem from one common source -- water. Water feeds things that smell and can threaten a home's structural integrity as well. Condensation, which occurs on the interior of windows and walls, is big time mildew fodder and promotes rapid spore growth. We all know what that smells like. That puddle at the window sill and the dampness on a wall are definite no-nos. Ponding and heavy condensation not only feed spores, but can leak into the wall cavity and cause big-time wood rot. When moisture persists, the soaked materials create a perfect environment for wood rot -- and the smell associated with it.

One of the most effective ways to deal with sweaty windows and other types of condensation is to improve air circulation in the affected room. This can be achieved in several ways. One of the simplest is to open window coverings during the day to allow the sun to enter the home and create natural air currents that have a drying effect.

Frequently, trees and shrubs around the home are so dense that opening shades does little to allow the sun to enter. Thinning dense shrubs and trees will have a profound affect on the condensation problem. Decorative ceiling paddle fans are another means of eliminating the condensation problem and, at the same time, enhancing comfort and lowering the utility bill. A ceiling fan run in reverse (counterclockwise when looking up at it) will force warm air down from the ceiling and along the perimeter walls, drying out the windows almost instantly.

The kitchen, laundry and bathrooms, which contain moisture-producing appliances or water fixtures, should have ventilation fans that discharge moisture to the exterior even if these rooms have windows. Also, the clothes dryer should be ducted to the exterior -- not into the crawl space or attic area.

Poorly ventilated areas promote condensation. Poor watershed at the perimeter of the home also can cause moisture to collect inside the home. An unusually damp basement or crawl space will promote condensation at floor level and on the inside of foundation walls.

There are several things that can be done separately and together to improve conditions. The first is to limit the amount of irrigation at the perimeter of the house. Some thought should be given to replacing archaic and inefficient watering systems with new sprinkler heads or a drip irrigation system. The soil at planting areas that surround the home should be graded so that water will travel away from the foundation. Downspouts that carry water from the roof should be discharged into subsurface drainage pipes that carry water away from the home.

Installing foundation vents at the perimeter of the home is another way to dry out the basement or crawl space. This should be considered even if the home already has foundation vents.

A layer of 6 mil plastic sheeting, placed directly over the dirt in the crawl space, will cause condensation to occur below the plastic rather than at floor level. The seams of the sheeting should overlap by at least six inches. The sheeting should also be held back from the foundation wall about four- to six-inches to allow some moisture into the crawl space. Completely drying out a crawl space can cause damage to hardwood floors.


James Carey and Morris Carey are nationally recognized experts on home building and renovation.

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