This was not the surprise Foster Lewis wanted in the basement family room on a cold and rainy winter night.
"When you stepped in the middle of the room … your socks were wet," he said. More than 50 gallons of water had invaded the beige carpeting — and while a little water had occasionally seeped in beneath a window well area, the room had not before been squishy underfoot.
Fast-forward to late March. Gone from the family room were the carpeting, padding and paneling. Gone was the brick from most of one wall; only the repaired brick fireplace section remained. Gone was basement storage, removed to the garage. And gone were three children's toys, which now covered the living room of the Sykesville house.
In the basement: a few items too big and bulky to bring upstairs, shoved together and shrouded in plastic sheets -- and a crew from Stop Leak in Towson wielding jackhammers.
An evaluation revealed that water had been infiltrating the basement from the window well and through the area where the foundation meets the floor, which is below ground, said Richard Fleury Sr., one of Stop Leak's owners. A 40-plus-year-old drainage system was jammed with dirt and debris, making it useless.
"We have been busier than usual," said Adrian Palazzi, another of Stop Leak's owners. Whether it was the wet fall or snow and ice thaws followed by cold spring rains, the ground couldn't hold more water, and into basements it went. "It can damage your foundation. It can lead to mold. … The foundation of a home, it's very critical that it be in great shape," he said.
Experts advise that now is when homeowners should fix not only obvious damage from severe winter weather — bricks on the front steps loosened by freeze-thaw cycles should be cemented in before both you and the brick take a tumble — but also things that may lurk out of sight. Now is when homeowners should perform a home checkup, make repairs and do preventive maintenance with next winter in mind.
Andy Kochis did the latter a few weeks ago because the 25-year roof on his Woodstock house was 24 years old.
"I didn't want to wait until it was raining in the house to have it replaced," he said.
After determining that the attic ventilation was not up to snuff, Brothers Services in Columbia installed a new roof and an attic ventilation system to draw hot air up and out through a vent at the roof's peak.
Greg Morgan, vice president for business development at Brothers Services in Columbia, said that snow, ice, winds and falling tree limbs can damage everything from roofs to gutters to siding, and repairs should be done as promptly as possible to prevent water from infiltrating the home's structure.
James Carey and his brother, Morris, have a contracting business in California, do a syndicated call-in radio show, and wrote books in the "for dummies" series on home remodeling and maintenance. In a recent interview, James Carey said most issues revolve around water — and keeping it out — and safety.
Here are some areas of your home that should be given a check-up before next winter comes calling.
Chimney. The inside of a chimney of a fireplace that was used should be inspected by a chimney sweep for creosote buildup and ruptures, and swept if necessary, to prevent chimney fires. Professionals, Carey said, often recommend sweeping it after a cord of wood has been burned. Outside, the top should have an intact cap. The brick and mortar should be in good shape — if, not, then repaired and sealed.
Roof. "You can have a leak in your house for years before you actually see it," said Jeffrey Fick of Fick Brothers, a roofing and exterior remodeling company in Baltimore. Water has to get through the roof's shingles and wood, then the attic insulation, before coming through the ceiling, he said. By then, what homeowners don't see can be a big repair job. Fick encourages his customers to have a contract for a roof inspection every or every other year. Professionals recognize signs of wear and tear, spot where nails rusted and broke off, identify individual slates that are starting not to shed water and, in the attic, check insulation and air flow, he said.
Gutters, downspouts, attic. Gutters, which can jam with old leaves and spring tree buds, should be kept clean of debris so they can freely carry water to downspouts. Mid-gutter spills and sagging should be addressed. Adding mesh or other protection over gutters can prevent debris from collecting. At the downspout's base, water should flow away from the house, with a drop of at least a 1/4 inch per foot, Carey said. Ice dams can be in a gutter or overhang. He said homeowners should ensure that the underside of the roof is kept cool to help prevent them. That requires sealing the house below the attic and installing attic insulation, making sure there are no gaps around the attic perimeter and the insulation does not block attic air flow. Replace damp or mildewed insulation.
Siding. What Carey calls the "raincoat for the house" should be checked — whether it's stone, brick, vinyl, painted wood or anything else — for missing mortar, chips, popped siding, peeling paint and crumbling caulk around windows, doors, vents and trim. Patch, repair, replace or recaulk areas of concern as needed. This prevents problems that can lead to rot — which may not be visible until major repairs are needed. If winter took a toll on weather-stripping around doors, replace it.
Foundation and basement. Inspect inside and out; contact a professional if you find a stairstep-type crack or one that you can get your index finger into, or if water is coming in through the crack, and note if the crack has appeared suddenly, Carey said. Check for excessive water in a basement crawl space, which he said could be a sign that you should look into getting a sump pump. Because water on a basement floor can come from outside, a backed-up drain, a hot water tank and plumbing problems elsewhere in the house, homeowners may want to buy an inexpensive water alarm or two to place on the floor. It alerts anyone at home to pooling water that reaches its sensors.
Plumbing. Plumbers and companies that handle the soggy aftermath of frozen pipes say that homeowners can help prevent pipes from freezing by keeping garage doors closed in winter, letting spigots fed by pipes on outer walls drip on frigid days, keeping cabinet doors under a sink open to the room, and not shutting the heat off when they leave home. Pipes along the outer walls are generally the issue. While some can be relocated to warmer walls, they also can be wrapped or insulated. "I don't think it's a bad idea to insulate pipes with prefab wrap in crawl spaces and attics," Carey said.
Hot water heater. In addition to the usual concerns — that hot water heaters have a life span of between 12 and 15 years, and that a puddle by the tank is a warning — consider this: The latest hot water heaters are expected to cost more and are typically bigger due to new federal regulations that require that all hot water heaters manufactured starting in mid-April meet higher efficiency standards. Anyone whose space for a replacement hot water heater is constrained should measure the space before buying a new model. Condo owners are the most likely consumers affected, as new same-capacity models may not fit in the available utility closet space. Meanwhile, supplies of existing tank-style models are starting to dwindle; tankless units are unaffected.
Heating system. Follow manufacturer and installer guidelines for maintenance.
Insurance: Know what your insurance policy covers. Standard policies do not cover damage caused by lack of maintenance. They cover burst pipes, wind-driven rain and damage from ice dams, and generally, damage caused by water that comes from the top down, according to Loretta L. Worters, vice president, the Insurance Information Institute. Some cover drain and sewer backup damage, but many don't. Additional coverage, such for sewer backups, and flood insurance, can be purchased.