Almost everyone – whether renter or homeowner, has or will experience a water leak in their home, and most of us assume we’ll know or be able to tell if there’s a leak when it first occurs. Don’t bet on it!

Three years ago this homeowner had custom stair railings installed. Unbeknownst to them, the installer drove a screw into the hot water pipe leading to an upstairs shower. For some period of time the contact between the tightly-fitted screw and the pipe remained intact. But soon, a slow leak began, then increased, as the pipe’s condition and screw contact-point deteriorated.

By the time the leak was discovered more than three years later, water had leaked down the shower pipe wall, under newly-installed wood flooring in the entryway, under the landing floor leading to the lower level of the home, across the floor up the kitchen wall and flooring opposite, and destroyed the ceiling and platform base holding the A/C unit and water heater closet below the leak, which also shared a wall with a sizable pantry and the garage ceiling.

 Could this leak have been detected sooner? Absolutely.

The leak was eventually discovered more than three years later, after the homeowner noticed severe water damage in the ceiling and base of the water heater closet and called a plumber to determine whether there was an issue with either the A/C unit or water heater. 

There were other, obvious signs the homeowner had failed to notice, such as bubbling paint on the stairway wall. Worse, in the past month, the homeowner noticed the wooden flooring below the entryway landing had begun to ‘squish’ when walked on, like walking on a waterbed. The homeowner had assumed the wood flooring was delaminating from the tile base and that the squishy feel was caused by air instead of water. 

Closer examination revealed a very faint, soggy look to the walls above baseboards, and slightly darker patches in the dark wood flooring. After ruling out the A/C unit and water heater as potential culprits, and the discovery of these other indicators, the plumber was able to trace the leak to pipe in the upstairs wall. 

Regular Inspection & Preventative Maintenance

Many water leaks occur around failed mechanical systems in homes. In this case, absent a problem with the water heater or failing A/C unit piping, the homeowner would have seen that there was water damage occurring above and below these systems, as evidenced by the blackened, significantly damaged ceiling and rotting base of the water heater closet. 

The squishy floor should also have been a huge red flag, and regular, visual inspections of ceilings and lower walls would have revealed a leak much sooner, before the damage became so extensive.

More obvious cases of water damage can be avoided with routine maintenance to reduce risk. A leaky roof, poor drainage and clogged gutters or downspouts can lead to significant water damage inside a home and extend to a roof or siding. Schedule roof and downspout cleaning to remove accumulated leaves, twigs and other debris that prevent proper drainage. Trim trees regularly to prevent contact with the roof during high winds. 

Water intrusion from storms or other damage should be addressed immediately by exposing and completely drying all wet areas by providing air circulation to aid in the drying process. Exposed exterior areas of the dwelling should be covered with a tarp to prevent further water intrusion. Covering exposed areas along with drying and dehumidifying wet areas can help minimize the possibility that mold will form due to sustained intrusion.  Remove any furniture that is standing in water. 

Insurance and Water Damage

After determining the extent of the damage and amount of your deductible, you may decide to contact your insurance agent to begin the claims process. If you live in a condo where the leak may affect adjoining units or common areas, notify your HOA’s manager immediately for assistance in locating the source of the leak, determining responsibility for repairs, and for assistance in starting the insurance claim process, if warranted.

The Difference Between Homeowners Insurance and Flood Insurance 

These policies provide two different types of coverage that complement each other, but do not overlap. A homeowners’ policy does not protect against flood damage.

Homeowners’ Insurance. Most policies cover damage to your home caused by a sudden or accidental water event such as a burst pipe, or wind- or storm-driven water intrusion.  Water damage caused by poor maintenance due to clogged gutters, a poorly maintained roof, or condensation buildup due to inadequate ventilation, or neglected leaks are not generally covered by insurance. 

Flood Insurance.  While water damage to your home and its contents are not covered under your homeowners’ policy, a separate flood insurance policy is available through the National Flood Insurance Program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  This insurance is available to homeowners and renters for both personal and commercial properties, and usually is in effect within 30 days of purchase. The cost of insurance varies, depending on the amount of insurance purchased, selected coverage, and a property’s flood risk.

There should be a toll-free claims number on your insurance policy. Most companies will also require that you notify them in writing describing what has occurred.

The following tips can help the claims process go more smoothly:

  • Review your policy to ensure you understand what’s covered and what isn’t. If you’re not sure, ask your agent to explain.  
  • Have your policy number ready before you call the insurance company and be prepared to answer questions about the damage. 
  • Photograph or videotape damaged areas and personal property before you make repairs, particularly if you repair damage before the insurance adjuster has seen the damage. 
  • Store all personal items you removed from the dwelling until your insurance adjuster has seen them. 
  • Make reasonable, necessary repairs to prevent further dwelling and property damage, but don’t make large structural or permanent repairs until the insurance company approves these. 
  • Keep a record of all personal repair expenses, with associated receipts. 
  • Keep a log that lists everyone you spoke with at your insurance company and, if applicable, your HOA’s management company. Note the time, date, name of the person, and what was discussed. Confirm important details in writing, and preserve copies of all written communications.

Protecting Your Home from Water Damage

Inspect your home regularly for signs and sources of moisture. After rain, check for water stains in your ceilings, walls, and around windows. Create a maintenance schedule to check the following sources of water leaks on a regular basis and contact a service company with any questions or concerns:

  • Hot water heaters. Hot water heaters may rust or develop cracks over time. Check annually for rust and deterioration. Check the drain pan for water and ensure that the drain line for the overflow pan is not clogged. Drain and clean the water heater as recommended by the manufacturer. 
  • Garbage disposal. Routinely check for cracks or other sources of leaks. 
  • A/C drain lines. Damage can occur when the line that drains condensation from the evaporator coils becomes clogged and water overflows from the drip pan. Periodically check the drip pan for water and consider an annual service call to reduce the buildup of algae and mold in the drain line. 
  • Indoor and outdoor pipes and faucets. Routinely check indoor pipes and sinks, and lower interior cabinets for evidence of leaks, rust, or any signs of deterioration. Minimize the potential for water damage from frozen and broken outdoor pipes by insulating supply lines (in attics, crawlspaces, and exterior walls), protecting exposed outdoor faucets, sealing gaps in exterior walls, and maintaining adequate heat in your home. 
  • Appliance hoses. Broken hoses are among the most common causes of water damage. Regularly inspect hoses and hose fittings on washing machines, icemakers, and dishwashers for kinks, cracks, bulges, or deterioration. Replace standard rubber washing machine hoses every two to five years or more often if they are showing signs of wear. Consider using steel-reinforced hoses for longer life. 
  • Showers, tubs, sinks, toilets, windows, and doors. Water leaks around bathtubs, showers, sinks, and toilets can cause damage because the leak is often not readily visible. To prevent leaks, make sure you have a watertight seal of caulk around tubs, sinks, toilets, tubs, shower stalls, windows, and doors. Cracks or mold on caulk or tile grout may indicate that you don’t have a watertight seal. Remove all old caulk or grout, clean and dry the surface thoroughly, and apply fresh caulk. Don’t apply new caulk or grout on top of the old materials. 
  • Attics and ceilings. Routinely check for wet insulation and water stains. 
  • Wallpaper. Check for bubbling, peeling, and water stains. 
  • Roofs. Debris buildup can damage roofing and allow water to seep in. Trim tree branches to prevent them from coming in contact with the roof. Repair missing or damaged shingles or tiles. Seal cracks around chimneys, skylights, and vents. Check metal flashing for holes, cracks, or other damage. Replace flashing or use silicone caulk to seal any openings. 
  • Rain gutters and downspouts. Direct rainwater away from your home. Keep gutters clear and ensure downspouts extend long enough to carry water away from your foundation. Gutters filled with leaves and other debris allow water to pool on the roof, which can result in water damage to eaves and roofing material. 
  • Sump pumps. Sump pumps are the first line of defense in preventing water from seeping into basements. Periodically check the sump and remove any debris that could clog the pump. Consider installing a battery-powered backup to protect your basement during power outages. 
  • Weep holes. Weep holes are openings at the foundation level of a brick wall that allow moisture to escape from behind the wall. Don’t close or block these openings. 
  • Landscape. Yards should slope away from the house to prevent puddling near the foundation or under pier and beam houses. Don’t allow sprinklers or sprinkler heads to soak the exterior of your house. French drains around the perimeter of your home can eliminate pooling.
  • Hydro Jetting. Depending on the age and condition of the pipes, buildings with common area drain lines should consider having their lines jetted periodically.  Sometimes sewer pipes can become extremely clogged by debris, or by root systems that have invaded plumbing. In such circumstances, hydro jetting can remove blockages that traditional techniques cannot clear.
  • Water Cop.  Water Cop is an automatic water shut-off system that provides your home with round-the-clock indoor flood protection. It works with wired and wireless flood sensors, wall switches, and most home security and home automation systems.

Other Things You Should Know

  • The location of water valves, including where the main valve is located and how to turn the water off. 
  • Monitor utility bills. An unusually high water bill could signal a water leak. 
  • Turn your water off before traveling. Turn the water off at the main valve or directly on major appliances. Consider leaving a house key and contact information with a neighbor or trusted friend and ask the person to check the inside and outside of your home periodically while you are away. 

Even minor flooding can cost thousands of dollars in losses and repairs and is almost never covered by standard homeowners insurance. According to industry expert Water Damage Defense, 75 percent of water heaters fail before they are twelve years old, and approximately 14,000 homeowners a day experience water damage at an average cost of almost $7,000 per claim.