- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

A combination of the last year’s drought, deep winter snows and drenching spring rains has left many homeowners knee deep in water trouble.

Waterproofing businesses say they are getting more calls than usual this year from anxious homeowners whose properties are suffering from water damage. Many of these are new customers — people who never before have had water problems.

Signs of water damage in the home can be as obvious as a steady stream leaking from the ceiling or as hard-to-detect as condensation trapped within the walls. Either can cause considerable damage.

It can add up to costly repair bills and sleepless nights for homeowners — considering that many forms of water damage aren’t covered by insurance.

What’s more, experts say, water damage to a house is largely preventable.

“I saw more damage this year and got a lot of calls,” says Mike Wilson, president of Miller Home Services in Bethesda, which specializes in home repairs and improvements. “While the D.C. area dries out from an overabundance of rain, unsuspecting homeowners may not know that the meltdown could be wreaking havoc on their homes in the form of leaks.”

Before the deluge came the drought — one reason homes in the region are suffering so much.

Last summer’s dry weather caused soil to pull away from building foundations. Winter snow, spring rain and summer thunderstorms have brought some areas more than a foot of precipitation above normal levels. The water is filling in the gaps, the experts say.

The grade around many homes has receded, Mr. Wilson says. “The soil recession caused gaps between the home and soil, allowing water to seep through cracks in the basement and even under doorways.”

“After a heavy snowfall or downpour, water can push down the exterior of your home and cause a mess in your basement,” he says.

Professionals say it is wise to check for any signs of water damage and to take care of it right away. A seemingly small leak can cause permanent structural damage and affect the value of your property.

“Generally, you know it when you have water damage,” says Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of consumer affairs at the Insurance Information Institute in New York City. She says wind-driven rain and floods are among the most common causes of water damage.

Once water has made its way into the home, homeowners need to act fast to find the source and dry it up before it leads to even bigger problems.

“Find the point of saturation and make a decision on how serious it is,” Mr. Wilson says. “If the home is wet in the basement, see how wet it is. Small cracks in your home’s foundation can be the source of small leaks, which are not a major concern. A good humidifier or spot treatment should clean it up.”

Large leaks, however, should be handled differently because the risk of damage is more severe, Mr. Wilson says. Large leaks can be caused by a variety of sources, but they are most likely to occur when the ground is saturated, he says.

Besides cosmetic and structural problems associated with water damage, there is the issue that’s getting a higher profile these days — mold.

“You need to dry the water quickly, or you may have a mold problem,” Ms. Salvatore says.

“Prolonged water problems lead to mold, and some molds have been shown to cause serious health problems,” says Mike Patrick, a Realtor with RE/MAX Colonial Homes in Fort Washington. “Correcting mold problems can be difficult and costly. In some cases, properties have been condemned.”

“No moisture, no mold,” Ms. Salvatore says.

“The best thing to do is let the water dry out, then call a contractor to determine where and how the water is seeping in. It may be costly, but it could save you thousands down the road,” Mr. Wilson says.

The cost is something homeowners might have to bear themselves. Insurance does not always cover water damage or the costs of removing mold.

“If your home is damaged by a windstorm, [it] blows in a window or damages the house, that is covered by insurance,” Ms. Salvatore says. But water damage due primarily to maintenance problems that are not sudden nor accidental is usually not covered.

“If the rain builds up and flooding occurs because the ground is oversaturated, insurance won’t cover it,” Ms. Salvatore says. “If you’re smart, you shouldn’t wait for it to get to this point. If every time there’s a heavy rain … you have flooding in the yard, you should do something about it.”

Realtors tell home buyers to look for evidence of water problems when looking at prospective homes.

“If there is an active water problem, generally you will smell it before you see it,” Mr. Patrick says. “The dampness creates a musty smell — especially if there are finished walls or carpeting in a basement area.”

Telltale signs include stains on joists, walls, paneling and cinder block walls. Loose flooring or tiles are also a sign of wetness.

Additionally, real estate experts say a professional inspection is a must and should uncover past or potential water problems.

“I think every buyer should have a property professionally inspected for this and other potential problems. If a severe water problem is uncovered, they may want to consult with a structural engineer to determine if there is damage to the integrity of the property,” Mr. Patrick says.

Experts say proper home maintenance reduces the chance of water damage.

“Make sure the ground area has dirt built up around the house so it won’t get that heavy saturation,” Mr. Wilson says. It’s just as important to check your roof for deterioration or wind damage, he says, and make sure that vents, chimney and air conditioners are all properly installed.

Other tips: Clean debris from your roof and inspect it regularly. Promptly repair missing or damaged shingles, flashing or other areas that could cause leaks. And remember, gutters, eaves and downspouts should be kept clean, with the downspouts extending away from the house to carry water away from the foundation.

Winter snow and ice buildup can damage gutters and lead to leaks, Mr. Wilson says. This source of water damage can be prevented.

“One of the easiest ways is to invest in snow guards,” he says, “because they can help break up the load of snow that comes down your gutters.”

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