Rain, Drainage, And Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Water Damage In Your Home
From the top most shingle of a roof – to the lowest basement window, water tries to find a way in.
Learn what to look for when shopping for your own dastardly charming old home in Loudoun County and Shenandoah Valley areas from this collection of experiences.
After an especially angry thunderstorm, Caroline got a surprise when she stepped into a puddle at the bottom of the stairs in the office.
I have to admit my first thought was not to blame the roof but the dog. For a split second, I unfairly assumed that she had, well, rained. After all, the roof over the office hadn’t leaked before and no obvious water stains on the ceiling had ever shown themselves. The ceiling had, of course, been painted over before we bought the house. This is important lesson to remember when viewing older homes. New ceiling paint in one or two rooms may be indicative of a quick cover up.
A bit of clean up proved the dog’s innocence. Apologies were made. Reputations restored, we still had a problem, the roof was leaking – and roofs are not inexpensive.
And rightly so, I should add.
The labor of installing a roof should not be dismissed lightly.
Roofs are a system in their entirety, and it would have been ideal to have the whole office reroofed, but “saving for a rainy day” for many of us is more for things like shoes and school supplies than roofs.
How We Fixed Our Roof Leak & How To Catch Standard Roofing Fails For Yourself
Note: this is not intended as instruction for how to roof. My purpose is to draw attention to the elements that go into a roof and what to look for when trouble shooting. When a roof looks like this, it’s leaking. Talented roofers can patch a newer roof with sustainable success, but patching an old roof is just forestalling inevitable replacement.
The main leak, as it turned out, was not around a patched area but at the bottom of a steel access ladder that used to hang on the right side of the roof. The plate to which it was attached is in the upper right hand corner. The first task was to thoroughly strip the old shingles and underlayment from the sheathing.
This is an obvious step, and a deceptively simple one. It is vitally important to get all the old underlayment and nails off the sheathing. Surface preparation, as in painting, is the key to success. Nettlesome nails that remain can compromise the uniformity of the new roof.
In Virginia, roofers are allowed to install a second layer of shingles over an existing one. This saves money, but often compromises the uniformity of the new roof’s slope which, in turn, can lead to premature failure.
Oh look, the copper flashing at the base of the old tar paper doesn’t overlap the EPDM (rubber roofing) below.
What Is Under The Roof?
Underlayment, like shingles, needs to overlap in a cascading manner.
This roof section is unique because it abuts an area of flat roofing. The area where the sidewall of the house, the roof of the office, and the flat roof meet is known as a vulnerable area. Vulnerable areas are spots of a roof where poor drainage or narrow valleys can cause leaf debris and snow can get caught.
Not only was this area not draining, but there was a hole in the EPDM.
No. A bucket with a hole in the bottom does not a good roof make.
To remedy this, ridged insulation was added under the EPDM to create slope. That old ladder on the roof, which ended about half way down, was acting as a kind of downspout and directing water to a single point.
Important to remember: shingle roofs are not water-tight and a large volume of discharge at a single point can cause failure. This is why home inspectors grumble about downspouts that discharge onto roofs instead of into gutters.
Point in case: the sheathing at the end of the ladder was rotten.
The sheathing (wood covering that goes over the framing) on new houses is almost always OSB, Oriented Strand Board. This material is made up of flakes of wood glued together and, for the most part, it gets used like plywood.
Houses from the 1930s like ours were often made with full plank (board) sheathing. We actually had some sheathing left from where we’d cut a closet door downstairs and fortuitously it fit perfectly into the gap left after the rotten pieces were removed. The poetry of the recycling almost brought me to tears. Almost.
With the roof prepped, the first order of business was to install some proper flashing. The old roof was installed without the benefit of rake-edge flashing and only a hint of sidewall flashing.
The purpose of flashing is to ensure that water can’t run back under the shingles.
Flashing in place, we could install the underlayment.
In the mid-Atlantic, the first three feet or so is usually a thicker material – sometimes rubberized, sometimes with additional tar – called an ice shield. The lowest 1/3 of a roof is the area most vulnerable to damage from snow and ice, because it is the last to clear and dry after a storm. When snow melts during the day and then freezes again over night, it can wreak havoc on single roofs.
Conventional tar paper is cheaper, but with self-congratulatory eallmægen*, Dad and I took the ice shield all the way up the roof.
All About Shingles
Finally, shingles. For those who limit the time they spend perched atop ladders on roofs, we used a composition shingle.
*Old English: All-main, as in “might and main”; full effort or going all out.
My realtor friends often call these architectural shingles; they are one and the same.
Composition shingles have more dimension and texture than a conventional three-tab shingle (this is how you can tell the difference from the ground) and usually have at least twice the life span.
Generally speaking, three-tab shingles are designed to last anywhere from 15 years to 25 years. Composition shingles fall within the 30 to 50 year range.
They achieve this by being thicker and having keystone looking teeth that channel water down the roof. Nailing patterns range from four to six nails per full shingle (almost three feet long). We went with a five nail pattern.
The winds of Winchester do whip up from time to time, but can also be pretty docile for weeks on end.
At the ridge, special shingles designed for ridges or hips (convex vertical intersections) get installed. Here, a nail or two will be left exposed. It is wise to put a thick dollop of silicone caulking over the nail head.
[Dramatic music] A new section of roof.
All back-patting aside, it is important to remember that the whole of the roof will still need to be replaced. For all our soreness of back, Dad and I kind of just installed a big patch.
For now, though, it will buy Caroline and me enough time to save; and having a sound roof is… foundational.
Besides the roof, where else is water lurking?
Deferred maintenance and upkeep around the house doesn’t often lead to newspaper headlines and movies, but has the potential to be devastating nonetheless.
One of the first things we noticed at the big grey house was that the electrical panel had water damage. The breakers have been replaced but look at the heavy water staining in and around the panel:
So why was the area so wet?
As it turns out a downspout runs along the exterior wall just above the electrical panel. This downspout has to carry the water for roughly ¼ of the total roof area of the house!
You probably see where this is headed.
I can’t remember the last time I had an inspection where I didn’t talk to the buyer about managing water around the house. At least one or two buyers have probably secretly wondered why I get so fired up about gutters and downspouts.
The simple answer is that water is the most destructive element a house faces on a regular basis. I’ve seen houses where owners have spent thousands trying to waterproof a wet basement or crawlspace. Too often, the overlooked issue is the water settling next to the house.
Fix the problem not the symptom.
Not only were my gutter and downspout clogged with old leaf debris, the downspout was completely impacted. I bet a biologist somewhere could use the build-up in this gutter to track changes to environment over time like they do with core samples from the arctic ice.
Needless to say, the total failure of the downspout to move water way from the house meant that gallons and gallons of water were settling next to the foundation wall, leaking through, and ruining the electrical panel.
Let’s be honest. Spending a weekend afternoon cleaning out the gutters has no appeal in the face of warm living rooms, football games, grilled meats, and tasty drinks.
Putting off this seemingly simple, negligible task of cleaning the gutters can have serious, expensive consequences.
Water Damage In The Basement
Settlement of the ground and the grading of a given lot figure prominently into home inspection. Both are directly related to water intrusion.
I’m willing to bet that most of your associations with settlement aren’t that great: settling a disagreement, settling for second place, and settling down is, for 20-somethings still on their parents’ insurance plans, something only slightly more appealing than prison.
Between the fifties and early eighties thousands of these homes cropped up across the mid-Atlantic landscape. I’ve written about the damage poor water management can cause before, but this entry addresses a specific style of house, ubiquitous in our area:
The mid-century brick rancher.
You’ve seen this house innumerable times: bedrooms on one side, living room and kitchen on the other. They are the embodiment of their original greatest-generation buyers. No frills: give me the basics and I’ll make it mine.
There is a version of this house with siding built on a crawlspace, but the brick-clad version has a full basement with the same footprint as the first floor.
If well maintained (well being the operative word) these houses will be here until doomsday.
The ratio of foundation depth to above-ground wall height is fantastic.
So, What Went Wrong?
Like all houses with a basement, these began with the excavation of a hole in which the foundation was laid. Once it cured, dirt was gently pushed back into place. The fill couldn’t be compacted because the risk of damaging the new foundation was too high. As a result, the loosely laid dirt slowly settled for months, years, even decades.
When most of these homes were built, they had a simple gravel driveway, almost always on the kitchen side. Now the vast majority have paved driveways. Over time, home improvement initiatives and parents tired of gravel in the kitchen eventually dictated the demise of the original gravel swaths.
This simple home improvement project, usually done by a landscaping company or contractor of similar ilk, often came with one simple oversight.
Settlement next to the house.
The driveway that once sloped away from the house now angled back toward the brick-work because of the slow settlement of the loose fill around the foundation. Sometimes uniformly, other times erratically, the grade was now lower next to the house than a few yards out.
Once paved, these houses now had a huge asphalt spoon pointed towards the foundation.
Note the settlement next to the house.
The result on the inside. Yikes!
I have inspected a number of these houses in which water problems in the basement are the direct result of water being channeled toward the foundation wall by the driveway.
In the example below, you can see that the window was bricked up in an attempt to address the water issues.
Look behind the terrible dryer vent at the wall.
This issue, though it has caused damage in countless homes, is not unfixable.
Driveways can be re-graded. It may not be cheap, but don’t settle (See what I did there?) for a damaging driveway.
No sealant or miracle coating can keep the water out for long.
If you’re a homebuyer or agent, look for the signs:
bricked up basement windows
water staining on the basement wall adjacent to the driveway
poor driveway grading
You can sight a driveway just like a piece of lumber: get close to the ground, close one eye, and look along the span for variations in depth. You could also bring an experienced golfer along! They do this with greens all the time.
Today’s lesson? Don’t put off upkeep, and if you’re looking at houses pay close attention to how / if water is being routed and directed away from the building.