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Identifying & Repairing Wet Basements

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Photo of the process of replacing a basement sump pumpAs the winter months in Victoria roll in with their steady rainfall, basement leaks begin to rear their ugly heads. Inconvenient and costly, basement water issues can introduce hazards in the form of mould, rot, structural instability, and insect infestations. Learn to spot the signs of wet basements as a home buyer, and what you can do as a home seller to prevent wet basements bringing down your selling price.

Wet Basement Guide For Home Buyers

Wet basements can be a hidden hazard for home buyers, and the first step is learning how to identify them. Once you know how to spot the signs and tell the difference between dampness, leaks, and past flooding, you can start to make quick estimations on whether you'd like to proceed with an offer, and which concerns to bring up with your real estate agent and home inspector.

Water issues aren't always bad news, as there's an advantage to finding a desireable home with a wet basement: negotiation room. I've seen home values drastically lower on the market due to wet or flooding basements, and if you're willing to put effort into repairs, you can get a bargain. Make sure to go over whether the potential savings would outweigh the cost of repairs with your agent — some basements require simple repairs, while others can have costly fixes.

Whatever you do, never rely on a seller's disclosure as the final say on a basement's condition. Many home sellers don't even know about potential basement water concerns. Always insist on a professional home inspection prior to sale, and base your decision on the recommendation of the inspector and your real estate agent.

Wet Basement Warning Signs to Watch Out For

  1. Water stains can show on both walls and floors. Examine their coloration, pattern and location within the basement. They can be caused by overflowing appliances, or more serious issues such as water seepage. If you see a steady yellow-brown water line running all along a floor or wall, watch out — that may be a high-water mark, indicating that the basement has flooded in the past.
  2. Musty or damp odours are often caused by moisture in the basement. This can also be caused by condensation, so make sure to look at other signs that might indicate whether the basement is merely humid or has seepage problems.
  3. Mould can be a serious health threat and cause of structural damage. It can grow in a range of colours including yellow, green, brown, and black. Look for signs of it near suspected leaks, and in the northwest corner of the basement (typically the most susceptible to mould). As mould has a number of different forms and toxicities, all suspected growths should be investigated by a professional. Note that washing the affected areas with bleach does not remove a mould infection.
  4. Efflorescence is a delicate white or gray deposit found on walls, especially those made of concrete. It can look like ash or glitter, but in reality is caused by salt traces left behind by a water leak. While not toxic, efflorescence (along with water stains) can be a clear marker of past water damage.
  5. Spalling indicates salt deposits and subsurface moisture in stone, concrete, and brick. This results in the flaking or breaking off of the material's surface.
  6. New paint in the basement can be used to cover up old stains or even cracks on both the walls and floor. It may be merely to update the room's appearance, but be cautious in case there's something underneath that you should know about.
  7. Exterior foundation cracks can be difficult to spot in the winter, but in the spring they can be easier to inspect. Interior foundation cracks behind drywall can't be seen, but you may be able to look for them in unfinished areas such as crawl spaces. Also keep an eye out for peeling drywall and evidence of rotten wood in exposed basement beams.
  8. Negative grading where the surrounding ground or pavement slopes towards the house is a big concern, as are very flat lots with poor drainage. This can result in water pooling against the home's foundation, overloading the drain system or stressing the foundation walls.
  9. Gutters and downspouts that leak, sag, or empty their stream close to the house can cause seepage and large amounts of structural problems in the future.
  10. Any existing sump pumps in the basement should be inspected. Ask the current owners how it works, where it drains, how old it is, and when it was installed. If you aren't familiar with how a sump pump functions, this may be better investigated by a professional home inspector.

Wet Basement Guide For Home Sellers

You can add thousands of dollars to your home's value by waterproofing your basement and transforming it into extra livable space. Depending on the severity of your water problem, that value can often far outstrip the initial costs of repair. Whether you're planning to sell your home now or think you might in the future, it's almost always worth the cost to get started on basement repairs. Just make sure to consult a real estate agent beforehand.

Warning: A large number of contractor businesses tend to fail within 1-5 years of starting up. That's why when it comes to wet basement repairs I always look for certified basement contractors with a long established business history and a record of high-quality waterproofing work. Extra value on a sale can be negated by having to pay money in the future due to the failure of a contractor's shoddy work. As the Ontario waterproofing company AquaGuard reports, an improperly worded repair clause in a home sale contract could even land you in court.

What You Can Do

Often the simplest fix for a wet basement is to redirect the source of the water. This sounds simple but isn't always addressed. Here are some tips for finding and correcting various issues:

  1. Determine whether you have basement dampness rather than a leak or standing water. To test for dampness, which is caused by condensation, tape some foil over the damp spots in your basement and leave them for a day. If moisture forms on the outer face of the foil, it's being caused by condensation. If moisture forms on the underside of the foil, water is seeping in from an exterior source. If the dampness is persistent, an energy efficient self-draining dehumidifier or a properly installed basement vent can add permanent value.
  2. Check for condensation or leaks caused by appliances such as washing machines, improperly vented dryers, basement showers, etc. Nearby appliances can also be a source of water damage, as in one instance where a home seller's basement was flooded by a loose drainage pipe from a neighbour's air conditioning unit, nearly ruining their sale.
  3. If indoor flooding is an issue, installing a floor drain that pipes outdoors to an appropriate distance can help keep damage to a minimum.
  4. Confirm that you have proper insulation for your walls and any "sweating" plumbing. For extra protection you may want to consider placing vapour barriers in your walls and under basement carpets. Make sure any basement ceiling tiles are warranted.
  5. Install flashing on vulnerable roofs and windowsills, and check for interior wall leaks that may be caused by water seeping from the roof or attic.
  6. Assess your gutters: clear them of any accumulated debris, fix disconnected downspouts, redirect second floor gutters to their own separate downspouts, and attach extensions to downspouts that empty too near to the house. To test whether your gutters are working correctly, run water from a hose over your roof to see if gutter water is being directed away from the foundation.
  7. Have a look at your lawn: regrade landscaping that slopes towards the house and direct any garden water drainage away from your home. Keep sprinklers away from the foundation, and don't use walkways as drainage channels.
  8. Move any foundation plants well away from your home's walls, and keep window wells and foundation walls clear of debris and clinging vines.
  9. In the case of regular flooding in a crawl space or similar area, install a sump pump to move water to the street or a ditch or drainage pipe at least 20 feet away from the foundation of your home. For extra value, make sure your pump has a transferable warranty and a backup battery in case of a power outage. (Tip: If you need to replace an older sump pump that still works well, leave the old pump as a backup for the new owners. They will appreciate it.)
  10. French drains, otherwise known as drain tile or perimeter drains, can drain water-collecting areas on your property as well as relieve underground water pressure that creates cracks in foundation walls.
  11. Arrange for professional waterproofing or damp-proofing on your foundation walls and crawl spaces, to seal and cure any cracks or faulty structure.
  12. Recently built houses may still be under warranty; if leaking is a serious problem, discuss the issue with the builder and ask them to correct it.

Pay attention to the signs and don't be afraid to pay for professional repairs, and whether you're buying or selling your home, you can enjoy a dry winter.