What to Do About That Leaky Basement
Here’s to the lowly basement, now often a place for man caves, flat-screen TVs, wet bars, and ping-pong tables but once known as a place to store potatoes and carrots and to hide out during storms.
Are you selling a home?
Consider conducting a pre-inspection. It may cost you $300 to $500, but it could well be worth it. A home inspector will flag all of the major items that would come up during a buyer’s home inspection so that you can fix them in advance or disclose them. It also gives you an opportunity to find the best professionals up front to correct problems rather than rushing to find anyone who is available—often at a higher cost—after a buyer’s inspection.
Pay now—or pay more later. Waterproof your basement before listing your house. Most buyers don’t want to buy a fixer-upper and are sure to request a discount because of a wet basement issue.
Check for cracks. If you have a poured concrete foundation and you’re getting seepage in one area, the odds are it’s probably a crack. Hairline cracks are normal. Thin, high-strength epoxy sealants that are injected throughout the wall can fix smaller cracks. They essentially weld the concrete back together. But breaks more than a quarter-inch wide indicate structural problems that may require foundation repair.
Disclose, disclose, disclose. Be honest about the condition of your basement in disclosure forms. If you misrepresent a wet basement as a dry one, buyers can sue you later.
Don’t assume a wet basement is hopeless or wildly expensive to fix. There really is no problem that can’t be fixed. And they’re not all big jobs. A lot of times, a contractor can just go in and repair a crack. Every house is different. Repair work costs can range from $200 to $20,000, with the average around $3,000.
Do it right—with permits. Rules and enforcement vary from city to city and state to state. Visit or call your municipality and check its website for instructions. Especially if you’re putting in drain tiles and new pumps, the city is going to want to know where that water is going to. If you’re going to imake the investment, do it right and get it fixed permanently. Waterproof paint, for example, isn’t helpful with big cracks in the basement’s foundation.
Toss damp rugs. It’s a good way to prevent mold. If you have carpets that have been wet, replace them. You want to be really certain you have a bone-dry basement
Do not let automatic sprinkling systems spray against the foundation. And don’t overwater flower beds. You’re concentrating water against your house that could deep in.
Buying a Home?
Check out the “grading.” Ideally, the house you're considering purchasing should sit on the highest part of the lawn so surface water runs away from the structure instead of toward it. If the ground slopes toward the foundation, fill dirt should be brought in to raise the area around the foundation.
Ask the right questions. In nondisclosure states, sellers don’t need to tell the buyers about water issues in the basement—but sellers must answer truthfully if you ask a relevant question.
Pay close attention to “finished” basements. The renovation work may be covering up physical defects. You may still have an ongoing and active leak you can’t see. Unfinished basements are easier to visually inspect because cracks and moisture stains will show.
Talk to your inspector about moisture meters. These instruments can detect moisture in wood, dry wall, and carpeting. Variations throughout the basement or house may indicate potential problems. Some inspectors also use thermal-imaging cameras to scan the house, but they detect temperature differences that may not be caused by moisture.
Ask about warranties. You'll be more comfortable knowing you’re buying a house where a problem has been fixed. Find out if the seller hired contractors who are licensed with the state or who are members of professional associations. Determine what warranties are in place and if they are transferable.
Use more than one certified inspector. If it appears to be a serious issue, get multiple people looking at something. Among other things, they can distinguish between a normal crack and a structural crack.
Don’t assume a sump pump will keep the basement dry. Invest in two sump pumps and a battery backup. If you lose electricity without a battery backup the basement could flood. Without that failsafe, water can build up.
Check out the quality of the sump pumps and battery backups. How long can the sump pump operate if the power should go out? A lot of them won’t even run an hour. If you live in an area with frequent, longer outages, or if you do not want to run the risk of a battery that fails, consider a generator. (They can cost a few thousand dollars, though.)
Get the sewer line inspected. If it backs up, it can cost $15,000 or $20,000 to replace. So a $225 (or so) inspection is well worth it.
Look at doors and windows upstairs. If they’re sticky, it can just be humidity – but it can also be a sign of a structural foundation problem that may trace back to water in the basement. A foundation that’s unsettled or sinking can lead to an uneven house on top of it.
Take care of the gutters. It’s nice—but not necessary—to use gutters with a five-inch diameter instead of a four-inch diameter because you want more water to drain away from the home. Once you’ve bought a house, clean the gutters at least once or twice a year. Look for high-quality leaf guards, which can be expensive but decrease clogging.
KIMBERLY VAN HAL | Good to Know®
As a residential agent since 1987, Kim has helped home buyers and sellers in the Fargo Moorhead metro area achieve their real estate goals.