What To Do About A Leak in Your Home (Besides Panic)

There’s nothing like an atmospheric river to really drive home the watertightness of your place! If you’ve been in the path of serious rain and snow recently, you may also be dealing with one of the biggest headaches of homeownership – a leak from the outside. And since the knee jerk reaction to this scenario is usually blind panic, I’m sharing what actionable steps you can take while you wait for help. 

First Things First

Identifying the source of the leak is the most important first step, which is may be harder than it sounds. Sometimes it’s easy to see, because water is literally pouring in as rain thrashes down outside. In other cases, figuring out the source of your leak takes a little sleuthing. It could be a clogged gutter, a flashing issue or a faulty window, so don’t assume it’s your roof. Still, the first call you should make is usually to a roofer (assuming it’s not an internal plumbing burst).

Here are the signs to look for assuming you need to look:

  • Musty odors. In the dry high-desert climate of northern Nevada, that telltale mustiness is a sign of moisture. In San Francisco, where we see damp rooms, it’s not uncommon to smell must. If you can’t see water stains, use your fingers to probe around for any spongy feeling in the ceilings and up high on the walls.
  • Water stains. This is a big red flag. Dark rings with discolored centers on the ceiling are a sign of a roof leak, and that’s something you shouldn’t ignore. Outside, stains on your exterior walls indicate roofing issues too, particularly in the flashing (the metal part where the roof meets the wall).
  • Bulging drywall. If your drywall is bubbling or bulging or otherwise acting suspicious, particularly up high near the ceiling, you could be dealing with a roof leak (or a plumbing leak).
  • Damage to roofing materials. Shingles that are warped or damaged can be weak points for water access.

While you speed-dial a roofing repair company or plumber, depending on what you’ve observed, here’s what else to do:

  • If water is actively dripping, get a bowl or bucket to catch it to limit the water damage. You do not want standing water adding to the mess, so the more you can collect, the more you lessen the damage. 
  • If you have bulging drywall, there’s likely a lot of water gathering on the other side. Feel around for sponginess and try to pinpoint where it’s coming in. Then, set up a container and carefully puncture the drywall. Hopefully, you can keep the roof from collapsing by creating a spot for water to come through.
  • If you have access to your roof and a general idea of where the leak is coming from, try getting a tarp in place. This may not be feasible at all, but if you can make it happen safely, it’s a good move.
  • Make sure to document the leak and the damage. If your homeowner’s insurance includes roof coverage, you’ll want photos to show your adjuster. Many policies do not cover wear and tear on siding and flashing just as a heads up, so if you’re reading this and want to be ready, it’s a good move to check your policy and go over what is and isn’t covered.  

Of course, you’ll also need to mop up any standing water you can reach. If you have a fan, run it overnight and best yet is to rent dehumidifiers. Water damage companies will bring these in and insurance will often pay for them, depending on the source of the leak and your policy. Plan to keep those running and the area as well ventilated as possible. Then, take a breath. It’s never fun to deal with that kind of damage, but sometimes you get a decent upgrade to your house that was maybe overdue.   

The Takeaway

You know the old saying – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s true! Schedule routine roof inspections in the spring and fall to ensure your roof is in good shape, ensure regular maintenance, and check your insurance policies. If you need a referral to a good vendor, reach out!  Chances are high that I know someone.

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