Why our house smelled, and what we did about it

Well, we bought the house we dreamed of! A house in our ideal neighborhood, with great flow, oozing with charm, and full of lots and lots and lots of projects to keep me busy. We knew that certain projects would be way easier to do before we moved in, and the odor issue was at the top of our list:

  • Remedy the odor issue
  • Patch and paint the walls
  • Refinish the floors
  • Refresh the kitchen
  • Gut and remodel the bathroom
  • Tent the house for termites
  • Tidy the front yard
  • Clean, clean, and clean

The smells of pet urine and cigar smoke were so intolerable that when we first showed the house to family, my father-in-law couldn't stand in the house - literally. My love for the potential of the home was mired in having to defend our decision to buy a fixer-upper. Family members weren't the only ones needing convincing - I was feeling deflated after reading horror stories of people buying smelly houses and being unable to remedy the odor. I kept myself up at night worrying about what we would do if we were unable to get rid of the stench. All I could do was try various methods to get it out.

Method 1: Open the windows and douse with vinegar

The poor house didn't seem to get much cross ventilation in the years before we rescued it. Leaving the windows open for days gave the interior a much-needed breath of fresh air. Clean air helped, but vinegar helped out even more. 

Each room earned its own tray of vinegar to help waft the magical cleaning solution around the house as the breeze blew in. The acidic vinegar smell helped reduce the urine odor while at the same time made the house smell like Easter eggs and an Italian side salad. Both of which I'll take any day over pet urine.

I stumbled upon a website that boasts thousands of ways to use vinegar. I mean it, the stuff is magical! Vinegar is one of my favorite cleaning products; it works like a charm, and it's a non-toxic alternative to the other chemical-heavy products on the market. Dish soap and Bar Keepers Friend were also perpetually in my shopping cart as we burned through those cleaners. I still can't live without Bar Keepers Friend. If you ever wonder what to get me for a birthday gift, I'll take a 4-pack of that wonderfully non-abrasive cleanser. Several people (read: the internet) recommended cleaning with TSP. I took their advice, but I've since regretted it after learning how toxic it is. I'm sure there are good reasons to use TSP but do your research first.

Method 2: Clean everything that won't get a full refinish

The douglas fir woodwork throughout the house is what first attracted me. I love the natural wood and can't wait to give it a thorough restoration one day. Yet, a full refurbish wasn't high on the priority list, so the trim got a good cleaning of all the grime it acquired over the years. My dearest mother spent a week visiting the house while I was at work to help clean all of the nooks and crannies of the millwork. Thanks, mom! We were also sure to clean doorknobs, light switches, window hardware, and windows.

Method 3: Cover up porous surfaces

So, we cleaned the air, the woodwork, and the hardware. Remaining are two of the most plentiful materials in the house: plaster (walls) and more wood (floors). Both are quite absorbent so a wipe down wasn't going to remedy the odor issue enough.

Sometimes a heavy coat of paint will mask odors, sometimes primer and paint will do the trick, but if they don't, you're stuck with smelly walls. The best solution is to recoat the walls with plaster or drywall, then prime, and paint. Since I wasn't taking any chances, and the walls were in need of patching anyway, this is the route we took. More on this later!

The hardwood floors absorbed not only the odors but also the actual culprit of the smells - pet urine. The only remedy for this is to sand off the protective varnish and a thin layer of the wood, then bleach and reseal the wood. Again, this what we did, but more on that later!

The kitchen earned its own coating of paint, polyurethane, concrete, and tile as well as its own scrubbing of surfaces. More on this later!

Maybe I should've named this post, "more on this later!"

Method 4: Clean out the HVAC

The above remedies cured the home of the smell, but we weren't done yet. A heating and cooling system is only as clean as the house was at its dirtiest. The filters that you replace every 3 months (you do replace your filters every 3 months, right?!) can only trap so much. After all of the dusty renovations were complete, and just before we moved in, we hired a company to clean all of the ductwork. They completed the cleaning, happily accepted my payment, then told me that the ducts were damaged and needed to be replaced. I wasn't surprised to hear the news, but since it was only for a heater (there was no AC) and we live in San Diego, I wasn't rushing to replace a system that we'd be using a mere three times a year. We moved in and carried on - until the house started to smell again. We came to realize the duct cleaning was ineffective, so the next step was to completely replace all of the ductwork and the furnace. We decided to take this opportunity to also add air conditioning - a welcomed respite from the sweltering summers. This was the first of many "well, if we're going to do this, we might as well do that, and those, and these."

After all of this, I'm happy to say the smells are gone. Whew! Next, I'll elaborate on those other projects I teased above.