- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

Another year of record rainfall is adding up to big problems for many area homeowners. Hit with consistent heavy rains, basements — especially in older homes — are feeling the squeeze with water filling in through crevices, cracks and foundations.

Whether homes are recovering from a flood or struggling with leaks, the problem can put a big damper on home sales. Lenders can withhold approval unless repairs are completed before settlement, and homeowners can face lawsuits for failing to note repeated flooding.

“If you are looking at a house that is $400,000 and you have a problem that is $8,000, isn’t it better just to take care of it so that it’s not an issue?” says Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

Homeowners in Virginia, Maryland and the District are required to sign property disclosure forms that note, among other things, known defects including basement flooding. Unless a home is sold “as is” or cash allowances are made to repair flooding, homeowners who sign the forms without acknowledging a problem risk litigation.

“You do not want to sell a house with a known problem, because that can come back and bite you,” Mr. Molony says.

Homeowners should start by pinpointing the source of the water problem to determine what needs to be done.

Realtors advise property owners to solicit at least three bids before deciding on a contractor.

To avoid problems, work with companies that have been in the business for many years, and follow up by checking references and complaints with such agencies as the Better Business Bureau. Reputable companies will require only partial payment upfront and will offer warranties as part of the completed project, contractors say.

“It’s just like finding a good Realtor. Always look at the references and call the people to make sure they have done the work as they say,” says Jack Torza, regional vice president for the National Association of Realtors.

If a house is about to go on the market, homeowners can have the work done in advance or submit prepared bids to the buyer and offer a cash allowance to cover the repairs. Otherwise, the home would have to be sold as is — typically bringing a lower price, Mr. Molony says.

“It’s something you can work with because it’s a correctable item,” Mr. Torza says. “The cases we’ve seen a lot of times involve basements that may have never had any water. It’s just our water table is so incredibly high right now.”

Complaints about soggy basements have grown over the past year because of unusually heavy rain — as much as 12 inches of rain in a month in some areas. The problem is complicated in homes with clogged gutters and downspouts because the water is pooling around basement walls.

The heavy, saturated soil is also making the water table rise, which is squeezing foundations, opening up cracks in old masonry and causing persistent flooding for many homeowners.

“It could just be years and years of neglect on the property or deteriorating walls,” says Gerald Fill, president of B-Dry System of Metropolitan Washington.

Mr. Fill says he uses an eight-point checklist to pinpoint water problems starting with affordable solutions, such as landscaping improvements. He advises homeowners to begin checking stairwell drains, gutters and downspouts to make sure they are working correctly.

Often, the source of a problem is a window well stuffed with leaves or a downspout that has somehow gotten clogged, allowing water to pool and saturate a cinder-block wall.

Gutters and downspouts need to be cleaned, and drain lines should be installed properly, venting water 10 feet or more away from the house. Grading often is to blame — the soil slope brings water toward the house instead of away from basement walls.

Landscaping solutions can include changing plantings to absorb water near basement walls and regrading an entire lot to slope away from the house, Mr. Fill says.

“When water comes in your basement, don’t panic and be patient,” Mr. Fill says. “It may be a very simple solution, like leaves clogging a drain or a downspout separated from a gutter.”

Mr. Fill advises homeowners to check chimney flashing and caulking often — another source of leaks. Any source that can allow surface water to collect can flood a basement in a matter of hours during a heavy rainstorm.

Typically, if a basement starts leaking as soon as it starts raining, the problem is from surface water, says Robin Bryan Culver, president of the National Association of Waterproofing and Structural Contractors, representing the waterproofing industry.

“You absolutely have to do routine maintenance,” says Ms. Culver, owner of Bryan Plumbing, Heating and Waterproofing, based in Baltimore.

Persistent problems usually indicate a groundwater problem, with water entering through either cracks in the foundation or masonry joints. An appropriate repair requires adding a sump pump system and a drainage unit to handle groundwater runoff.

Perforated tubes are placed along the wall where the leak occurs, diverting water to the pump, which discharges the water away from the home.

A typical system for a 30-by-30-foot area averages about $6,000 to $7,000, Ms. Culver says.

More than one pump might be required if the home is in an area where the water table has risen dramatically, she adds.

A buyer can check a home’s insurance history to determine whether claims have been filed involving flooded basements.

Mr. Fill also advises homeowners to conduct a thorough inspection of the home. Look for excessive rust around washers and dryers and rust stains on the floor.

Inspect paneling and walls for streaks or water lines, and check basement furniture and basements stairs for rotting, he says.

On basement walls, look for evidence of a powdery or crystalline coating on concrete blocks caused by water residue — efflorescence.

Many companies will conduct evaluations at no charge, and contractors urge homeowners to hire a qualified contractor to walk through the house if any evidence of water damage is found.

“Very often, inspectors put a moisture meter on the wall, but that’s not a good test. It could just mean high humidity or poor ventilation,” Mr. Fill says.

“Get more than one opinion,” he says. “There are contractors that will try to exploit somebody after a heavy downpour.”

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