Old house water damage 101

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

A few days ago, my daughter came bounding up the stairs, out of breath and completely drenched. "The water hose on the washer broke!" she shouted. "Get downstairs, now!"

I raced down the stairs to see water everywhere. There was at least two inches of water on the floor of the basement, even as the drain in the middle gurgled away water as fast as it could. I turned the cut-off valve and the water slowed to a trickle, then stopped.

We were lucky that the water pooled on concrete and didn't touch any carpeting. The drain worked as it should have, and the water was gone within an hour. As I cleaned up the mess left behind, I couldn't help but think about what would have happened if we had been on vacation, or if there hadn't been a shut-off valve.

Many older homes don't have the luxuries of a drain in the floor, nor do they have valves that shut off the water when things get too wet. When you move into an old house, one of the first orders of business should be protecting your new investment from potential water damage.

Protecting an old house from floods

Many people think of water damage as something that comes from a storm battering an aging roof, or a natural disaster that roars in with water and debris. The truth is that many water damage problems in a home come from inside it.

Think about how many things in your home have water flowing to them. The hot water heater, washer, dishwasher, ice maker, all fixtures in your bathrooms and kitchen, and even water that flows to nearby outdoor areas, such as fountains or irrigation systems, can cause problems with flooding in your home. This can be an even more serious problem with an old house, which might not have all the safeguards of a newer one.

Here's where to begin when protecting your old house from water damage.

  1. Get shut-off valves. Most old houses have equally old plumbing, and that often means no shut-off valves when you need them most. Consult a plumber to install shut-off valves on toilets, sinks, appliance intakes, and any other areas where water might need to be stopped at a moment's notice. Make sure everyone in the family knows where the valves are.
  2. Replace all supply lines. Now is the time to invest in lines that are designed to handle water pressure for a long period of time, as well as specialized lines that can stop the water flow at the first sign of a problem. Don't trust those old lines -- they work well until the moment they don't!
  3. Carefully inspect appliances. A small leak from something like the ice maker or the dishwasher can drip, drip, drip until you have a serious problem on your hands. Inspect your appliances on a regular basis to ensure that there is no leakage anywhere.
  4. Upgrade your water heater. An older water heater could be an accident just waiting to happen. If your water heater shows any signs of rust or leakage, replace it immediately.
  5. Know where your pipes go. If your old house has gone through additions and changes over the years, the plumbing might have some crazy routes. Talk to a plumber about exactly where the pipes are and what type they are. If they are of a certain age, it might be time for a full inspection or replacement.
  6. Consider an alarm system. An alarm system for leaks? You bet! Small sensors placed in areas near pipes and valves can sound off when the moisture level gets too high, indicating a leak. It's a valuable security system that is inexpensive and takes only minutes to set up.

Finally, pay attention. Be very vigilant about watching for signs of water damage, such as peeling paint, buckling drywall or discolorations. Any unexplained water in your home should be immediately followed to the source. The only way to stop water damage from spreading is to catch it fast, so always be on the lookout for the stealthy problem that can ruin your old house and drain your savings account.