How to get rid of musty basement smells: and prevent them
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How to get rid of musty basement smells: and prevent them

Jun 28, 2023

Cleaners and home reno experts explain how to get rid of musty basement smells – from finding the source to freshening up the space

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Musty smells in a basement are not just unpleasant if you intend to convert it to a family room – but if you use it for storage and laundry too. But how do you get rid of musty basement smells?

It turns out that bad smells in basements could be a sign of something more troublesome, from mold to leaks – meaning we need more than just some clever cleaning tips to rejuvenate the space.

We have asked professional cleaners and home renovation experts to explain how to get rid of musty basement smells, and how to locate the cause of the odor to keep them at bay.

Even if you don’t use your basement that much, bad odors can be a sign of damage threatening your home's structural integrity such as rot or mold. What’s more, a musty basement prevents the rest of your home smelling nice too, making it more than just a localized nuisance.

Here’s how to deal with the problem once and for all.

Ventilation is vital to preventing and getting rid of musty smells caused by stale air – and your basement is no exception, even if it doesn't have windows. Mark Buskuhl, home reno expert, and founder and CEO of Ninebird Properties suggests ‘installing an exhaust fan that continuously circulates fresh air into the basement, or add vents to low windows to help air flow more freely.

‘You should also inspect nearby vents and ducts, making sure that they are not blocked and that they are properly sealed,’ he adds.

Dust has a peculiarly musty odor of its own, and unless you have made the most of your basement with a cozy renovation, it is probably full of it, says Elizabeth Shields, cleaning expert and operations manager at Super Cleaning Service, Louisville.

‘Getting rid of dust by sweeping those floors, wiping surfaces, and cleaning stored items is your strategy,’ she says. ‘Invest in a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Do this at least once a month if you don't actively use the space and you’ll notice the difference.’

If you want to be extra careful with dust, you can also opt for an air purifier to help combat dust in the air before it settles, along with pet hair and dander, which may also cause strange smells over time.

Concrete is a common basement flooring option that is hardwearing and relatively easy to keep clean with a brush, but leaving them unsealed makes them more hassle than they are worth, warns Elizabeth Shields, cleaning expert.

‘Concrete loves absorbing moisture, which can lead to mold,’ she cautions. ‘By sealing that concrete with a waterproof sealant, you’re giving your basement armor against moisture, cutting down on those musty smells.

‘It is best to have a professional do this to make sure the job is done correctly,’ she adds.

Getting rid of mold can be a tricky task if it is left unchecked, which can be common in hiding spots like the basement. If you have ventilated the space and been unsuccessful in shifting the odor, then you may need to search for signs of moisture and mold growth, says Mark Buskuhl, home reno expert.

‘To reduce the amount of mold and moisture in your basement, you should consider investing in a dehumidifier to help reduce the humidity levels or having a home reno expert install waterproofing measures like an interior drainage system,’ he recommends.

Once you have treated the initial moisture problem and removed the mold, it is a good idea to also take preventative measures to prevent the problem from arising again, adds Dave Roebel HVAC expert at Northeast Mechanical Services: ‘If the musty smell persists after cleaning, consider repainting the walls with mold-resistant paint. This type of paint contains antimicrobial agents that can help prevent mold growth and the associated odors.’

Dave Roebel is the owner of Northeast Mechanical Services, a provider of mechanical solutions catering to a wide range of industries. Their products and services include expert installation, maintenance, and repair of HVAC equipment.

Basements are common spots for home storage, but using the wrong sorts of containers and failing to seal boxes correctly can lead to musty smells and damp belongings. The solutions? Good quality plastic bins, says Elizabeth Shields, cleaning expert.

‘Items stored in a haphazard way can lead to those musty odors. Swap cardboard boxes for plastic bins to avoid moisture. Elevate items with shelves or pallets to keep them dry, and remember to regularly check for dampness or mold.’

Large Plastic Storage Bin | $79.99 for 4 at WalmartThese organizing containers from Walmart are stackable and transparent. They have a durable lid and secure latching buckles. Handy for winter clothes storage or for seasonal decor.

When you have ruled out mold and moisture as a cause of the odor, then using natural deodorizers can help to clear away any lingering scents, Dave Roebel, HVAC expert, concludes. It is worth noting that these won’t work until you have treated the cause, he adds.

‘Place natural odor absorbers like baking soda, activated charcoal, or bowls of white vinegar around the basement. These substances can help absorb and neutralize odors over time.

‘Alternatively, you can clean with vinegar,’ he says. ‘Mix equal parts of water and white vinegar and use it to clean surfaces in the basement. This can help eliminate musty odors and disinfect surfaces at the same time.’

6% Distilled White Cleaning Vinegar | $21.57 at WalmartThis specially formulated white vinegar with cleaning strength at 6% acidity lifts grime and breaks down grease, getting rid of nasty odors

A dehumidifier can help to combat some leading causes of musty smells in a basement, such as dampness or mold, but it will not get rid of the smell on its own. Once you have treated the root cause of the smell, using cleaning techniques and fragranced products, as well as preventative measures to prevent the issue from recurring is essential to combating the smell once and for all.

It is not normal for a basement to always smell damp, and a constant smell may be the sign of an underlying issue such as a lack of ventilation, excess moisture, or even mold. It is a good idea to seek out the cause of the door, checking for leaking pipes, appliances, leaks in walls and ceilings, and issues around any windows you may have. Treating the cause and improving ventilation will help to get rid of the smell for good.

It is worth noting that not all musty basement smells can be resolved on your own, warns Dave Roebel, HVAC expert. ‘If the musty smell is persistent and you're having trouble identifying or resolving the issue, consider consulting professionals such as mold remediation experts or contractors who specialize in basement waterproofing,’ he suggests. This is not only important for how your home smells, but your home’s integrity too.

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Chiana has been at Homes & Gardens for a year, having started her journey in interior journalism as part of the graduate program. She spends most of her time producing content for the Solved section of the website, helping readers get the most out of their homes through clever decluttering, cleaning, and tidying tips – many of which she tests and reviews herself in her home in Lancaster to ensure they will consistently deliver for her readers and dabbles in the latest design trends. She also has a first-class degree in Literature from Lancaster University.

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Large Plastic Storage Bin | $79.99 for 4 at Walmart6% Distilled White Cleaning Vinegar | $21.57 at Walmart