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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
Major water problems can mean extensive - and expensive - repairs. Look for
these signs of structural damage:
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
- BETH DECARBO