My Host Family’s House is Smelly. What should I do?

by cv harquail on September 10, 2014

Everyone’s house has a smell.

Sometimes it’s “dog”, sometimes it’s “curry” and sometimes it’s just “ick”.

good airWe don’t usually notice the everyday smell of our own home because we’re accustomed to it. But when our au pairs walk in for the first time, they notice because the smell is new to them. Over time, they get adjusted and don’t really notice.

Unless it’s truly stinky.

An Au Pair writes:

Dear AuPairMom, My host family’s house smells bad. Really bad.

At first I thought it was the dog– except that they don’t have one. Then I wondered if maybe they just needed to open the windows. (They seem to keep their air conditioner on all the time.)

But I think that the smell is more serious than that.

I have been looking in the house for things that might be causing the smell. There is no pet, no one smokes, no one wears perfume, the smell isn’t the last thing that was cooked. The family is tidy so I don’t think there is garbage somewhere that I can’t see.

Anyway, everything in the house smells this same way more or less. The rooms smell and so do the pillows on the sofa.

I have been here for six weeks now, and the smell has not gone away.

I have been keeping my bedroom door closed, and opening the windows often, and I have washed all the linens in my bedroom. I have started to wear perfume every day so that when the smell really is bad I can just smell my own wrist for a minute. Or I go outside.

Is there any way to bring this up nicely? Or to fix it without them knowing?

Is there anything else I can do?  ~ AuPairWithSensitiveNose

I don’t know about you other host parents, but I think I’d be a little bit offended if my au pair told me she thought our house smelled.

Come to think of it, though, I *have* received scented candles from au pairs in the past.

Maybe my house smells and I don’t know it?

For more details of the science of smelly homes: Why Can’t You Smell Your Own Home?, from the Science of Us


WarmStateMomma September 10, 2014 at 8:06 am

There could be a million reasons for the smell, but I think the HF would be offended if the AP approached them about it. Another HM on here recommended pouches of odor-absorbent rocks. I put one near the diaper pail and one in the car (some animal had crept in and died). They worked amazingly well, and were only $5 each at Home Depot. The AP should invest in a few for her room.

hOstCDmom September 10, 2014 at 8:54 am

Whatever happened to the related “Smelly House” thread of last week? where TaCL posited a query re AP using (non permitted) car air fresheners…? The post and comments seemed to “disappear”…?

cv harquail September 10, 2014 at 8:53 pm

coming back tomorrow. It got posted early, by mistake!

Tristatemom September 10, 2014 at 1:59 pm

I don’t think there is a good way to bring this up. I say this as a HM with a previous smelly AP. She did not smell dirty but more like some old people do (sorry!). It took a long time to get the smell out of the room after. Even though I am pretty outspoken, I never addressed this with her because it was not an obvious reason (smell sweaty etc) that she might be unaware of and would appreciate being told. It was just her scent but it was really unpleasant to us. It may be the same with this HF.

WarmStateMomma September 10, 2014 at 3:45 pm

We had an exchange student who didn’t use deodorant. HD and I eventually said something so he didn’t start school as the smelly kid. HD just handed him a new stick of deodorant and said in a casual, no-nonsense way, “you have to wear this every day when you start school.” HD didn’t give any explanation, just handed it to him like another back-to-school supply. The awkwardness was over in about a minute but we had deliberated for days about whether to say anything.

WestMom September 10, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Your husband sounds like mine. He would have no problem saying that to someone living with us. And yet coming from him it would sound so natural and non-threatening…

4th time lucky?! September 10, 2014 at 8:08 pm

I couldn’t stand the way our last AP smelt and thought the smell stuck to everything a long time after she’d left. Not disliking someone’s smell is an important factor for liking them and being able to live with them I think. Needless to say said AP didn’t last (though smell was not the rematch reason…)

As a host mum I would feel offended if my AP suggested my house was smelly; probably less, though, if there was an actual reason and AP said, e.g. “the diaper pail seem particularly smelly today. do you mind if I take it out?” or similar. Sometimes we don’t notice, sometimes we forget (sometimes we think someone else should have emptied the bin…).

If it’s a musty, mildew smell that could indicate rot and bring with it health issues, maybe an option could be for the AP to identify the smelliest room and tell HP about it and go from there: “I know I’ve got a very sensitive nose but find there is a bit of a musty smell in this room. Can you smell it too or is it just me? I just wondered whether there was something wet somewhere” would be a way to at least open the discussion about it.

NBHostMom September 10, 2014 at 3:40 pm

The one thing that came to mind was I wonder if there is a repair type issue going on with the house. If it is a musty / mildewy type smell, perhaps there are water issues that need to be addressed.

I wouldn’t say anything unless it is something you can’t live with and/or you feel there is a health concern for you. I empathize, I’d be searching for the mysterious odor source as well.

hOstCDmom September 10, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Also, it could be mold — in the walls/floors/drywall etc. (Some of you may recall the news stories re mold in Chinese drywall and the huge lawsuits/health issues related thereto). This might permeate every room, yet be undetectable to the naked eye, and can exist in a house that is otherwise very clean, tidy, scrubbed. It is a tricky issue and can have serious health implications.

HRHM September 10, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Another possibility is the sulfer smell that is in some people’s water. My sister lives on a farm in IN and we noticed immediately when we entered her house. Of course, she’s lived there for 20+ years and doesn’t even smell it. I knew what the smell was (we had an uncle with sulfer-y water when I was a kid) but AP was horrified and worried that the water was unsafe to drink/shower/cook/brush teeth with.

skny September 10, 2014 at 5:07 pm

I am on the other side. Rematch au pair said that our house smelled. I swear I keep it clean…
So I contacted previous au pair and asked in a I swear I wont be mad way. And she said that indeed she smelled something weird after bath, when going out into the hallway. She says she never smelled anything when getting into the house, or in and out of the bathroom when using the toilet. But did feel that weird bad smell after showers ONLY when getting out of the bathroom. We called a friend contractor and have not been able to identify the odor or why…
I even wonder if i should warn new au pair when she comes…

Emerald City HM September 10, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Certain rooms in our house for sure have issues. In the basement level I think some of that is related to the way the pervious owners installed carpet. Our kitchen is terrible with the garbage disposal or when the au pair spills egg on the electric burner. Then of course the girls’ room with the diaper pail, even though we empty it every day. The laundry room with the front loading washer.

I think I’m going to order some of those rocks or whatever to see if that helps.

I try to “plink” the garbage disposal. I also buy industrial size baking soda from Costco and twice a year sprinkle it over the carpeting, let it sit for a few hours, then vacuum it up. The front loading washer I can’t seem to solve. The stove ends up being what it is (I despise electric stoves for multiple reasons and this is one of them).

4th time lucky?! September 10, 2014 at 8:11 pm

do you ever do a cleaning run with your washer (hottest setting without clothes but with powder plus a bit of bleach if you’re that way inclined)? This usually solves the problem for us for a while.

OpinionatedHM September 11, 2014 at 12:08 pm

There’s also something called smelly washer that I have used and it works really well. I think you can even get it on amazon.

NBHostMom September 10, 2014 at 8:10 pm

The front load washer was my nemisis…. Solved it: by the ridiculously expensive Tide packs that are designed to clean the machine. I use a pack once every two months or so. Also, learned to always leave to wahser’s door open so I can dry out, that has helped a lot

SeattleHD September 11, 2014 at 4:32 am

Typically, with front load washers the issue is gunk building up in the door seal – you have to diligently wipe in all the folds – there are maybe three layers of seal and they can all trap soapy gunk.

NNTexasHM September 11, 2014 at 10:20 am

Wow – this is timely. I have 3 solutions. 2 are from experience with our previous Au Pair’s room and 1 I just read on the internet.

After our Au Pair left this summer, my parents stayed in the guest room and complained about a smell of wet dog. Since our dogs NEVER leave the downstairs laundry room which is nowhere near that upstairs room, I knew we had another issue. My parents had cleaned out the bathtub drain (they are saints) when they noticed the water backing up but we called a plumber to try again. Sure enough, the plumber pulled up TWO FEET of disgusting hair that was only accessible with his special tool. It turned out our Au Pair only showered every few days and washed her hair once a week. Well when that happens, the plumber explained, people shed a TON of hair all at once vs every other day or daily. The former approach tends to clog drains the way this was, leading to the unpleasant smell.

The room also had a distinct smell of human sweat which remained in the air two weeks after she left, so we washed the sheets with borax and liberally sprinkled baking soda all over the carpet. I wasn’t sure it would work but left it for about a week. Voila! Smell gone.

Another solution I just read about is to use apple cider vinegar to eliminate smells simply by leaving a bowl of it around the offending odor for a few hours. I saw this on a site called “Greatest Daily”:

I realize those solutions are more for the Host Family but perhaps as an Au Pair, I you could try any of these solutions without attracting too much attention or when the parents aren’t at home? Good luck!

WarmStateMomma September 13, 2014 at 9:01 am

The hair thing is completely gross, but makes a lot of sense.

QuirkyMom September 15, 2014 at 2:43 pm

My hair isn’t all that long but it is pretty thick. I wash it every other day and even with being diligent about cleaning off the drain after each and every shower, hair still goes down the drain and can clog. If you’ve got a shower that’s prone to clogs, I think it’s worthwhile buying one of those plastic hair catcher things that goes over the drain and instructing the au pair on how to use it, and insisting that it be used consistently. It catches a good amount of hair and can help prevent the clogging/buildup problems. That and you can also buy a plumber’s snake to have on hand to snake any clogs in your shower/tub or toilet.

Emerald City HM September 11, 2014 at 12:19 pm

I do try to stay on top of cleaning out that washer and the folds that trap stuff, leave the door open, etc., etc. but it tends to not end up on my list of priorities because it’s in the basement. I might try some of the suggestions I haven’t seen before, like the tide packs or the smelly washer things. I usually do the vinegar and bleach wash, but I haven’t found that to be entirely effective.

AlwaysHopeful HM September 12, 2014 at 3:26 pm

I’ve had a front loader for about a year now that I love. I have not yet had a problem with smells, but I constantly worry about it! I leave a hand towel on top of the machine and use it to quickly wipe down the door when I change the load over. I sometimes, but not always also wipe the folds. Total time is less than 10 seconds. I also leave open the soap dispenser cup, which can have residual water in it. The challenge was in getting our au pair to remember those things. He finally caught on, but ended up also leaving open the dryer door! That I had to let go… ????

OpinionatedHM September 12, 2014 at 5:09 pm

how funny! We had the same delay getting our AP to remember to leave the washer door and soap dispenser open and now she also leaves the dryer door open. Every time I see it hanging open I think “not important enough, not important enough, not important enough” and just close it and move on.

BearCo Mom September 12, 2014 at 8:43 am

I can’t think of a good way to bring this up. Especially since you seem to have tried very hard to find the source of the problem and can’t — so there’s unlikely to be some straightforward solution. If you say it’s everywhere, in the pillows, etc., is it likely to be caused by the family themselves?

I always find smells to be interesting. I have a very sensitive nose myself and am often upset by smells no one else seems to notice, or at least aren’t bothered, so I can empathize completely and it would bother me a lot. I wonder if ability to smell , or be affected by, certain things is partially due to someone’s own smell receptors (i.e., that some people really are just bad “matches” for others due to conflicting smells whereas another person wouldn’t have a problem).

HRHM September 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I hate my HE front loader. Having said that, once I did the cleaning cycle (works with either the commercial cleaner or straight bleach) I NEVER let the door stay closed when it wasn’t running again. Since that time (3 years ago) the only time I had to run the cleaning cycle again was when we moved and it was closed during the move and storage. I don’t ever clean the seal unless I see something on it. But, I also use about 1/3 the amount of detergent that the cup says to use, as the cycle uses so little water that any extra detergent quickly builds up. I think the real trick is leaving the door open religiously…

OpinionatedHM September 12, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Since this has become about those pesky front loaders, I’ll tell you what I do.

I never leave clothes in the washing machine. I set a timer on my phone to remind me when the cycle is finished.
I always leave both the door and the soap dispenser open.
I occasionally remember to wipe down the seals, I use this opportunity to check for residue or mold.
I always use 1/4 the recommended amount of detergent. I’m talking a tablespoon of HE detergent. Tip: if you see lots of soap suds you are using too much soap!
I frequently wash our towels with no soap at all to remove soap buildup on the towels.
Once a week I run a hot water or sanitize cycle with an empty machine.
Once a month I open the little door on the front of the machine and empty the water from the drain tube into a bucket. I also unscrew the drain pump filter and clean it. I’m amazed by how gross it gets and the things I find in there!

It sounds like a hassle but it really just becomes a habit and is so much easier than dealing with a smelly washer!

Should be working September 12, 2014 at 6:21 pm

What little door on the front? Our last one had one at the bottom but the new one, Electrolux, does not.

OpinionatedHM September 13, 2014 at 8:51 am

Hmmm. I’ve had a Bosch and an LG. They both have a little door where you access the drain pump filter and a tube or pipe that holds excess water.
Out of curiosity, I checked the Electrolux user manual and it looks like they do not have the same feature on their machines.
So of course, now I am super curious (and the kids are playing nicely together this Saturday morning – for now) so I did a search for Electrolux drain pump filter and ended up at Fixya which is a site I have used before. It seams that Electrolux designed the machine so that a service call is required to do maintenance on the drain pump. If you are brave or handy, there are several different suggestions on how to do it yourself – some have links to You Tube videos. Hope that helps.

German Au-Pair September 12, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Could it be something COMING from the AC? If it’s in the air and not in any fabric or whatever, maybe something is wrong with the AC? Maybe something died in there?
Also, maybe it’s coming from the pipes? Not sure if the whole house would be affected but I have a friend whith two bathroom that both have a terrible, unrelated smell that she actually doesn’t smell and that’s not about being clean. One is coming from the pipes, the other is due to drying laundry in a room with no window.
Maybe the AP has a really sensitive nose and simply can’t stand the family’s personal smell.

German Au-Pair September 12, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Oh and also, is the AP from a totally different cultural background than the family? In my experience people from different cultural backgrounds smell differently. A lot. When I enter a room at my work place that previously had a lot of kids from a non-Western-backgorund it stinks. Not just the way a room stinks when there are a lot of people in there but in a very different, strange way. I’m not sure if you could ever get used to that if you lived in their homes.

QuirkyMom September 15, 2014 at 2:55 pm

We have had terrible odor problems in our downstairs family room this year — the au pair room abuts the family room and her “window” (more like a medieval castle’s arrow slit) opens onto it. Part of the problem was our peeing cat, who has since died, but part of it was the landlady’s failure to deal with serious water intrusion issues (burst pipe under floor, inadequately maintained gutters, lack of proper flashing between outside wall and patio) that caused mold issues in the carpet. We have had the carpets cleaned, we have used the enzymes, we have used the natural deodorizers…and there are still times it’s really smelly down there. I feel so bad and yet we have tried to do everything we can do short of moving out (which we will in another four months anyway to our newly-purchased house that we’re renovating).

The volcanic stone mesh bags do help somewhat, as does using a steam vacuum cleaner on the carpet to push clean water through. The enzymatic cleaners like Nature’s Miracle help for the pee (or other organic) smell, but you really have to follow the instructions and soak the offending areas thoroughly, then clean afterwards. I also think the Fresh Wave products are good — I can’t stand chemical smells or air fresheners but these use essential oils and smell really nice. There’s a spray but also an odor absorbing crystal gel. I’ve gotten mine locally at the Container Store but I think they’re also available online. I use the Fresh Wave pearl packs for the bottom of the garbage can and recycling bin underneath the garbage bags, and those have helped a lot, too.

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