Perhaps it’s happened to you: You and your buyer have arrived at a showing and the home has been empty for some time. You unlock and open the door and a wave of musty air hits you and your client in the face. Agents frequently dismiss this as “just a musty odor because the house has been sitting.” Their clients usually accept this because, hey, their agent is a pro and goes into a lot of homes. Surely this is the norm during a house hunt. Perhaps a musty odor is a good sign. The reality is that the likely source is microbial growth and suggesting that it is anything else is opening yourself up to a lawsuit. Why bother? Why not address musty odors head on and hire the right home inspector to investigate the smell?
The most likely cause of a musty order in a home is mold. Actively growing molds release Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds (MVOCs) that frequently have a distinct odor. The good news is that when damp conditions in a closed-up house cause mold to grow, it is usually someplace you can see it. If the mold was caused by a leak or long term-persistent moisture it could be growing under floorboards, behind walls, under wallpaper or in the ductwork on dust and debris that has settled there.
Mold is found everywhere in nature. Like mushrooms, its purpose is to break down wood, leaves and other plant material into nutrient-rich dirt. Mold is made up of tiny, generally transparent filaments called hyphae. As these hyphae take in nutrients from the substrate they are growing on they create a fuzzy blanket called mycelium. This is when molds become visible. As the mycelium reaches the next stage of development it is ready to spread. To do this it creates and distributes spores. (A lot of spores.) To correctly classify the genus or species of mold laboratory testing must be done, however, identification is probably unnecessary if you intend to have it cleaned up.
Breathing in mold spores can cause health problems for some individuals. The symptoms of mold-related illness are frequently respiratory issues, irritated eyes, rashes, sinus congestion, sneezing and headaches. There are certain types of molds that release mycotoxins that have been known to cause severe neurological problems. Whether or not individuals are affected by mold is dependant on a number of factors; the type of mold, the nutrient source, the duration and severity of exposure and the sensitivity of the individual. At greater risk are people with compromised immune systems, asthma, the elderly, small children and pregnant women.
Most molds need four things in their environment to grow; an organic substrate to grow on, temperatures between 40-120 degrees, the presence of mold spores and moisture. Three of the four of these are outside a homeowners ability to control or change. We keep the temperature in our home well within that range. We track mold spores into our house from the outdoors on our shoes and in our pets’ fur. They also float in freely every time we open a door or window. Occasionally, mold may grow on our expired bread, produce or house plants. Though mold loves to grow on wood, it can also grow on dust particles. Moisture is the only factor we can control in stopping or preventing mold growth. Because mold can grow within 24-48 hours of coming in contact with moisture, it is imperative that water intrusion is promptly remedied.
At The BrickKicker, we believe that every home inspection should also be a mold investigation. Our inspectors are trained to look for visible mold in the areas of homes where mold is likely to grow. We recommend following EPA guidance when it comes to mold testing and remediation: When we find mold, we recommend having it cleaned up. We do not sell remediation services nor do we recommend expensive testing to confirm what we already know. If your clients have a history of respiratory issues we can certainly provide quantified microbial measurements using a method appropriate for the observation or the concern. The BrickKicker also offers indoor an air quality test that can be done on homes outside the scope of a real estate transaction.
So the next time you detect a musty odor in a home tell your clients to keep it in perspective. A closed up home may have damp conditions that cause microbial growth. Perhaps that is what they are smelling. A good home inspector will track down the source of the odor, make sure it wasn’t caused by a more serious issue and give appropriate recommendations to move forward. Tell them to call The BrickKicker.