You use air fresheners and candles to keep your home smelling super clean and fresh. These odor eliminators, mixed with our detergents, cooking habits, and “musk,” give each home its unique smell. It smells like “home” to you, but how do you know if your house stinks?

Here’s the TL;DR:

To know if your house stinks, leave the house for a few hours and come back. By leaving, you’ll “reset” the nerve cells that detect scents and cause olfactory fatigue, enabling you to notice scents you’ve become noseblind to. You can also ask guests for opinions or evaluate your cleaning habits.

A Scentsy + OnePoll survey found that 7 in 10 people love how their home smells. But what if your guests secretly disagree and are too afraid to tell you? Keep reading to learn the telltale signs that your house smells off and why.

Why You Can’t Tell if Your House Smells Bad

The #1 reason you can’t tell how your house smells is “noseblindness.” Febreze popularized this term back in 2016, but in the scientific world, this is called “olfactory fatigue” or “sensory adaptation.” 

Here’s how cognitive psychologist Pamela Dalton explains the phenomenon.

The odor receptors in your nose are quick to identify new scents. When this happens, these cells transfer the data to your brain’s limbic system. More specifically, the olfactory bulb, which sits just above your nasal cavity.

olfactory bulb labeled brain diagram
The approximate location of the olfactory bulb in the human brain

What happens next depends on whether your brain considers the smell “threatening,” among other factors. If your brain doesn’t perceive the aroma as a threat, the smell begins to fade (at least in your brain) as the receptors become less sensitive to this new smell. 

In other words, notoriously “bad” household smells don’t mean life or death. So while you may scrunch your nose at the first few whiffs, the receptors and brain learn to ignore these smells because they’re “safe.”

However, your guests may be eyeing the nearest exit.

How To Tell if Your House Smells Bad

The problem with olfactory fatigue is that your guests aren’t always so lucky.

If you’re among the 69% of people who fear their home smells, here are a few quick ways to tell if you’re correct:

Ask For Honest Opinions From Guests

If there’s ever a time to have a “brutally honest” friend, it’s before hosting a big get-together or inviting a Tinder date over for a Netflix binge-a-thon. 

A 2016 Ipsos survey revealed that 56% of us find lying acceptable to avoid hurting someone’s feelings—a startling 52.4% uptick from 2006. So odds are, even if your house does reek, your guests will probably be too polite to tell you bluntly.

Ask one of your self-proclaimed “honest” friends: “What do you think my house smells like?” or “What do you smell when you walk into my house?” 

Avoid asking, “Does my home smell bad?” as we all have our own scent preferences and opinions. Statistically, most of us prefer floral (30%), fresh (24%), fruity (23%), and citrus (22%) aromas. But if an honest guest is team musky (11%), they may dislike those other smells personally.

The following foul odors are pretty clear indicators your house has at least a slight odor issue:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Urine
  • Body odor
  • Pets
  • Cat litter
  • Sweat
  • Garbage
  • Mold or mildew

Leave for a Few Hours (Or Days) + Come Back

The next best way to detect household odors is to (Tom Haverford reference incoming) treat yo self to a few hours, days, or even a week away from the house. 

tom haverford parks and rec treat yo self

Leave your house as it is (i.e., windows shut, interior doors shut or open as normal, air fresheners still on, etc.). For the most accurate assessment, don’t do any out-of-the-ordinary cleaning before you leave. Just maintain your normal cleaning habits.

When you return, take a deep breath through your nose to really inhale the aromas. Whatever you smell in that initial inhale is likely what your guests smell when they enter your home.

Try to pick out particular smells, too. For example, does it smell strongly of coconut? Is there a vaguely musty scent? Does the kitchen smell like eggs?

On top of deciding whether your house does, in fact, smell, knowing the types of bad odors can help you narrow down the source.

Do a Brief Bout of Exercise

exercise bike odometer post workout

By “brief,” I really mean brief. If you exercise so much that you break a sweat, that sweat will mix with the natural bacteria on your skin, which could create body odor. It doesn’t help to create bad smells while trying to detect them.

The link between exercise and sense of smell (also called olfaction) is actually well-studied. 

One study published in 2013 determined that older adults who exercise and break a sweat are less likely to experience a fading sense of smell. The same was true for those who exercised more often.

But you can also somewhat overcome noseblindness with jumping jacks, a jog around the block, or even a brisk walk. All of these activities increase the blood flow within the body and can temporarily improve your sense of smell. 

After exercising, go back inside, and take a deep breath to see if you detect any unusual or foul odors. From there, you can narrow down the source of the odor and decide how to neutralize it.

What Makes a House Stink?

A house may stink for various reasons, including:

  • Mold and mildew
  • Rotting or spoiled food
  • Pets
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Poor ventilation
  • Plumbing issues
  • Issues with appliances
  • Poor laundry habits
  • Letting trash pile up

Uncleanliness can also trigger a build-up of dust, dirt, and skin cells within the house, leaving behind unpleasant odors.

If your house does smell to the high heavens (or even if something just doesn’t smell quite right), here are a few possible reasons why:

Mold + Mildew

mold/mildew behind toilet tank

Damp, humid, and dark areas of the house are the perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew (fungal) growth.

If you smell a musty or stale odor, check the following areas for fuzzy, black, or even miscolored splotches:

  • Bathroom sink, toilet, and tub
  • Under the sink and behind appliances
  • On air vents and air conditioning units
  • Along window panes and sills
  • In the attic, basement, and garage

How you address the mold largely depends on the severity of it.

The EPA suggests that you can remove it yourself if it covers <10 square feet. Always wear protective eyewear, a mask, and gloves when dealing with mold and harsh chemicals if you decide to do so.

If you’re unsure or have health issues, it’s best to contact a professional contractor with experience removing mold.

Food Leftovers + Debris

If your house smells vaguely of rotting food (rancid or sour), do a full-house walkthrough to check for spoiled or leftover food particles. That includes looking in, under, and behind major kitchen appliances. Check the dishwasher, refrigerator, stove/oven, and microwave, too.

Removing the source of the bad odors is the first and most important step. Next, clean the affected areas thoroughly with a disinfectant to help kill any bacteria.

For more stubborn odors, sprinkle baking soda over the area, clean it with a 1:1 mixture of vinegar to water, or consider deep cleaning fabrics that have absorbed the stench.


Fifty-one percent of household guests dub “pets” as one of the worst household smells of all, only trailing behind smoke (58%) and sink water (57%).

Ammonia-like smells can indicate pet accidents, while pet dander can give off a mildly unpleasant dog or cat smell. Used cat litter can smell strongly of mud, and Fido’s hair can clog up the tub drain and collect odor causing bacteria.

To address the issue, vacuum all floors to remove loose pet hair and dander. If you’re dealing with urine or feces on fabrics or carpet, use an enzymatic cleaner designed for pets. Cat owners should also regularly replace all of the litter in the litter box and deep clean the box once every two weeks.

Cigarette Smoke

black and white smoking cigarette

The stench of cigarette smoke can last for months or even years in a home. If your house’s aroma smells a tinge like tobacco, it’s possible that the previous homeowner or tenant smoked in the home.

The carpets, hard surfaces, and walls simply absorbed the smoke. Tiny cracks in walls, pipes, and vents can also leak your neighbor’s smoke into your apartment.

Removing the lingering odor of cigarette smoke is extremely time consuming and, in some cases, nearly impossible. A bowl of vinegar can help to neutralize light airborne odors. But if the smell has penetrated surfaces—or your walls and counters have a sticky, tarry residue—it’ll require extensive deep cleaning.

Poor Ventilation

Do you or your guests notice a stale or otherwise musty smell and can’t find any instances of mold or mildew? If so, poor air circulation may be to blame.

A lack of “fresh air” flowing into the house can trigger the build-up of airborne pollutants, moisture, and carbon dioxide, leading to a weird smell. Mold or mildew in your AC unit or vents can also be behind the smell.

To improve indoor air quality, open windows to let fresh air in and bad smells out. You can also encourage air circulation by leaving every interior door open and using an air purifier with HEPA filters. These filters are designed to pull 99.7% of airborne particles from the air.

Plumbing Issues

pipes under kitchen sink

As organic waste decomposes in sewer systems, it releases sewer gas—which smells like rotten eggs. The average bathroom and kitchen sink has a J-shaped pipe underneath it called the p-trap.

It normally holds a small amount of water to block this gas from coming back through the sink. But when this pipe dries out due to lack of use, there’s nothing sealing off the gas, and the smell can seep into your home. The easiest fix is “refilling” the seal by running water in the sink.

Clogged drains can bring their own collection of smells. As gunk and grime builds up, they begin to decompose and encourage bacterial growth.

Pour a half a cup of vinegar into the drain followed by a cup of baking soda. As the mixture fizzes, it’ll help to lift bad odors and residue and leave you with a clean drain. Just let it sit for an hour before running hot water through it.

Issues With Appliances

Appliances can cause a whole host of issues that can plague the entire house.

For example, the garbage disposal can hold onto food and debris that decomposes and emits odors. To remove the gunk, pour a large cup of ice cubes down the disposal along with a fresh orange peel for a fresh citrus scent. Run the disposal until the cubes are ground up, and follow up with 30 seconds of hot water.

Home appliances running on natural gas may sometimes smell of rotten eggs or sulfur—indicating a possible gas leak. Open your windows, don’t touch electrical switches or use open flames, and leave the area. Call the gas company immediately!

Appliances producing a burning smell may be overheating or experiencing an electrical short. If this happens, turn the device off immediately.

A musty or stale smell in your laundry room can indicate moisture build-up in your washing machine. The excess dampness will encourage mold and mildew to grow. Keep your washer dry by leaving the door open when it’s not in use, and clean smelly machines with washing machine cleaning tablets.

To absorb the smell left behind by these appliances, place an open box of baking soda nearby.

General Uncleanliness

Sometimes, the culprit behind a generally stinky house isn’t any one thing but rather the lack of regular cleaning. If you don’t vacuum or sweep at least once a week, your carpets and floors will begin to collect dust, dirt, and bacteria that combine to give off unpleasant smells. 

Some common culprits include:

Poor Laundry Habits

dirty laundry in washing machine

Dirty laundry holds onto sweat, skin cells, and body oils and create the perfect breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria. As bacteria breaks these components down, they release bad odors that smell worse the longer the clothes go unwashed.

You can avoid this smelly bacteria by doing your laundry more regularly and adding 1/2-cup of baking soda to particularly foul loads.

Letting Trash Pile Up

The longer you let garbage sit in trash cans, the more bacteria decomposes it, and the more noticeable the odor will be.

“Fixing” this trash can odor can be as simple as taking out the garbage, but this won’t work if the trash can itself is the source of this strong smell.

You may need to deep clean the bin with soapy water or use odor eliminating products—like scented garbage bags or a vinegar spray—to kill bacteria and remove the odors.

If your house is, in fact, clean and still has a funky odor, my other article Why Does Your House Smell Even if It’s Clean? [11 Reasons] can help you pinpoint the reason.

Can You Smell Your Own House Smell?

You can’t smell your own house “smell” once you’ve become noseblind to it, which could be a matter of a few breaths. However, you will be able to smell newly introduced detergents, candles, and soaps, at least temporarily. The average person would be unable to detect their own house’s scent.

Final Thoughts

On a more uplifting note, even if your home does smell bad, there are several ways to discover that hard-to-hear truth and determine why.