Roof Leaks - Cut Your Expenses Before You Call for Help

A leaky roof.
What You'll Need
House plans
Measuring tape
Scrap plywood
Safety harness
Garden hose

Like most homeowners, you most likely keep a running wish list of house projects. As in, you wish you had the time for it, you wish you had the money to take it on, and more often, you wish you’d never heard of it. Case in point: a leaking roof. Unless the project at the top of your list says, “Put the Fire Out” that’s where “Fix the Roof” belongs. Water damage is a potential disaster that can occur in a very short time. Black mold or structural failure (termites love wet wood) can literally deprive you of your home. If this sounds scary, it is.

Now, visualize pointing at a dripping ceiling and saying to a contractor, “I’ve got a roof leak.” Most likely he’ll say, “So it seems, any idea where it is?” So before running for the Yellow Pages, a little work can save you a lot of money.

Knowledge Is Money

Think of a roof leak as being a miniature river, with an origin and an outlet. Obviously, you know where the outlet is — your dripping or discolored ceiling. The closer you can get to the origin (actual roof leak), the simpler the contractor’s job will be. Now visualize pointing to a skylight on your roof and telling a contractor, “This skylight leaks. What are my options?” It’s a whole different story. A much more affordable story.

Step 1 - Take Measurements

All you know at present is the “outlet” location. I’m assuming a little common sense in that wherever you have a drip, you’ll place a bucket. And check it as often as needed. Find your house plans for writing down notes and measurements. If you have none, a rough sketch will have to do. Your attic usually only has exterior walls to measure from, so take two measurements from outside walls below.

Step 2 - Investigate the Attic

Head into the attic with the plans, measuring tape, camera, a good flashlight and, if you only have a partial attic floor, a couple small pieces of plywood to span the joists as a solid base to work from. Duplicate the measurements from below to find the outlet location and work your way carefully to that point. Shine the flashlight at the attic sheathing and rafters, looking for “tell-tale” water stains. Follow any stains as far up the pitched roof as possible; measuring, marking, and taking pictures along the way.

Absent any signs of water, your leak might just be excess condensation, a rarity but possible. The cure for condensation is more air vents in the walls or roof, or even a de-humidifier. If this is the case, give the de-humidifier a try and you might not have to call anyone. If the water stains stop at any object that penetrates the roof, (check very carefully to make sure they don’t re-appear higher up) you’re real close to the origin. Common objects susceptible to leaking are plumbing vents, AC units, attic air vents, skylights, and chimneys.

You might also run into a roof valley or vertical wall supporting a higher section of the house. Your final measurement in the attic is from the bottom of the rafter to the suspect origin point, remembering that when you take that measurement on the roof, you must add in both wall thickness and roof overhang. At this point, if you have any reservations about walking on a pitched roof, you’ve done all you can as far as locating the leak and it’s time to choose a contractor.

Step 3 - Practice Roof Safety

If you’re confident you can walk the roof, take all precautions you can think of. Make sure the ladder is solidly based, even if it means some digging. Secure the ladder at the top. Wood clamps to the fascia generally work or wire and a few screws into the fascia if not. Holes up that high can be ignored or patched and painted. The roof pitch is usually marked on your plans as a small triangle on the page showing the roof pitch itself, either in the elevations section, detailed wall section, or general notes. (6:12 being the maximum you can walk on, 4:12 is fairly easy.)

Can’t find the roof pitch? Take a horizontal measurement from where the rafter meets the ceiling joist and mark it at 6 feet. Measure vertically from that point up to the bottom of a rafter. Double both numbers so you have X:12. But keep in mind that a long fall off the roof most likely costs more than roof repairs so BE CAREFUL. No slick bottom shoes. If needed, use a rope harness to anything solid on the roof, OR a tree, post, whatever on or near the ground (no cars please), on the opposite side of where you’ll be and keep that rope taut.

Step 4 - Examine Your Roof

Get up in the roof and find the object your water stains stopped at in the attic. Look for obvious damage like loose flashing, missing fasteners, cracked or missing caulk. Finding nothing is not the end. As a last resort, “make it rain” using a garden hose. You’ll need an assistant in the attic to start screaming at the first sign of water.

Start below the suspected leak area, with the garden hose at about half volume. Be patient, as it often takes water some time to work its way into the house, and let the hose run a few minutes before moving up, all the way to the ridge if necessary. (Some ridges are raised an inch or two, with bug screens, as ridge air vents have been known to leak during heavy rains and high winds.)

If nothing shows, you can either give up or run the hose at higher volume for more time. Unless you’re sure you can “do the fix” yourself, you’re done and again, it’s time to make those calls.

Step 5 - Find a Roofer

Finding a good contractor is simple enough. Note their address, as closer to you means less driving time and a lower bill. Also note how long he or she has been in business and do they specialize in just residential? Call a few local general contractors and ask who they like to use (or avoid) and why.

The local hardware store is also good for asking around, among the head employees, about roof contractors. Once you’ve called your chosen few, show them everything you discovered (pictures and physically), and then talk business, contracts (you at least want a written bill, no under the table stuff), warranties, pricing, etc. Don’t mention to any of them you’ve called others, as it may affect both attitude and price.

Once you feel you’ve “got your man” you can discuss terms in more detail. You can offer to do all clean-up and save money, be a gopher for materials, coffee, lunch or break snacks. One thing to avoid is paying money up front. You can counter offer any such suggestion with 25% on the first full day of work, a possible interim payment for long jobs, and the balance on completion (after you’ve run another “hose test”).

Good luck and although it may cost a bit, remember you’ve done everything you can to cut the bill to its minimum.

A few final thoughts. These methods are not a guarantee you’ll locate a leak, but they will give you a real good chance. In some cases, the leak is obvious from below, as a drip down the chimney stone means a leak in the roof at the chimney, a wet wall is a good indication of a leaking plumbing jack, a wall pouring water out from below means a busted pipe--shut off the house water, and call any plumber available for an emergency. Just apply some common sense before doing anything mentioned in this article.