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Beware of water problems when buying a house

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.

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 1½ 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."

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.

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