Hidden leak has homeowner's back to the wall


A LOT of readers have written asking about leaky basements in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd.

The most frequently asked questions have been: What do you do if the leak is behind a wall, and how do you find a reputable contractor to repair the problem?

A certain acquaintance we know, whom we'll call simply "Bob," has the first problem. It seems, when Ron called for details, that Bob has been living in his house since 1991, and his basement never leaked until he had it finished recently.

Bob first noticed the problem when he was watering his lawn last spring. Then, of course, it also leaked when Floyd came through.

So it seems that it only leaks when water is forced against the foundation wall, either by the sprinkler or by the wind. The interior stud wall doesn't get wet; the water shows up only on the (carpeted) floor. That would indicate that the water is coming down the inside of the block foundation wall, running under the interior stud wall and coming out on the floor.

Bob's leak is probably only a small crack in the block wall. It most likely could be fixed permanently with a patch of hydraulic cement. The problem is, to get to it you have to remove a portion of the wall.

Bob's response to this was, "I just put it up!"

Given the frequency of the problem (it rarely leaks) Bob has decided he will just live with it for now, as most people do for such insignificant leaks.

Then a reader wrote in with a worse situation: He has knotty pine paneling and drop ceilings -- both of which would have to be removed to get to the leak.

If you have a similar problem, there is no easy solution. The bottom line is, unless you are willing to dig up the outside, you have to remove the finishes inside to fix the leak. And if you choose simply to live with it, understand that water causes building materials to deteriorate faster than anything else, except fire. Wet wood is also an open invitation to termites, who usually need to return to the ground to get their moisture.

Regarding the second question, as a reader put it, "How does a layman know when a waterproofing contractor is a member of the 'lot of good ones out there' "? He also asked what consumer protection agencies there are to help. Here's our advice:

There is always the Better Business Bureau (410-347-3990). Ask if the waterproofing company is a member, if it has any unresolved complaints, how long it has been in business, and anything else the bureau can tell you about it.

You can also try the local contractor-licensing agency. In this area, it's the Maryland Home improvement Commission (410-333-6309). Ask if the company is licensed, for how long, and if there have been complaints.

Ask your potential company:

If it is licensed (in this state it must have an MHIC license to do residential work).

If it is insured, with both workers' compensation and liability. (You can ask for a certificate from its insurance company; do not accept a copy, and have it mailed directly to you from the insurer.

How long it has been in business.

Does it belong to any trade associations.

Can the company provide references. The longer the list is, the better, and don't just look it over, call some of the names on it. Ask if the contractor did what was promised when it was promised.

Remember that even when a single event, such as Floyd, causes widespread problems, there may be more than one way to correct it. Get more than one opinion, ask questions, and if you can't get answers that make sense, you probably should look elsewhere.

Don't be in a rush: If someone tells you have to sign something today, be wary.

If you hire an unlicensed contractor, not only are you are on your own if there are problems, but you also will be liable for the costs if someone gets hurt or something gets damaged.

You can get a free Home Remodeling Guide from the Remodelors Council of The Home Builders Association of Maryland at 410-265-7400.

Next week: More solutions to leaky problems.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and former president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at hw@renovator.net or Karol at karol.menzie@baltsun.com. Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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