Let’s smell your house!
When inspecting a house there are many “symptoms” and “clues”, but when diagnosing problems, one of the most interesting tell-tale areas of a house are aromas. What is especially interesting is how these distinct or pungent odors go unnoticed by the homeowner. They become immune to the condition. I’ll never forget this one house that I inspected a few years ago that had this odd distasteful smell that I could not identify. The house was clean, well maintained, was occupied by an older couple and there were no children or pets. The smell, however, was evenly spread throughout every room, closet, and corner.
When I mentioned it to the owners they gave me this quizzical look, like I was a little nuts. Proceeding undaunted however I finally got around to opening the crawl space access at the exterior. In doing so, I had to push myself through some relatively mature plants in front of the access door which would indicate to me that the area had not been regularly frequented. As I removed the rusty nails and pried the plywood cover open, a swarm of insects came flying out (one even flew into my mouth).
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Laying on my stomach and peering into the darkness within, I turned on my floodlights and lo and behold, there was this beautiful iridescent blue pond surrounded by rings of accent colors. As my floodlight hit the surface it actually reflected light and sparkled. It was beautiful but weird. It turned out that the meticulous lady homeowner loved using one of those blue additives for the toilet. The said toilet was leaking profusely (unseen) into the crawl, with all its contents and residue, for a LONG TIME. When I showed the homeowners, they were flabbergasted.
The following are another few smells we encountered over the years:
Don’t mess with this smell. If it is detected and ongoing, call the utility company immediately. I always sniff around gas meters, furnaces, hot water tanks and behind gas ranges and dryers.
MUSTY DAMP SMELL
This was very prevalent post-2008 when so many houses sitting empty for long periods with the utilities shut off. Once the power is off, there is no furnace to dry the house out and if there is a sump pump it is now non-functional and water can more readily back-up into the basement. Musty damp smells are an indication of water infiltration, mildew, and the big M – MOLD! Look in basements or attics for actual wetness, stains or unexplained black smudges. Look in closets or where there is little ventilation.
This odor is obviously very undesirable, but what many people don’t know is that sewer gas can be explosive! Sniff around drains. Go down into the basement and look up under plumbing areas in the house to see if there is any dripping water from bathtubs, sinks or toilet drains. Look for missing covers at sanitary waste pipes. Look in the sump basket (many times once the power is off, there are strange things growing in that area). And remember, if the house is vacant and the water is off, the plumbing drain traps may have dried out and are letting sewer gas back into the house (especially prevalent at basement floor drains).
Most commonly from undisciplined pets. This odor is difficult to remedy. Smell the furniture (if you dare), lift up throw rugs and look at the floors and check bathrooms around toilets. Is there any evidence that a specific area of the house has been used as a kennel (garage, basement, laundry room, etc)? Are there any litter boxes sitting around?
BURNING OR SMOKE SMELL
Obviously, this can be a serious concern. Look up in the attic for past burned framing which may indicate a past fire. Look at the floor under the range, look around furnaces or look in the dishwasher (many times the heating element is melting a plastic item). Check around your fireplace or wood-burning stove. Are the chimney’s opened and free-flowing (you may need a professional chimney cleaner)? Are there any combustibles stored around the hot water tank or opened light bulbs in closets?
Be careful with anything you touch! This type of odor is usually localized. Sniff around the main electrical panel. Look for charred electrical outlets. Are there any missing electrical cover plates? Do all the draw fans turn on properly? Just remember, that any electrical shortcoming is considered a health and safety concern. If you are unsure or cannot find the problem hire a licensed electrician.
So what! Who cares! Let’s stop and think about this. The kitchen and appliances have probably been more heavily used. Check the range draw fan for cleanliness and function. Does the garbage disposal function? What is the condition of the inside of the cabinets and pantry? Do cabinet doors & drawers need adjustment? Is there any evidence of additional wear and tear on flooring in these areas? What is the method of storing garbage or is there any evidence of insects/rodents?
And what was the most perplexing and strange smell that I have encountered? How about this one. We just finished construction on a new townhouse condominium and the new owner (prior to move-in) became aware of this terrible smell that seemed to originate in the living room. No one could determine the source of the smell. After extensive investigation and one of the laborers bringing in one of his hunting dogs, we concluded that the odor was coming from inside the first floor outside wall, next to a pre-fabricated fireplace. We busted a hole in the wall and were knocked over by the smell of a dead skunk. The carcass was decomposed and greasy. And just for the record, after trying every cleaning agent known to mankind to no avail, the only thing that would rid the area of the smell was a large bag of cat litter with REAL CHLOROPHYLL (very difficult to find in today’s market).
So, clean your nose and go out there and start sniffing. As you can see, just about any out of the ordinary odors can indicate an abnormality in your home.
Inspections By MJK
Mitch & Celeste Kuffa
627 N Riverside
St. Clair, MI 48079