How to Get Rid of Musty Basement Smells

Use the household products to get rid of musty basement smells
Use the household products to get rid of musty basement smells

Basements are the perfect environment for damp, musty smells caused by mold and mildew. Unfinished rooms are even more likely to harbor the dark, moist areas that mold and mildew prefer. Clearing out mold and mildew smells from a damp and musty basement requires getting rid of the moisture in the air and finding a way to trap the airborne particles causing the smell in the first place.

That musty basement smell is the product of mold and mildew growing in the crevices of your dirt or concrete walls. In finished basement, the mold may be growing on or behind your drywall. A little later we'll look finished basement situations and the remedies for them.

Damp Basement Causes

  • Condensation
  • Humidity
  • Leaky Pipes
  • Wall Cracks
  • Pooling Water at the Foundation

Identify Causes of Musty Basement Smell

The basement is, by definition, underground. This makes the ambient temperature in a basement much cooler than that of the rest of the house. Cooler air is unable to hold as much moisture as the warmer air in the upper levels of the home. When the air from upstairs comes in contact with the air from downstairs, the moisture in the air condenses on the cool basement walls (and any uninsulated cold water pipes that are running through the area). These cold, moist surfaces are the perfect breeding ground for mold. The darker the area is, the better it is for mold growth.

Outside moisture leaking into the basement can also provide a mold growth environment. That Earthy mildew smell might be coming from a broken seal on a basement window or crack in the foundation wall. Other things like clogged rain gutters, French drains, or sewer backups can also bring water in contact with the basement walls where water can pool and be absorbed by concrete walls. Leaky pipes are another potential cause of moisture in the basement.

The other major cause of mold and mildew in the basement is the laundry – the dryer in particular. Even though the dryer vent will take much of the heat and moisture from the clothes outside, some of that moisture may condense on the walls and pipes. Properly sealing the dryer vent can help, but that won't fix the problem completely. That musty basement smell is going to take a lot more than a bit of duct tape to remedy.

Vinegar Solution Recipe

  • 1/8 cup white vinegar
  • 1 gallon warm water

Mix solution and apply with a rag or place in spray bottle to apply. This mix also works to remove musty odors from clothing.

Removing the Smell from a Musty Basement

Removing the musty smell from your basement begins with getting rid of the excess moisture. Mold and mildew need a damp environment to reproduce. You can use a dehumidifier or industrial dessicant packs (available at the local Home Depot or Lowes) to help pull moisture from the air. This won't get rid of the smell, but it will keep it from getting worse.

  • Pipes can be covered in insulation to keep them from getting cold and developing condensate. This will prevent water from condensing and dripping down off from them, creating a mildew oasis.
  • Adding a window fan to your basement widows can increase ventilation and reduce the amount of moisture in the basement area.
  • Leaky pipes and wall cracks should be repaired ASAP. You may need to call in a professional plumber or contractor depending on the severity of the issue.
  • Problems with outdoor water pooling against the foundation of the home also should be handled immediately. If not to control the mold and mildew, to ensure that your homes foundation isn't compromised.

Once the moisture is under control, you can start removing the smell. Activated carbon, baking soda, charcoal, coffee grounds and other odor removers can pull the odor from the air. Wiping down the walls with a vinegar solution will kill the mold and remove the smell at the same time.

Here is what mold and mildew damage looks like at the base of the basement wall.
Here is what mold and mildew damage looks like at the base of the basement wall.


DO NOT use bleach. Bleach will kill mold and mildew but it can damage your drywall or paint. It can also create a chlorine offgas that is not good for you.

Finished Basement Odor Removal

A properly finished basement should never smell musty. If it does, there is either a problem behind your finished walls or in your Heating and Cooling system. Locating the source of the moisture in your basement is paramount. If you cannot locate it with a thorough inspection, call in a local energy auditor, HVAC tech or plumbing professional to find the source for you.

If you can find the mold or mildew, get rid of it immediately. Borax is a good natural cleaning choice. Mix a cup of borax with a gallon of hot water and apply it with a rag. Use a clean rag with water to rinse the area because borax will leave a powdery white residue.

Removing musty smells from a finished basement could mean placing filters in the ductwork, desiccant packs in out-of-the-way corners, or even odor absorbing cat litter trays beneath end tables. The key is to keep the moisture down in the basement area. This is usually hardest in the spring and fall when the heating and cooling system isn't circulating air through the home. Consider turning your air handler (on your thermostat) to fan on for several hours a day. This will run air through your filtration system and also help keep the humidity down in the basement.

Keep your finished basement feeling like a part of the home.
Keep your finished basement feeling like a part of the home.

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