What Stinks?! HouseLogic’s Guide to Eradicating Winter House Smells

Figure out what’s causing that smell—or stop it before it starts.

Fish may make a healthy and delicious dinner, but the odor of cooking them can linger. Eliminate it by boiling a few tablespoons of vinegar in water. Image: Junophoto/Getty Images

The windows are closed, the heater is fired up—and then there’s a stench you just can’t get rid of. It’s difficult to air out your home during the winter. And what’s worse, your heating system and fireplace can cause all sorts of new unpleasant odors, too. To keep your abode smelling fresh and clean until spring, we made a handy manual to pinpoint your stink and stop it in its tracks.

Smell: Lingering food odors

Culprit: Fried food, burnt food, spicy food, fish

Solution: Your cooking might smell delightful the day of your feast, but lingering food odors are less welcome. Without the benefit of open windows, the next best thing for de-funking your kitchen is boiling a few tablespoons of vinegar in water. That should work on even the worst leftover culinary stenches. Or if you want to avoid the problem altogether, just order takeout next time.

Smell: Smoky

Culprit: Drafty chimney

Solution: The cozy, inviting smell of a roaring fire in a fireplace is a winter luxury. But the dirty soot smell you get when the fire’s out? That’s downright rotten. The cause is likely a combination of a drafty chimney and an imbalance of air pressure in your home. To avoid the smell, stop the draft by making sure your damper has a tight seal, and try to adjust the air pressure by adding more return air registers to your HVAC. Not only will you get rid of the odor, you might just save on your energy bill.

Smell: Skunky, rotten

Culprit: Dead animal

Solution: You enjoy a warm escape from the winter chill, and unfortunately, so do rodents and other pests. If you smell a pungent rotting scent, a little stowaway might have died in your house. It’s best to avoid this situation in the first place by making sure all areas accessible to rodents are sealed and using humane pest control methods or traps (rather than poison). If you already have the smell and can’t get to the source, your best bet is to use an air cleaner with an absorbent filter or mask the smell with air freshener.

Smell: Must, mold

Culprit: Moisture

Solution: As long as your house doesn’t have any serious leaks, a moldy smell can usually be chalked up to excess moisture caused by too much humidity in the air. This excess dampness can be caused by moisture-creating appliances like clothes dryers as well as long showers in unventilated bathrooms and inadequate insulation of cold surfaces, such as cold water pipes. To solve the problem without opening windows, a dehumidifier should do the trick. If it doesn’t, call a professional for help as mold can cause serious health problems.

Smell: Sewage

Culprit: Bathroom

Solution: Bathroom odors can magnify in the winter, especially if the bathroom is unventilated. If the smell seems to be emanating from the toilet, a cup of full-strength vinegar in the tank can work wonders. Just wait five minutes, scrub, and flush. For extra bleaching power, get a green clean by pouring hydrogen peroxide in the bowl.

Smell: Dusty burning

Culprit: Heating system

Solution: When you turned your heat on, you may have noticed a mysterious burning smell. That’s because dirt and dust had accumulated in your furnace, HVAC, or ducts that then became red hot. To avoid the stench next year, turn your heat on briefly while it’s warm enough to open the windows for ventilation.