Home Renewal: Olfactory Overload

How to deal with unsavory smells

During my brief career as a landlord, with as many as five apartments at one point, I fought some unexpected battles. One enemy in particular visited again and again in various guises: the stink devil.

The following article is not for the weak of stomach.

Some of the smells I had to deal with were run-of-the-mill, like a dead rat in the wall. There’s little to do about that but pop open a bunch of air fresheners and let Mother Nature take her course. On one or two occasions, the musty smell of a slob’s lease-term seeped into the carpeting. Nothing a cleaning service couldn’t handle.

Other smells were more of a challenge. Take the case of the cute young couple whom I asked to leave following a domestic spat that involved a hunting knife. The lovebirds left not only the boyfriend’s blood all over the walls but also the smell of the cigarettes they had been smoking in violation of their lease.

Smoke can be a real estate killer. I remember when an elderly neighbor I had gotten to know decided to sell his house. He was a cigar-smoker. As he showed me around the property, I was gasping. The brownish walls oozed with the fumes of stogies puffed dating back to 1972. To be livable, the house would need a thorough gutting.

In the apartment of that young couple, I had to repaint everything, including the kitchen cabinets, to tamp down the stale smoke smell. I ripped out the carpets and replaced them with wood floors. Mission accomplished.

A smelly house not only hurts the property value but also can cramp a resident’s style. One of my brothers once lived in a basement apartment with a moldy smell that got into your clothes and followed you out the door. We took to calling his place the “corpse-partment,” so intense was the smell. But somehow, while living there, my brother couldn’t smell it. I’ll never forget the look of consternation that flashed across his face when I gave him the facts of the situation. Gazing into space, he murmured: “No wonder I haven’t been getting girls to go on any second dates.”

But none of the above prepared me for the utter olfactory defilement of one of my apartments. The first blow came with Katrina. After returning from evacuation, I had to tape up the tenant’s refrigerator, like my own, and get a friend to help me haul it to the curb. But unlike my refrigerator, his had a smell of such terrifying rancidity that it haunts me to this day. I shuddered to imagine what could be inside. Whatever it was, once we hauled that maggoty sarcophagus of secret horrors into the backyard, my friend and I both ripped our masks off and gagged into the grass.

But as it turned out, that refrigerator wasn’t the biggest problem. When the tenant moved out six months or so later, I discovered that he had not been taking good care of his dog – which is to say, the apartment was his dog’s toilet. The dog had just been letting the wood floors have it, day after day, year after year.

The entire apartment had to be repainted, the stove replaced, the bathroom completely renovated. I put new floors in the bathroom and kitchen. I had the wood floors throughout the house sanded and refinished. I even replaced all of the light fixtures. It seemed to work. But every now and then, out of the corner of my nose, I caught a wispy whiff of that refrigerator or of that dog. I’m not sure if it was real or just a passing ghost of smells past.

Smoke, mold and pet odors all have a way of haunting a house. Preventing smoke and pet odors requires only the most common of sense: smoke outside only, walk the dog, bathe and brush him regularly, change the cat’s litter box. For odors that have already taken root, you can paint the walls, steam- clean the carpets and use Pine-Sol and a whole lot of vinegar and water on wood floors. If that doesn’t work – and believe me, it might not – you may have to take the sort of drastic measures I did.

Mold is a more insidious matter. It can creep in with an undetected leak or, as many of us well know, from flooding. It not only stinks; it can cause health problems.

Mold can emerge from one of several air conditioning system issues. A central A/C system is designed to remove the moisture from the air. If that excess moisture isn’t draining properly, the drain pan can retain water or overflow. Also, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, if the air conditioning unit is too big for the house, it may cycle on and off too frequently, allowing moisture to build up. The system must be designed to manage condensation effectively.

Beyond the old bleach-and-water treatment, there are a number of ways to attack mold and the smell that comes with it.

Air cleaners (or “purifiers”) help by removing mold and other allergens from the air (though not settled places). They suck in animal dander, as well.

Ventilation is especially important in moisture-rich environments such as the kitchen, the laundry room and the bathroom. Avoid using carpets in such environments, and paint the walls with mold-inhibiting additives.

Dehumidifiers yank moisture out of the air and deposit it into a tank. Mold, mildew and various allergens need moisture to thrive and stink up the place. A damp house is a musty house. The Centers for Disease Control recommends keeping indoor humidity levels between 40 and 60 percent.
Air-duct cleaning sounds like an appealing approach, but according to the EPA, there is no evidence it is as important to reducing allergens as, say, regular service or replacing air conditioning filters in a timely manner.

If nothing else seems to work, there is one last, surefire way to get the offending smell out of your nostrils: Find somewhere else to live.
 

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