Detecting water damage in your old house

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Inspection

There is no doubt that many old houses are plagued by problems. One of the biggest issues, whether the house is modern or ancient, is the threat of water damage. It can wreck havoc on a home, and unfortunately it doesn't take long -- one serious storm could be enough to result in damage that requires many hours of labor and thousands of dollars to repair.

Sometimes the damage is quite evident, and can be easily spotted by the untrained eye. But it can also be a very subtle problem that creeps up on you, creating significant destruction before you even realize it's there.

Spotting water damage

I really wish I had known how to detect the more subtle signs of water damage before I moved into my first old home. It would have saved me a great deal of hassle, not to mention kept more cash in my wallet. Here is a list of signs that you may have damage, from the clear to the more subtle, sneaky ones:

  1. Water stains. That telltale stain on the ceiling or wall can be an obvious sign. If it suddenly pops up, it's time to get a professional into your house to check it out and find out where the water came from. If you are looking into purchasing an old house and you see water stains, be wary. Ask for proof that the source of the damage has been repaired.
  2. Buckling floors and walls. This is another very clear sign, and it is often the mark of an extensive problem. The drywall or wood absorbs water, which makes it swell. The result is a buckling that you can see or feel when you walk over the area. This can happen over time, such as through a small shower leak, or it can happen all at once, especially after a major storm.
  3. Crumbling areas. Pay attention to the area around the windows. Do you see crumbling wood? The same holds true for baseboards or molding. Any sort of crumbling could indicate the wood is falling apart because of water infiltration.
  4. Trust your nose. The damage might be able to hide from your sight, but you can often find it with your nose. If you walk into a room and are assaulted with the scent of mold or mildew, there could be moisture damage lurking behind the walls. Many old houses have an old, musty smell -- but in rooms where water has caused damage, that smell is often much more pronounced.
  5. Listen closely. Sometimes you can sense a water leak, but you can't see it anywhere. If you suspect a hidden leak coming from your roof, try to use your ears to verify it. When it starts to rain, turn off everything in the house, including your central heat and air. The goal is to make the house as quiet as possible. Then stand in the various places you think there might be a leak, and simply listen. The sound of water dripping through your roof is very different from the sound of water landing on your roof. This is how I found the tiny leak in my attic that could have led to serious problems later on.
  6. Look for new paint. If you are looking to purchase a house, pay attention to the paint. Sadly, many homeowners who want to unload their house will cover up problems rather than fix them. Look for newly painted ceilings, or areas that appear to have been patched over with a fresh coat of paint, but the rest of the house didn't get that same treatment.

Water damage is the bane of old house lovers everywhere. But with a little detective work and careful observation, you can find the telltale signs before they become serious problems for your wallet.


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  1. 7 Responses  to “Detecting water damage in your old house”

  2. Emily
    Dec 14, 2015
    Shannon, my husband and I are looking to buy our first house. We have looked at several old houses and found a couple that we like. If we buy an older home we want to make sure it is in good shape. The tip about looking our for water stains and crumbling areas as a sign of water damage seems like a good idea. We will have to keep that in mind.
  3. Julie Myers
    Feb 5, 2015
    Having water damage is something that is very common in my area, especially since we get flooded frequently, and many of the homes are old. I have a new neighbor, and she is finding that there is water damage in the basement. She would really like to be able to use the basement, but the floors are buckled and warped. If the restoration for this is not too difficult as you say, I think I will suggest that she gets water damage restoration for her home!
  4. Mike Loshe
    Jul 1, 2013
    From personal experience I know that water damage repair is something you want to avoid if you can. I really like the idea of checking for any new paint since the current owners will have most likely painted over any water damaged walls or flooring.
  5. Margo McCann
    Jun 18, 2013
    The best thing I did when I was unsure about water damage was call an expert in disaster repair. It saved me a lot of time and I was shocked at what I couldn't see that needed repair.
  6. Jun 16, 2013
    Great advice! And always watch for paint jobs I have been called to fix a lot of things because the last homeowner was to lazy to fix it themselves.
  7. Jun 6, 2013
    Those are good tips. Trusting your nose and water stains are good examples given by you. Thank you
  8. Anthony
    Jun 5, 2013
    Smell is definitely a good one, but also sound! Sometimes, you can hear the dripping in the walls. Even the sound of a banging old water heater might be a clue that a few things need to be inspected. Great post!