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When is a house too, eew, wet?

Prospective buyers inspecting homes are like detectives on

the scene of a crime searching for clues. They're constantly looking for signs

of hidden problems lurking in the basement and crawl spaces.

And on Long Island - surrounded by water and dotted with lakes, streams and

canals - moisture woes are a top suspect when buyers come calling.

"Water is probably the biggest enemy of your house," says Tim Gill, a home

inspector with House Detectives of New York Inc. Gill says he saw one home

where there was "a lake" under the crawl space caused by a leaking bathroom

fixture. In another house, some wood on a main girder supporting the house

crumbled when Gill gave it a light squeeze with his hand. The culprit:

termites, which love a dark, moist environment.

Gill's work takes him mainly to Westchester and the five boroughs of New

York City, but he has seen plenty of Long Island homes in which water seeped

through foundation walls or even rose up through the floor because of the high

water table.

Like Gill, Edward F. Mihelic, owner of Islip-based E&M Waterproofing, has

seen a lot of wet basements. Often, people call his business, which focuses on

basement water problems - sealing foundations, installing drains and sump pumps

and addressing the source of leaks and water seepage - after an inspector's

report flags potential problems.

"It's really difficult to determine if there's a water problem unless

you're there during or after a rainstorm," Mihelic says. Maybe that water stain

was caused by a washing machine that overflowed once - not from a structural

flaw in the foundation.

Raining in the basement?

Mihelic says when it rains, panicked homeowners come out of the woodwork.

He recalls the "perfect storm" in October 2005, when heavy rains fell all week

long, followed by a full moon, which lifted the tide 1� feet higher than

normal. "I saw water from 6 inches high to as high as the basement windows,"

Mihelic recalls. "It was incredible. I saw basement floors buckle up out of the

ground like a pencil being cracked ... In 30 years , I've never seen that kind

of storm."

Depending on the severity of the water problems, repairs can cost anywhere

from $500 to thousands of dollars. That's when potential buyers call in the

experts for estimates before any contracts are signed.

But what about a little dampness or minor moisture woes: Is the purchase

worth it?

"If you love the house, I wouldn't let a water problem deter you from

buying it," Mihelic says. "Water problems can be corrected. On the South Shore

you can see [a basement] where water is 2 feet high. I probably wouldn't buy

that one, but otherwise, most problems can be fixed."

Gill, the home inspector, agrees. "Nine times out of 10, the moisture is

caused by poor drainage and can be corrected," he says.

Downspouts from gutters should direct water away from the foundation, and

the soil around the foundation should be graded at an angle so water will seep

away from the house.

Not long ago, Gill inspected a home for sale where the owners had recently

built a deck. They were digging, he says, and they "didn't worry about the

topography of the soil. The soil ended up pitched toward the house. Then all

the water rolled back to the foundation wall."

Fixing the problem

So although the home had moisture problems, fixing the grading around the

foundation would likely solve the water seepage, Gill says.

Sometimes, though, the solution isn't as easy as regrading the soil. The

inspector or engineer may cite problems with the roof, the siding, foundation,

chimney and other areas where a house can spring a leak. Then, the decision to

buy is an economic one. Does the cost of correcting the problem still make this

home affordable?

Multiple estimates from builders and waterproofing companies will help

answer that question. Pest-control companies and mold-abatement specialists may

also be called in for an assessment, since insects and mold are both

byproducts of moisture.

But on Long Island, it's not uncommon for people to buy a house knowing

there are water problems, says Patricia A. McDonnell, a broker and owner of

Lido Beach Realty.

"People will know that there's a water issue and that the sump pump will

take care of it," she says. "They'll take certain corrections around the

property, and they do buy the house. The same as when people buy a home that

has had termite problems. They fix it using solutions that they know will work."

McDonnell, who has been in the real estate business for more than 20 years,

does recall one horror story. "I saw this silver mass on the wall of a

basement one time - a big three-family house in Long Beach," she says. "I went

to touch it, and he [the potential buyer] pulled my hand away. It was sewer

bugs." (She's referring to the little flies often found around drains.) "I'm

near-sighted, and I put my glasses on," she adds. "When I really looked there,

the wall was moving."

In Lido Beach and Point Lookout many water problems are seen at high tide,

McDonnell says. It's not uncommon for her to show buyers a home where a sump

pump is at work or where the appliances are elevated on blocks on the basement

floor. "Our water table is very high here," she says. Even so, people will buy

the house if it's structurally sound, because they want to be near the water.

Indeed, a recent survey asked what Long Islanders like best about living

here. The top answer: accessibility to beaches, water activities and parks. So

residents do love the water - just not when it's 2 feet deep in the basement.

Recognize the warning signs

You love the look of the house, and the price is right. But will unseen water

woes make your decision to buy one you'll later regret? Before you sign on the

dotted line, look for these clues, as cited by home inspector Tim Gill,

waterproofing expert Edward F. Mihelic and long-time real estate agent Patricia

A. McDonnell:

Water

It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that visible water in the basement

indicates a leak. Look for puddles of water, damp or darkened basement walls,

dripping pipes, soggy ceilings or an active sump pump. To find hidden problems,

some home inspectors use a moisture meter to detect water inside or behind

walls. Infrared imaging can also be used to detect dampness. If a problem is

discovered, note the location of the water and the scope of the leak to ensure

an accurate estimate of repairs. Use this as a negotiating tool if you decide

to make an offer to buy the house.

Stains

These are the No. 1 giveaway to unseen water problems. Look for these clues:

Efflorescence - a white, powdery residue left behind when water has

accumulated on masonry and later evaporated.

Rust - Stains under or near metal appliances may indicate a leak in the

machine or water line. They may also mean water seeped up from the floor.

Likewise with rust stains found at the base of steel lolly columns in the

basement.

Other potential problems - "Look at the window wells. ... They can fill up

with water and eventually flood your home," Mihelic says. From inside the home,

peer through basement windows and look for any water stains inside the window

wells. A stain may show that water is draining toward the foundation and

accumulating inside the window well. Also, ceilings or walls that have been

freshly painted may be a clue to a water-stain cover-up.

Odor

At best, a musty smell may mean the house has been unoccupied for a long time.

"It could be an estate sale where the windows have been closed, and there's a

lack of ventilation," Gill says.

At worst, however, the odor signals a moisture problem somewhere, creating

the perfect environment for mold and mildew. According to the federal

Environmental Protection Agency, very few molds are considered toxic. But they

do have the potential to cause health problems. Gill says that mold is

difficult to spot, especially when the wall is viewed head-on. So he uses this

trick: Hold a flashlight parallel with the wall.

Insects

"All insects basically enjoy a wet environment," Gill says. "Carpenter ants are

the worst culprit. They chew on the damp wood and leave their eggs in the

pockets of wood" left behind. Termites, sewer flies (little flies found around

drains), silverfish, cockroaches and a host of other critters love a moist

basement breeding ground.

Structural issues

Major water problems can mean extensive - and expensive - repairs. Look for

these signs of structural damage:

Sloping floors

Warped wood

Floors with a soft, "spongy" feeling and peeling tiles

Large cracks in the foundation or cement that has buckled

Rot and decay of the home's support structures such as columns, headers

and rafters.

- BETH DECARBO

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