Helter Shelter

Who'll stop the rain?

Week before last, while I was down in the Gulf Coast trying to relax and tan up my ghost-white biceps, Mother Nature decided to dump three month's worth of rain on my house in less than a week.

All over town, people started getting roof leaks, gutter leaks, and basement leaks. So, don't you know, my mobile phone started ringing. Over the course of a few days, I gently explained to folks that torrential rain happens here every now and then. Eventually, it stops. Usually, everything dries out. But just in case the heavens open up one day when I'm not around to talk about it, I'm going to tell y'all everything I know about dealing with downpours, right here and now.

If you have a crawl space, it will get wet.

In our little home inspection business, we look at crawl spaces almost every day. Whenever we get several days of heavy rain, we'll find some standing water in every crawl space we see. Even after the rain stops, we'll keep finding puddles in crawl spaces for days or weeks.

As long as the water doesn't damage the foundation, and as long as it doesn't linger long enough to start a crop of mold or fungus growing in the crawl space, there's no reason to get tense. Just let it dry out.

Even if your house is brand-spanking-new, some water in the crawl space is acceptable, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). In their book, Residential Construction Performance Guidelines, they say it's OK for a crawl space to have water up to 3/4" deep in a puddle up to three feet across.

Old basements will get wet. New basements should stay dry.

Until recently, most local basements weren't waterproofed. The old limestone foundations - common until the mid-1950s - leak like a Russian submarine. Concrete block foundations from the 60s, 70s, and 80s don't do much better. People ask me all the time if they should finish off an old basement. I say no. Sooner or later, it will flood.

In new houses, basements should be waterproofed. They should stay dry, at least for a few years, until the foundation drains fill up with silt, and water starts trickling in. According to the NAHB, a basement leak that causes "actual trickling of water" is unacceptable, and should be repaired. If the house is still under warranty, the builder should be responsible for the repair.

Roofs should never leak.

When there's a lot of rain and a lot of wind, a roof will leak in places where it's never leaked before, and may never leak again. That doesn't mean you ought to ignore a roof leak. When water starts coming through your roof, you've got to do something.

If water starts dripping through your ceiling, punch a hole in the ceiling and put a bucket under the hole. You don't want water pooling on the attic side of your ceiling. That'll make your ceiling collapse.

Once the rain is over, get a roofer to patch the roof. Then get somebody to gather up and throw away any wet attic insulation. (If you leave wet insulation in the attic, it could grow a crop of mold. Mold can make you sick. More on this later.) Finally, get a painter to patch and repaint the ceiling.

Check your gutters.

A truly hellish rainstorm is the perfect opportunity to put on a raincoat, deploy your biggest umbrella, and walk around looking at your gutters. You'll be able to see all the places where the gutters leak and overflow. Then you can call your gutter man and tell him which gutters need to be cleaned, patched, or rehung.

Check your grade.

While you're outside with the raincoat and umbrella, look for low spots around your foundation walls. If you see water pooling near the walls, you need to do a little grading. The dirt around your house should slope down and away from the house at least six inches in the first 10 feet.

If your house gets flooded, clean it up quick.

Lately, there has been a lot of hubbub about toxic mold, much of it generated by charlatans who want to scare people into buying mold tests, or better yet, a big expensive mold cleanup job.

Well, there is an element of truth in the toxic mold scare. Some people have gotten sick from mold. When people turn up sick, the mold can usually be traced back to a massive water leak, or a flood.

If you're unlucky enough to get inches of water in your house, you'll need to get rid of wet carpet, insulation, wallboard, and furniture, and you'll need to do it quickly. It's best to hire a company that specializes in post-disaster cleanup. Problem is, when there's a flood, all these companies are busy. If you're stuck doing your own cleanup, just get rid of everything wet as quickly as you can. The longer the house is wet, the more likely it is to grow a whopping, big crop of mold.