Spotting Water Infiltration Early Can Save Thousands in Property Damage

By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords, Inc.

Property damage from water infiltration can cost thousands of dollars in expensive, time-consuming repairs to your rentals. For instance, just 1 inch of flood water can cause $25,000 in damage to a home. Spotting the signs of water infiltration early can mitigate the damage to your rental properties, and your wallet.

A black and white image of a flooded residential street with water up almost to the front doors of the houses. A man in a rowboat sits with his back to the camera.

Water with no place to go can cause tens of thousands of dollars in property damage. This 1936 flood in Andover certainly left many with extensive repairs to do. (Image: Public Domain)

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the major ways water can damage your property, and look at the early warning signs of water infiltration. We’ll also briefly talk about ways you can be proactive in protecting your rental properties against water damage.

How Heavy Rainfall Can Cause Property Damage

On average, Massachusetts receives 45 to 55 inches of rain annually. If that rain is spread out over a long period of time, it’s not usually a problem. But all it takes is a few days of heavy rain to make that number skyrocket and cause issues for homeowners. Boston typically sees just over 3 inches of rain every July. But 2023 was the second wettest July on record, with 10.43 inches of rain falling on the city over the course of the month. Leominster saw catastrophic flooding in September 2023 after 11 inches of rain fell on the city over the course of two days.

Heavy rainfall can be a problem for property owners, because all that water has no place to go. If the ground can’t absorb all the precipitation, the runoff is handled by storm water systems, such as drains. When the systems are full, the water runs wherever it can, potentially damaging your property.

First, your basement could flood, ruining the walls and floor and damaging any personal property that may have been on the ground. Pilot lights for methane furnaces and water heaters are located low to the ground; if exposed to water, they will blow out and possibly rust.

Heavy rains may penetrate your house’s siding and enter the exterior wall. This can lead to mold and rot issues in the wood. If too much water sits against your foundation, it can crack, leading to structural damage over time. Fieldstone foundations have sandy mortar mixes that wash away with age. If your gutters overflow, you could see damage to the roof or siding as well.

Finally, when it rains, animals and insects seek shelter in drier areas. If your home is not secure against pests, you could find yourself with a rodent or insect problem after a heavy rain. Though the damage such infestations can cause does not stem directly from water damage, it’s still something to look out for. Remember, the state sanitary code now requires you to inspect your rentals for insects and pests.

If your property is already showing signs of water infiltration, the issue is only going to get worse with every storm. Getting notice of problems early could save you a lot of money on repairs later.

You can also get guards for your gutters. These are screens that sit on top of the gutters and keep the majority of leaves and large debris pieces out, while still allowing water to pass through.

A side-by-side before and after image of the same area in a fieldstone foundation. On the left, the before image, next to a breaker panel fieldstones sit dark and unmortared above a pile of sand. On the right, the after image, the floor has been swept clean of sand. The joints are light gray and create an integral wall.

This fieldstone foundation had extensive sand accumulation against the walls, a clue to water infiltration over long time periods. Repointing involved chipping away loose and crumbling mortar, then using an industrial pastry bag to inject mortar mix far into the cracks. CC BY-SA 4 MassLandlords Doug Quattrochi

Best Practice: Ask Your Renters for Early Notification of Signs of Water Damage

You may not be able to prevent all types of water damage, but the faster you act when you find evidence of problems, the easier it will be to resolve them. This is fairly simple in your own home, since you’re there all the time. But keeping a close eye on your rental properties will take some investment from your tenants.

By appealing to your renters to keep you apprised of signs of water damage, everyone wins. You protect your investment property and your status as a good landlord by not allowing things to fall into disrepair. Your renters get to live in a home that’s safe and dry and know you’re looking out for them.

Ask your renters to alert you to any of the following red flags that indicate water infiltration: a wet or musty smell; discoloration or stains on the floor, ceiling or walls; or an influx of spiders or beetles in an otherwise well-sealed and well-screened unit.

These are all early warning signs of a bigger problem. Water stains on the ceiling could indicate a roof leak, or, in a multifamily property, a leak in the unit above. A bunch of beetles showing up out of nowhere means there’s a breech in your property’s exterior. And a wet or musty smell means the water is causing mildew or mold.

If you receive reports of any of these danger signs of water infiltration, get a licensed handyperson or plumber out to assess the damage. It could be a simple fix, but even if it’s a more complicated problem, figuring out the issue now is cheaper than waiting. Replacing a bathtub seal is less expensive than replacing an entire ceiling. Repointing your basement (more on that shortly) is cheaper than mold remediation.

Best Practice: Stop Water Damage Before It Starts

Fixing water damage in its early stages is cheaper than addressing major problems. But the most economical way to fight water damage is to prevent it from becoming an issue in the first place.

Which is better for my rental property, commercial or residential gutters?

The best defense against damage from heavy rains is a good offense, and that’s where gutters come in. Gutters and downspouts keep water from pooling near your foundation, and can also prevent water flow from changing your landscaping. Typically, bigger is better, as long as the gutters can properly attach to your house.

To keep your roof and walls safe, make sure your gutters are clear of debris that could prevent water from flowing freely. Gutters and downspouts keep water from pooling near your foundation, and can also prevent water flow from changing your landscaping.

Larger gutters allow more water to be directed away from the house. If you can get them to attach easily, commercially sized gutters may be a smart choice for your rental, especially if it’s a multifamily property. Whether you can install them will depend on how your roof is structured. Consult a professional if you’re not sure.

Most people will choose residential gutters for single-family rental properties, but owners of multifamily properties should be installing gutters that measure a minimum of 3x4 inches. Residential gutters come in two basic shapes: K-style or half-round.

Half-round gutters typically have a width of five or six inches, and are most common on homes built during or before the mid-20th century. These gutters are durable and can hold a lot of water but, due to their deep “u” shape, may hold more debris than other options.

K-style gutters are the most common gutters installed on homes today. They come in the same widths as half-round gutters, but are flat on the back, allowing you to attach them directly to your fascia boards. The problem comes with keeping them clear of debris, as that back angle can allow more dirt to accumulate.

Residential gutters come in a variety of materials, from vinyl to copper. The material you choose will determine how much your gutters cost, and how long they’ll last. For instance, aluminum gutters are easy to install, and many people choose to install them on their own, without a professional. They’re more budget-friendly than other options, but also only last 20 to 30 years and may crack more easily than other metal gutters. On the other end of the spectrum, copper gutters will last for decades, but are expensive and require professional installation. Consider all your options before making a purchase.

If you need to install or replace the gutters on your home, you do have the option of selecting a commercial gutter system.

Commercial gutters are larger than residential gutters, up to 10 inches in width, which means they can handle more water, but they also can hold more debris. We recommend gutter covers or guards for all gutters, regardless of size. Commercial downspouts measure 3x4 inches, compared to a typical 2x3 residential downspout. This provides faster drainage away from your property, as long as the gutters on the roof are kept clear of debris.

Most commercial gutters are box style and attach under the shingles, meaning they would need to be installed either during construction or when the roof is replaced. Due to their size, however, commercial gutters may look out of place on smaller homes. Some cities and towns have restrictions on gutters, so always check with your municipality before installing anything.

Satellite dishes can allow water to damage your roof and walls.

Satellite dishes may seem like a good amenity to offer, but an improperly installed or maintained satellite dish can open your property up to a bunch of issues. The preferred location for satellite dish installation is on a porch or deck post, but sometimes companies will install them on an exterior wall or the roof. In those cases, a hole must be made through your siding or your roof. This is a direct line of access from the outside to your interior. A good installation will include proper weather sealing around the access point, but this weather sealing is only guaranteed for so many years.

If the weather seal around the satellite dish’s point of access to your rental home fails, or is improperly applied, moisture can get into the property, damaging the walls or roof structure. If mold or mildew results from this, it will be your responsibility to fix the problem. Insects can also get in through improperly sealed access points, upping the potential for infestation.

The good news is, in many cases, you don’t have to allow satellite dishes on your rental property roof. While the satellite industry has been very vocal about everyone having the right to have a satellite dish, the actual law on banning satellite dishes is a bit more complicated.

The FCC says you must allow satellite dishes in areas where your renter has exclusive use of the property, but also says you can require your tenant to ask permission first before installing a dish. In a single-family home, this means you must allow the dish, but it cannot be installed without your knowledge. This is one way you can help ensure the satellite dish is properly installed and weather-sealed.

If the home is historic, and installing a satellite dish would prevent the property from being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you can deny the installation even if the renter has exclusive use of the property. Similarly, you can deny a satellite dish if the installation would create a safety hazard, and the hazard is put in writing. Mold is a safety hazard; roof leaks can lead to mold. The risk of mold is why we recommend banning satellite dish installation on any roof.

In multifamily homes, you can say that no satellite dishes may go on the roof or through the siding of the home, as your renters do not have exclusive use of these areas.

If you really want a satellite dish on your rental for whatever reason, we recommend getting your own professional installation. This way, you can select an area where the dish is unlikely to do any harm, and can list the dish as an amenity to attract renters. The best place for proper installation of a satellite dish is on a piece of wood, such as a vertical porch post, that is sealed with caulk along the upper half of the mount plate to protect that post.

Basement repointing can help you eliminate sources of water, rodents and insects.

Older homes in Massachusetts may have a stone or brick foundation. These are wonderfully durable, but over the years they can begin to show damage in the pointing. The pointing is the external and internal (for basement foundations) sides of the mortar joints. This degradation can lead to points of entry allowing vermin, insects and water free access to your property. Repointing is when you have a professional re-seal all or part of your foundation’s pointing.

An easy way to tell if your basement has any of these grossly bad access points is to go into the cellar during the day. First, look around the basement and check the foundation for these voids (holes). Mice will leave behind evidence of their entry; look for sprinkle-sized excrement. Spiders will make webs.

Once you’ve done a visual check in the light, block off any windows and stand in the dark. If you see any light coming in, those are areas that will need sealing against the elements.

Repointing can be expensive depending on how much work needs to be done, but it’s still likely going to be cheaper than fixing mold or addressing flood damage.

Conclusion: Forewarned is Forearmed

Our best advice is to use our annual maintenance checklist to ensure your property is watertight and weather sealed. But since problems can arise at any time, make sure your tenants know the signs of water damage to alert you to as soon as possible. Remind them that fixing small issues is faster than addressing big issues and that it’s in everyone’s best interest that your rental property, their home, remain safe and free of water damage.

4 Responses to Spotting Water Infiltration Early Can Save Thousands in Property Damage

  1. Azmat Khan says:

    Another important preventive measure that can reduce the chance of plumbing related water leaks by 90% is having high quality and reliability water leak protection equipment professionally installed.
    Water leak damage is a $20Billion problem for owners and insurance companies. EPA estimates that 1 trillion gallons of clean water is wasted in the US annually from household leaks.

    Many products out there but the right products and trained installation can be the difference in avoiding water leak disasters.

    For instance, protect the highest floors first in multi floor settings and more things to be aware of like wifi or cellular. A multi-layered protection approach reduces water leak damage risk the most.

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