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EastBay1907 07-15-2008 01:18 PM

Smelly old house - help!
We own/live in the downstairs apartment of a 1907 duplex on the Berkeley/Oakland (Northern CA) area. We call the duplex a "working man's" Craftsman as it was built after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake for "refugee" housing. It has a few nice details, like a few curved ceilings and some nice old wood, but isn't the real deal.

My problem is that the apartment has a distinct odor which is driving me crazy and I'm hoping some of you smart folks can help me figure out what's causing it and how to get rid of it!

Here's what I know:

- the upstairs apartment does not have the smell

- the downstairs apartment had the smell when the previous tenant lived there, when it was totally empty, after the walls were painted & floors refinished, and still now that we've been living there for over two years with all of our stuff.

- there's a crawl space under our apartment, which:
--- is well ventilated (many openings with screen coverings)
--- is uncovered clay soil
--- is not insulated
--- does not have a strong smell
--- does not have any evidence of mold or decay or water or pests (I've crawled all around it and removed all debris).

- we occasionally get a bit of mold growth on a piece of furniture near the wall during the rainy season in one corner of the house that has a window over the garden (and no heat), but otherwise no mold issues inside.

- when I walk out of the apartment and on to the back and front porches, I still smell the odor, but it changes slightly (and once I'm off the porches it's gone)

- the only descriptions of the smell we've come up with are "stuffy" or "natural" smell, and it has a hint of high/sweet smell (it does not smell like mold).

ANY advice, guidance or referrals to professionals are VERY much appreciated!
(anyone know of a " smell /odor expert"?!?!?)


CyFree 07-16-2008 06:24 AM

A few things I know that might help you
Dirt crawl spaces, vented and uninsulated are trouble.
The fact that you did not smell a thing in the crawl space when you were down there, might be explained by what we call "stack effect".
It goes like this. As the air warms up inside your house, it tends to rise (like in hot air balloons) and go out through any openings in the upper levels of the house. As it escapes through, the air in the house must be replenished so some cold air is sucked in from the lowest levels of the house. And yes, you guessed it... that means your crawl space.
Studies show that 1/3 of the air you breathe in your house, comes from your basement or crawl space.
So, the fact that you do not smell anything in the crawl space, does not mean the crawl space is not the source of the bad odors, because when you are down there, you are breathing the fresh air coming through the crawlspace vents as the stinky air is being sucked right into your home.
You said it is not a musty smell, so that is good news. You also said you did not see anything rotting or moldy, even better news.
But I'd call a crawl space encapsulation professional to take a look at the problem. Some will inspect it for free.

Oh and I'd also take a look at that wall and that window you mentioned. Is the insulation ok? Is there mold growing in a way you cannot see like behind the drywall? Even though it seems like the mold grows only during the rainy season, moisture is always bad news.

here's more info on crawl spaces:

EastBay1907 07-16-2008 11:10 PM

Thanks CyFree!
I've looked at the vapor barrier info before, but it always seemed like it was more appropriate for places with much more dramatic weather (as we're extremely temperate here), but it's definitely worth a try...I've got some numbers to call tomorrow!

As to the sometimes mold-inspiring you think there can be moisture inside the wall that stays wet even through the summer? Our house is so old, we've got lathe & plaster with no insulation, but we never have any mold issues in the summer. It's just after the winter/rainy season and is just on furniture that's against the wall under the window (which is built out over a "garden patch" not over the crawl space).

Thanks again for your advice!

CyFree 07-17-2008 06:15 AM

Could it be a leaky window?
I know mold needs two things to grow: moisture and organic materials to feed on. We know that the organic material in this case is your furniture. But it is a good idea to locate the source of the moisture.
Even though I don't believe the year round odor is coming from that spot, it is still worth investigating. Besides causing your furniture to rot, some types of mold can be really toxic.
If there isn't a leak, you might be experiencing condensation... then maybe a dehumidifier will help improve things.

Glenn Rightsell 07-17-2008 10:31 AM

Try an old remedy,as follow's.Lumps of charcoal ! Charcoal absord's odor's.Take orange Bag's and hang them .Lay them around.we have even stepped on them to make a powder to stretch out the supply.Remember after awhile (day's) throw them away.Also,use pure Bleach in obvious problem area's in a spray bottle.
Good Luck Glenn Rightsell

glennjanie 07-17-2008 11:58 AM

Hello EastBay:
I'm putting my money on the carcass of a dead animal, in a wall or under the floor. If someone has put out rat poision, they will go to a hidden place to die and stink for what seems like an eternity. I have also found several skins of cats and dogs that inadvertantly got closed in the crawl space.

EastBay1907 07-29-2008 02:08 PM

Thanks for all the tips!

Glen - I've tried charcol and a bunch of other stuff, but the smell always remains!

glennjanie - We did find a mumified cat in the crawl space, but it was too old to smell. There don't appear to be any entry spaces for smaller animals (we've had a pest control guy do "exclusion" work) and the smell isn't concentrated in any one room, so not sure about that.

CyFree - I have looked into the CleanSpace liner systems and it sounds good (which it looks like you work for, or the parent company Basement Systems). Our one concern is that our daughter is very chemically sensitive. Can you provide any information about the materials used in the liner and related off gassing. I do understand that the levels are within "legal" requirements, but our daughter's needs often require lower levels than that. I appreciate any and all info!


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