It’s a classic image in comedies and cartoons: a home during a rainstorm, buckets all over the floor catching the rain as it drips from the ceiling. Unfortunately, by the time a roof leak reaches this point in real life, your home will have already suffered extensive damage. The good news is that you can detect roof leaks well before they become a visible problem, and many of these leaks are easy to fix on your own.
Detecting Roof Leaks
The first and most important step in keeping your roof leak-free is determining if there is actually a leak (or suspected leak). In some cases, you’ll run across signs during home repairs or upon casual inspection. In other cases, the signs might be a bit more obscure. Take some time occasionally to visit portions of your home which are less used, such as the attic, to check for any signs of a problem. You will also want to keep an eye on places where there have been leaks previously, as these spots are more likely to develop new leaks over time.
Easily-Detected Signs of a Roof Leak
The most common sign of leaks are water marks or stains on your ceiling or running down a wall. You can casually check for these signs when washing your walls or dusting corners, and they’ll usually appear to be slightly darker rings or resemble the wax drips on candles, depending upon their location.
Another detectable sign is through smell. Leaking roofs will cause rot and mold around their location. Therefore, if there’s a musty or rotting odor in your attic or some other area directly beneath or connected to a roof, it is a good idea to inspect the location more carefully.
Examine the inside of your roof for any roofing nails which missed the support and are exposed. In cold weather, these nail shafts (often referred to as “shiners”) will attract condensation, turning them a frosty white. When the temperature increases again, the frost liquefies and drips. This is not an actual leak, although it has similar effects. Simply cut the nail with some pliers to eliminate the problem.
Less Obvious Signs of a Roof Leak
Occasionally take a look at your roof when you’re outside to see if you can spot any loose or missing shingles. The shingles are layered to prevent water from getting underneath, and a damaged shingle becomes a potential access point.
Many leaks can be more easily detected during a rainstorm. Go into the attic and listen for any dripping sounds. You will also want to check beams for trickling water and the floor or exposed insulation for signs of dampness. You can also have an assistant emulate rain using a garden hose, which allows you to focus on one section of roof at a time.
Another common source of roof leaks comes from windows, walls, and dormers. Use a putty knife to check the caulk for loose or damaged areas. Also check your siding above the step flashing or cracks, gaps, or other problems. When it rains, water will often leak through these cracks and run down the inner walls, causing an effect similar to a regular roof leak.
In some cases, you will suspect a roof leak but find no obvious signs, or the signs will be only indoors. You may also be unable to access the attic/crawl space or have a vaulted ceiling. For these occasions, you will have to carefully check the surface of your roof for less visible problems, such as tiny shingle tears or damaged caulking around vents and chimneys. Remember that water will run downslope of the actual leak, especially with steeper roof pitches, so the source may be further up the roof than the location of the interior evidence.
In the event your roof once housed an antenna or other fixture, there may be exposed nail holes. These can cause subtle leaks which accumulate damage without any obvious interior signs. Such holes cannot be repaired by caulk.
Fixing Roof Leaks Yourself
In many cases, you can repair roof leaks by yourself. Some experience handling shingles is advised, as you may need to temporarily loosen or remove a few shingles. Many of these fixes require only a few tools and basic DIY know-how.
Vent leaks are among the most common and easiest issues to deal with. In most cases, the problem is a cracked plastic vent or damaged rubber boot. The only real fix is to replace the damaged part. While you’re at it, look for damaged or missing nails. These should be replaced with rubber-washered screws, which are usually used in metal roofing systems and widely available. Be careful when removing the surrounding shingles during your repair, especially if you have no replacements.
Be sure to dig out and replace any loose caulking with siliconized latex caulking for a stronger seal. Replace all damaged or missing siding, making sure it overlaps the step flashing by at least two inches. Finally, remove the corner boards in the event of a persistent leak and replace the caulk where there’s an overlap in the flashing.
More Complex Fixes
Flashing is used for several complicated repairs, as well as valleys and places where the roof meets a wall or other vertical surface. You will want to be careful to install flashing properly, as water will attempt to run under connecting shingles and may run under if you have an ice dam.
Ice dams are a difficult problem which may be caused by inadequate insulation or other issues. They commonly occur in soffits and near gutters. When attempting to remove a dam by yourself, use extra safety precautions and a rubber mallet to chip away at the ice. Using fire or a sharp metal object could damage the roof, leading to even more leaks and potentially expensive repairs. In most cases, hiring a professional is recommended for repairing an ice dam due to the many risks involved.
Bringing in a Professional
Sometimes, the best solution is hiring a professional. Not only can a periodical inspection by qualified professionals detect signs of leaks you’ve overlooked, they can find if there’s more than one source and locate those sources quickly. Most contractors and roofing firms will also provide a warranty for their work. While more expensive initially, a good roofing expert could potentially save you a lot of money in the long run, as they will be able to point out any secondary issues, such as early mold growth.
You may also choose to get your roof inspected on an annual or semi-annual basis to catch potential trouble spots early. This is especially useful if your home has a history of roof leaks or your roof is approaching the end of its warranty. Finally, it is best to hire a professional if you aren’t confident in your ability to work on roofs, as mistakes can be both expensive and dangerous due to the height.