This article was crafted with the help of Countryside Roofing, Siding & Windows, Inc.

Wait...where did the little brown stain on the ceiling come from? Is that a subtle dripping noise from overhead? The possibility of a leaking roof is enough to strike terror in the hearts of most homeowners. But trying to track down an elusive roof leak can be complicated by several factors:

1. Leaks start slowly.

Early on, they won’t usually penetrate into the living space of the house. As Pat Dolan of Countryside Roofing in Chicago notes, this is one of the most frustrating problems with trying to locate a roof leak. “Over time the roof will obviously deteriorate, but in early stages, it’s more difficult to detect leaks,” says Pat.

“People often ask, ‘Should I check for leaks on rainy days?’ Well, if the leak is really bad, you’ll notice it during a hard rain, but some leaks can be present that aren’t evident during rains—they have not hit the level of severity that would show during a hard rain.”

2. Roof leaks can be confused with other types of water problems

Some leaks may be caused by improper flashing, a roofing problem that often isn’t noticeable to a homeowner until much further into the leak’s progression. Pat adds that some roof leaks can also be misdiagnosed as something else, such as a window leak, a masonry leak, or a siding leak.

3. Even professionals can have trouble tracking down the sources of leaks.

Water intrusion can come from so many different sources in a house; it can be difficult to diagnose a problem quickly. “You almost have to open up the skin of the house to expose some of the details so that you can determine exactly where the trouble is,” explains Pat.

“When people are looking for quotes on leak repairs, sometimes it’s very difficult to quote a job because you don’t know what solutions you’re going to have to employ—not until you open up part of the roof or siding and find out what exactly is going on underneath.

There have even been times where the leak might have been a plumbing problem and not a roofing, siding, or flashing problem.”

Danger, Danger!

While there are few things homeowners can do to combat leaks on their own, the following warning signs can indicate a roof leak or its potential to develop:

  1. Brown spots in the ceiling
  2. Water stains on the underside of the roofing deck or around the chimney
  3. Black stains on the roofing deck—can indicate mold or mildew
  4. Bits and pieces of shingle in the yard
  5. Rust stains on the furnace flue
  6. Peeling paint or rotted wood around skylights
  7. Roof granules in the downspouts

A little regular detective work can help head off roofing problems while they are still minor and relatively easy to fix.

1. Safety First

The most crucial bit of advice for homeowners is to stay off the roof. Hundreds of household injuries reported annually are the result of homeowners climbing on ladders to get to the roof.

“I don’t encourage homeowners to get on their roofs to check for leaks,” says Pat. “There is some ladder safety training that is crucial for roofing inspection. Professional roofers have had it, but homeowners have not.”

2. Inspect the Attic

Keeping an eye on the underside of the roof deck and inspecting the attic for water stains, mildew smells, and other signs of water intrusion will help homeowners stay on top of any potential roof leaks.

3. Survey the Roof From the Ground Level

Some shingle damage can be spied easily from the ground. “If the shingles start to cup or buckle or if they become deformed on the roof, there is a reason for it,” says Pat.

“When you start to see those types of signs, it’s time to move on to getting your roof fixed or replaced before it is too late.” Some professionals recommend taking periodic photos of the roof to keep track of its appearance over time; comparing photos will help homeowners track the progress of even minor changes.

Critical Mass, or How Late Is Too Late?

Because roof replacement can be a costly proposition, most homeowners will want to delay the inevitable as long as possible, but there is only so long one might be able to put off the work.

1. A Roof’s Design Makes a Difference in Its Longevity

Flat Roofs

Flat roofs are most likely to leak because of the lack of pitch, but they will last between 8 and 12 years. “Some of the products you can get have multiple layers to it, which will extend the life of the flat roof system,” explains Pat. “It adds to the installation cost, but instead of the roof lasting 8 to 12 years, you might get 15 to 16 years.”

Pitched Roofs

Due to their slope, pitched roofs can move water off faster, which preserves their shingles. Nevertheless, they do have vulnerable spots. “One of the things that has really aided in the battle against leaks is the use of ice and water shields that go along the gutter lines and in the valleys,” says Pat.

“Probably about 10 to 12 years ago, it wasn’t a building code requirement, but almost every northern community requires it as a code now. It’s part of the International Building Code.”

2. Southern and western exposures break down faster.

It’s wise to look for wear on the south and west sides of the roof since those are the areas where the sun shines with the greatest heat intensity. Pat notes that once an asphalt shingle starts to break down, there is not a lot of homeowners can do to stop it.

In general, once the shingles appear to buckle, they have about two years left of life before they begin to leak, and though the south and west slope of the roof may have a head start on deterioration, the other shingles on the roof are the same age and might not be far behind.

Patching only works in certain situations. Patching alone might temporarily solve the problem if there are very small leaks or areas of wind damage, but the reality is that when the roofing material itself is deteriorating, it may be advantageous to do more than put a bandage on the problem.

“Roofing costs are not going down,” says Pat. “It’s become a pretty substantial investment to install a roof nowadays. The cost of petroleum—with the increases we experienced in 2008—has driven the cost of materials up pretty high.

The transportation and labor costs have risen as well.” While a patch may hold things together for a while, in the end, the roof is going to have to be replaced—and there’s a good chance that the longer you wait, the more expensive it will be.

In the event your roof investigations turn up a leak problem, you can always turn to a professional Best Pick roofer to solve it. “Homeowners really need to do their homework and do their research to find out who’s most qualified to do the job,” says Pat. “The reality is that if you get the lowest bidder, then you’re going to get the lowest-bid roof. You’ll get what you paid for.”

This article was crafted with the help of Countryside Roofing, Siding & Windows, Inc., a Chicago expert in Roofing. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.

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