Water is the Enemy; A Home Inspector’s View

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One of the many things a home inspector looks for is evidence of the entry of water into the building envelop. That’s just a fancy way of saying that water has gotten inside and its left a stain or other damage. So is seeing a stain a big deal? Maybe not, but we should always treat it as if it is until we know for sure. The real question is has the problem been fixed and what damage has the water done in the mean time? This can be impossible to fully assess from just a visual inspection and in severe cases contractors may have to be called in to open up the walls. Left for prolonged periods, even modest amounts of water can do a lot of damage to a home. In this article, we will provide an overview of a number of ways that water can enter or be trapped inside a modern home.

Interior water leaks are bad enough when they do cosmetic damage warping hardwood floors, softening drywall and bubbling paint. The repairs can be many thousands of dollars and a severe inconvenience to family routine. Things get more serious when structural damage is done. The presence of water is one of the main growth factors required for mold as explained in Household Mold De-Mystified. Of course another name for mold is ‘rot’ and having the lumber holding up your home rot is a serious issue indeed. Not only is the strength of the building compromised, but the framing is often covered with layers of ruined building materials that must be removed and replaced. The bills can add up quickly.

Let’s start with the roof and work our way down. Although most people naturally suspect the shingles to be the prime culprit, if they are properly installed, it’s much more likely to be the flashings that are at fault. Flashings are metal or rubber trim pieces used to seal a roof in valleys, along surface transitions and around openings like skylights and plumbing stacks. The flashings are intended to sheet water safely over a joint between materials. Unintended openings can start in ageing caulking and from the expansion and contraction of joints. Properly applied, a five dollar tube of caulking can save you thousands of dollars of repairs.

Somewhat similar problems can be discovered as we inspect the building exterior. Door and window openings need well maintained caulking as well. Poorly installed siding can capture water rather than shed it away. Brick or masonry walls that are cracked and let moisture in can be expensive repairs in their own right. Sometimes we see masonry walls that have been built without weep-holes or that have had them plugged up by a well-intended home-owner. The weep-holes are there to allow water otherwise trapped behind the wall to drain out. Blocking the holes defeats the purpose of the weep-holes and can cause significant damage to the wall and house framing behind it.

At ground level, we look to see that precipitation is able to readily drain away from the foundation. I don’t think most people appreciate the importance of handing all the water that can fall or run onto a property. Even a moderate rain can deliver thousands of gallons that all flows downhill. We want to keep that water from flowing into your basement. The remedy starts with the eves-trough. They capture all that water that falls on the roof and discharges through the downspouts in am attempt to get it away from the house’s foundation. In nearly every house that we visit, we find that the downspouts drain too close to the foundation wall. We routinely recommend the installation of downspout extensions to take the water far enough away to protect your basement. We recommend a six feet as a normal objective and to make sure that it end on ground that slopes away from the building. See Tips to Help your House Make the Grade

City building departments all ask for grading plans for new houses these days. They know that all that storm water needs to be properly dealt with. This applies to all houses, but especially if your house is built at the bottom of a slope or below the level of your neighbours, you need to be careful that grading around your foundation runs water away. Its very common to find settling of the fill around the foundation wall has created a depression that feeds water right to the wall. Your driveways, patios and sidewalks should also be modestly sloped away from the house for the same reason. Even-though builders often wait months to pave driveways, the majority of subdivision homes have significant settling in front of the garage door. Besides being a trip hazard, water ponds and freezes creating slip and fall opportunities for home-owners and unsuspecting guests.

We’ve worked our way down to the foundation walls. If the property is doing a good job of draining water away from the house, we are much less likely to find a damp or out-right wet basement. That being said, there can be groundwater to deal with as well. Modern poured concrete foundations are damp-proofed with tar and a dimpled plastic membrane that channels water to the foundation drainage tiles. Sump pumps or natural drainage is used to to handle any water that might otherwise accumulate underneath the slab. Properly functioning these measures eliminate water outside the wall that might try to find it’s way in.

Now we need to consider the potential internal sources of water in a home. People underestimate the amount of water that is in the air of a modern home. Indoor plumbing has brought water problems indoors too. In the old days, homes weren’t sealed so well and if things got damp the air leakage helped dry things out fairly quickly. Nowadays the water that enters a home stays there unless we take steps to remove it. Excess humidity can come from many sources: steaming cooking pots under an unused range hood, long showers without bathroom fans on, and blocked clothes dryer vents are just a few examples. Once that moisture is in the air it travels to a cold surface and condenses depositing water on surfaces that may rot or produce mold. Some times one water problem leads to another. A toilet that runs continuously can waste a lot of water, but it also chills the toilet tank and supply piping which can create puddles in the wrong places. If the humidity levels get high enough, mold can show up anywhere there is an appropriate foodstuff.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but these are only some of the ways water can enter a modern home. Fortunately many techniques and technologies have developed to protect us from water entering our homes and others to help us to remove it when it does gets in. We have heating, air conditioning, heat recovery and other ventilation systems that attempt to manage our comfort, air quality and humidity in our homes. This all adds to the complexity of our homes. I’ve tried to give an overview of the many vulnerabilities to water that our homes have. You can follow the links provided to other articles which address specific concerns in more depth. The most important message I can offer you is that if you notice a water problem starting to occur, the faster and more professionally you deal with it, the less trouble and expense you will have to go through over the long run.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2013 HomeXam Inc.
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