Raining in? Fix, don't replace, windows


This is the time of year when folks usually welcome showers, for the garden and for the yard. But when every storm reveals a flaw in your home's water defenses, those clouds can be viewed with real pain.

That's the case for a Baltimore reader whose 10-year-old vinyl replacement windows leak under the sills every time it rains. He says he's tried caulking around them and waterproofing the brick outside, but nothing has worked. "Must I have these windows replaced?" he asks.

The simple answer is, maybe not. If the windows were good quality when they were installed, they should still be fine -- there's nothing inherently wrong with a 10-year old window.

But, "if it's closed and locked and water's still getting in, the vinyl is leaking," says Stephen Brusca, territorial manager for Baltimore Window Factory.

Vinyl windows have a lot of cavities; if a seal between two parts breaks, water will run through.

There are, however, plenty of other things that can go wrong. The flashing, or aluminum covering the frame, may be loose. It's usually tacked in with small nails and caulked; over 10 years some of the nails may have pulled loose.

If the window projects from the face of the brick outside, that could be a problem. Vinyl windows are usually designed to be recessed, and don't have a good top seal. It may need a new drip edge, or flashing.

Mr. Brusca recommends trying to have the original installerlook at the windows. Broken seals and loose flashing can be repaired, but probably not by a homeowner.

If the original installer can't be found, try finding another installer who will try to diagnose the problem. Meanwhile, make sure the "weep holes," or tiny drain holes on the outside bottom of the window are open, so water that gets in can get out.

Another reader asked for more information about expanding living space by digging out a basement. We had mentioned an especially successful use of this technique in a small house in Ridgely's Delight. "I have a similar basement and everyone said we shouldn't dig out another foot because the walls wouldn't be properly supported," she writes.

There are a couple of ways to support the walls if you want to excavate, but lowering the level of a basement slab can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

First, it requires the services of a structural engineer, to determine if excavating is feasible, and to figure out what might be the best method of supporting the walls. (If you want drawings and specifications, ask for a solution; if you want advice only, ask for a recommendation. The former is more expensive, but it may be required to meet building codes.)

The two most common methods of support are underpinning the foundation and creating concrete buttresses all around.

Tim Sibol, vice president of Skarda and Associates, Inc., a Baltimore structural engineering firm, prefers underpinning. Spaces are dug out under the foundation in small increments and a new, deeper concrete foundation poured. Typically the spaces might be 4 feet wide; then the next 10 to 12 feet are skipped, then another 4-foot segment is dug out. Once those segments harden, the next set can be dug out and poured -- "until you've completed the checkerboard," he says. Then the floor can be lowered.

The second method, buttressing with reinforced concrete, may be less expensive, but it steals space. For every foot you want to go down, you have to come out 1 foot from the wall. The buttresses jut out at right angles. Imagine a line that angles out and down at 45 degrees from the bottom of the old slab, at the wall, to the bottom of the new slab (or where the new slab will be); the soil below that line can't be disturbed without risking the integrity of the structure.

The resulting bump-out can be incorporated into a design scheme, or new walls can be framed out in front of it. That will make the room smaller, but it will hide the buttresses.The main thing you can't do is simply dig down beside the existing wall.


We recently heard from a distraught reader in Randallstown who is having serious problems with a house she bought three years ago -- among them, a roof that leaks so badly it may have damaged the rafters and sheeting underneath. When she bought the house, she was told that since she was getting an FHA-insured loan, the house would be "inspected" by someone from FHA. She says she was discouraged from hiring an independent home inspector.

The advice comes too late to help this woman, but a clarification might aid other homebuyers.

"The FHA is there for the bank" or mortgage lender, says Jakob Metz, a real estate agent with O'Connor Piper and Flynn of Baltimore, "even though the buyer pays for it. He's strictly an appraiser. It's a misnomer to call him an inspector."

The appraiser is simply checking to make sure the property meets FHA guidelines, Mr. Metz says. Normally, he doesn't go up on the roof.

Buyers should be careful not to confuse the FHA appraisal with a thorough home inspection, Mr. Metz warns. It's easy to do sometimes because the buyer pays for the FHA appraisal, and it costs about as much as a good home inspection.

Next: The straight flush.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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