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How to Prevent and Fix Roof Leaks

Roofs don’t last forever. Constant exposure to rain, wind, sun and snow will slowly deteriorate a roof’s integrity, leaving it subject to leaking issues. Shoddy


Improperly installed flashing will lead to leaking. Photo courtesy of KTM Roofing.
Improperly installed flashing will lead to leaking. Photo courtesy of KTM Roofing.

workmanship around the roof’s flashing, vents, gutters and other roofing features can also lead to water infiltration and potential damage to the home’s structure and interior. Preventative measures include thorough and frequent inspection of the roof and the attic space, replacement of damaged shingles, tiles or shakes and, if a leak has already developed, swift repair by either the homeowner or a roofing repair contractor.

Regular Inspection
The roof can’t be expected to perform on faith alone. With so much resting on the roof’s integrity, it is in the best interest of the homeowner to regularly inspect for leaks and to be on the lookout for signs of roof damage that could lead to a leak. Staining on the ceiling inside the house is almost a sure sign that the roof above has been compromised. Such stains can take a long time to become visible—by this time, much of the roof decking, insulation and sheet rock will be already be saturated, rotted and needing replacement. The goal of the routine inspection is to prevent this situation from ever occurring.

Thorough inspection for leaks can begin in the attic. It may be helpful to inspect the attic on a rainy day as the leak will be much easier to spot. “Wait until at least 30 minutes of rain has fallen,” says Tim McLoughlin, owner of KTM Roofing, a roofing company based in Atlanta, Ga. “Then go in with a flashlight and check the rafters, eaves and ridges for water dripping or dark stains.” A dark stain on the roof decking may indicate a leak above, but McLoughlin cautions that the stain may not indicate the location of the leak. “If you have plywood the water can run some distance before leaving a stain,” he says. Homeowners should also check around all the vents and plumbing pipes and look for signs of daylight. This would suggest deterioration in the plumbing boot or flashing on the roof above, which could lead to a leak. All the pipes should be checked for moisture, and the valleys where two roofs meet should be inspected as well.

The presence of mold or mildew around the vents, chimney and the roof joints is usually sign of moisture infiltration. Close inspection of the area around mold or mildew may reveal the source of the leak. Also, dark or stained insulation may be the result of a leak. Be on the lookout for wet or saturated insulation.

The roof should undergo its own routine examination. The safest way to conduct an examination of the roof is to use a pair of binoculars and circle the home on the ground, sweeping over every inch of rooftop. “Look for curling or shrinking shingles,” says McLoughlin, referring to asphalt shingles. McLoughlin recommends examining all sides of the roof in both a morning and afternoon sun. Homeowners should look for shingles that are slipping out of place or out of alignment, which can occur in asphalt, tile, slate and wood shake shingle scenarios. Sagging branches that come into contact with the roof can abrade the shingles or knock them out of place, which decreases the life of the roof and can cause leaks.

Use those binoculars to get a good look at the roof flashing, too. Flashing (often sheet metal) is most often found around chimneys, vents, skylights and the joints, peaks and valleys of the roof. High winds, ice and snow and the expansion and contraction of the roof throughout the seasons can cause the flashing to work loose, particularly if it was poorly installed in the first place. Replacing or properly repairing the flashing can be a challenging job. Inexperienced homeowners should leave this to the roofing expert.

Generally speaking, shingle replacement is a straightforward and relatively inexpensive fix (although slate and wood shake require a little more know-how and money) that can be undertaken by the homeowner, albeit with extreme caution. A homeowner who has any misgivings about conducting shingle


This rubber plumbing boot is worn and needs replacing. Photo courtesy of KTM Roofing.
This rubber plumbing boot is worn and needs replacing. Photo courtesy of KTM Roofing.

replacement should consult with a professional. Removal of offending branches should be done carefully as miscalculations can result in greater damage to the roof or home. This kind of project may also be best left to a professional.

The National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) has a guideline for homeowners to follow when inspecting a roof. The guideline covers ladder and roof safety as well as advice on what to inspect for.

Common Sources of Leaks
Missing or deteriorated shingles can lead to leaks, but some less obvious (and harder to spot) causes can also be the culprits.

As stated, the flashing of the roof are prime spots for leak development. Flashing can be found where the roof meets the chimney, a wall, another roofing plane (valley) and around the vents (plumbing or furnace) and skylights. Unfortunately, poor installation technique is commonly the cause of leaks around the flashing details of a roof. “The days of [flashing] workmanship are gone,” says McLoughlin, who believes the proper way to flash a chimney, for example, involves step flashing and counter flashing. “Nowadays, a lot of contractors just use one flat piece of metal with a lip and they caulk it. Now you are just dependent on the caulking.” Many professionals like McLoughlin agree that caulk, tar and some of the other roofing cement products on the market do not adequately protect a roof against leaks, particularly over the long term.

Plumbing boots are commonly used around the plumbing vents. These rubber seals are often the first things to go on a roof as they tend to last only 10 to 15 years. Fortunately, they are inexpensive—about $5—and replacing one or all of them shouldn’t be much more than a $200 if done by a professional. If one boot has deteriorated significantly and needs replacing, it is a good idea to have the roofing professional replace them all since it is only a small increase in the overall cost for the part and labor, and it will save on having to bring the contractor out at a later date when the other boots fail.

Satellite dishes might be a boon to the channel-hungry family, but they can also be the cause behind those drips in the attic. Many satellite dish installers use a crude lag-bolt installation method when fastening the dish to the roof, driving bolts through the shingles and sheathing below. This system—especially when installed without proper protection—can damage the roof and lead to leaks. Roof-friendly mounting systems like those offered through Commdeck come with built-in flashing and install using head screws. They are designed to seamlessly integrate into the existing roofing system, saving the homeowner headaches and damage expenses in the future. “The typical satellite foot installer drives lag bolts through the roof and sheathing and hopes to hit a roof truss,” says Steve Capozzi, president of Commdeck. “Sometimes they do [hit the truss] and sometimes they don’t. A lot of times you end up with leaking and a partially torn roof truss.” Capozzi says it is not uncommon to see $500 to $3,000 worth of damage caused by traditional satellite roof installation. Commdeck offers a few different roofing mount or “foot” options, including the Commdeck and Retrodeck—both for satellite dishes and antennas—as well as its new Soladeck designed for solar panels. 

The gutter system can also be the guilty party when a leak has developed. Poorly installed gutter systems can literally come apart at the seams, allowing a cascade of water to rain down on the roof. Others may actually improperly guide water over a section of roof, which can prematurely wear out the shingles and cause leaks. The popular leaf guard systems are sometimes installed in such a way that the adjacent shingles become compromised, which can result in leaks. Homeowners would be wise to routinely check the gutter system for leaks and cracks as well as flawed installation methods. When having a new gutter system or leaf guard system installed, the homeowner should be mindful of the steps that the contractor will take to ensure the integrity of the roofing system. 

Quick DIY Fixes
In some instances, a roof leak can be addressed by a homeowner. Replacing a few damaged or missing shingles is a doable project for the confident DIYer, and there are a couple temporary roof fixes that can see a home through a few more seasons before the whole roof needs to be replaced.

To replace shingles or make any roofing repairs, a homeowner needs to be comfortable with heights and climbing onto and off the roof using a ladder. “People have an easy time getting off the ladder and onto the roof,” says


This typical satellite dish install has lag bolts driven straight through the roof, which often result in leaks and roof damage. Photo courtesy of Commdeck.
This typical satellite dish install has lag bolts driven straight through the roof, which often result in leaks and roof damage. Photo courtesy of Commdeck.

McLoughlin. “It’s getting back onto the ladder that is the tricky part.”

Not every roof has the same pitch, and homes with a steeply sloped roof present a particularly dangerous situation to the would-be roof repairer. McLoughlin recommends hiring a professional for a roof with an 8/12 pitch or greater. (An “8/12” pitch is one that rises eight inches for every 12 inches of horizontal run.) Roofing repairs should take place on a sunny and dry day. Replacement of asphalt shingles involves removal of the damaged shingle and nail and installation of a new, matching shingle. Care should be taken not to damage the surrounding shingles. If a large swath of shingles needs replacing, it might be a good idea to hire a professional.

Although damaged or worn flashing elements can be tended to with caulk, cement or roofing repair tape, it is not considered a permanent fix. “If a roofing repair contractor comes to fix or patch a roof and all they are carrying is tar or caulking, this is a temporary fix,” says McLoughlin. In some instances, the leak that is fixed temporarily by caulking—around flashing, for example—may turn into a more serious leak when the caulk fails. “Doing something right the first time is the cheapest way,” says McLoughlin.

Still, a homeowner looking to extend a worn roof for another season or two may want to consider the inexpensive and temporary route. EternaBond’s line of products has gained some attention in the roofing industry as a viable roofing repair option. “Our tape fuses with the surface at a molecular level,” says owner Chris Margarites. EternaBond’s line of roofing repair tape includes a double-sided microsealant putty tape that can be used to hold shingles down in high wind areas. “A lot of times the high wind can lift the shingle up, allowing rain penetration,” says Margarites. “The microsealant putty tape adheres on both sides, so the overlapping shingles stick to each other.” Like caulk, the tape can be used to patch up leaks in the flashing around chimneys and vents or in the gutter system.

Since tar, caulk, tape and cement are considered by most roofing professionals to be temporary fixes, use of these options by a homeowner to patch a leak should be followed up by frequent inspections of the area for signs of renewed leaking. 

Tips to Hiring a Professional
In many roofing repair scenarios, it is in the best interest of the homeowner to use a professional. A professional roofing contractor will have the necessary tools and the experience to work up on a roof, which can be quite dangerous.

When considering a professional, be sure to shop around. The process of receiving an estimate from a contractor is actually an education for the homeowner—a lot can be learned about the roof and its parts by listening to a



contractor explain what needs to be done for repair. If a homeowner does not feel comfortable going up on the roof to be walked through the repair steps by the contractor, ask the contractor to take digital photos of the roof damage and repair areas.

Resist the temptation to shop by price alone. Some states do not require licensing of roofing contractors, which can mean the market will have its share of shaky practitioners who charge far less than the competition—and deliver just that as well.

Where the cost of a whole roof installation or replacement is usually calculated by square foot, a roof repair that involves replacing shingles or flashing is most often determined by material and time. Different roofing surfaces will incur different costs for repair—wood shakes and tile is more expensive than asphalt shingles, for example.

Before signing a contract with a professional, be sure the company or contractor has both general liability insurance and worker’s compensation. A call to the contractor’s insurer will ascertain that the premium has been paid on time and that the company is in fact insured. A copy of the insurance certificate should be requested, too.

It is a good idea to consider a roofing contractor who specializes in roofs. Check to see how long the company or contractor has been in business and if the company is local. One current trend in the roofing repair industry has seen out-of-state “storm chaser” contractors travel into storm afflicted areas to do cheap (and often inadequate) repairs on roofs.

When selecting a contractor, be sure to have every repair step in writing. This should include how many layers of the roof will be removed (if necessary), what will be repaired or replaced and how much it will cost for each repair. Ask the contractor to be as specific as possible.

Ask about the materials being used in the repair. Many manufacturers offer warranties on their products. In some instances, if a contractor has become certified to install certain products through a manufacturer, the manufacturer will back the labor warranty on the repair, covering installation and product defects.

To assist in the process of selecting a professional roofing contractor, the NRCA offers a residential roofing contractor pre-qualification form available to download. The form is designed to be filled out by all prospective roofing contractors as a way for the homeowner to compare and narrow down the options.

Roofs might be meant to last 20 years or more, but that doesn’t mean they will. Leaks can happen for any number of reasons; when gone unnoticed, they can wreak serious havoc on the interior of the home. Routine inspections of the roof and attic space add a measure of relief to the homeowner. Upon discovery of a leak, immediate action—whether through homeowner remedy or professional repair—will prevent more expensive damage in the future. 

Credit: Renovate Your World