Most weekend laborers spend much of the autumn with their eyes cast downward -- digging holes for their tulip bulbs, checking the alignment of the flagstone path they're laying, pulling the last few tomatoes off the vine.
Looming over their heads is a fall job that shouldbe on every homeowner's list: the semiannual roof inspection.
While major roofing should be left to professionals, regular inspections and minor repairs will prolong your home's life, protect its contents and prevent today's hairline leaks from becoming next year'shair-pulling repair bills.
"Every homeowner should at least know the basics about what's over their heads every day," says Paul Nichols, a Howard County roofer. "If they're so inclined, I encourage people to do the little jobs themselves, just as long as they don't do more damage than they're fixing and as long as they don't hurt themselves."
Homeowners' roof rule No. 1, then, is: Don't Fall Off. If you're using a ladder, make sure it's braced, preferably by another person on the ground. Always wear soft-soled shoes when working on the roof; besides providing better traction, you're not as apt to damage theshingles.
You also should stay off the roof when it's raining. Instead, get ready for your roof inspection by paying a visit to your attic. With a flashlight, search for wet spots along the rafters or onthe roof boards.
"You can't tell where the roof is leaking by looking at the ceilings downstairs, because water runs and moves in funny ways," says Nichols. "It might come through in one spot, slither down the rafter and then drip down the wall. You've got to go to the source."
When you're certain you've found a leak (most older homes will have at least a few water marks on the roof boards; don't mistakethese for active leaks), drill a small hole through the boards and push a piece of wire through this spot. Later, when you're outside, you'll be able to tell the leak's exact location.
Now you're ready to hit the roof. You'll need a claw hammer, galvanized roofing nails, a handful of extra shingles, a trowel or wide putty knife and a supply of roofing cement. Pull these items up in a bucket after you're reached the roof, rather than try to carry them up the ladder.
Begin your inspection with an overview. Is the roof line reasonably level? Settlement and sagging is unavoidable as homes age, but severe depressions can be a sign of serious trouble. If you suspect a problem, consult a professional.
Next, stroll the shingles, walking in a crouch to keep your center of gravity and your vertigo low. Look for cracked, damage or missing shingles, as well as the places you marked earlier from the attic.
Shingles are laid in an overlapping fashion, from the lower edge of the roof to the crown, so replacing them means lifting layers. After removing any remains of the old shingle with a claw hammer, slide the new shingle under and into its place. Secure with roofing cement and nails.
(A word about applying roofing cement: Neatness counts, but waterproofing counts more. Lay it on thick.)
If you're working with asphalt tiles, make note of their consistency. If they're brittle or crumbling, it may be time for a new roof.
If you're fortunate enough to have a slate roof, guard it with yourlife. A slate roof has a look no asphalt shingles can match and, properly cared for, can last a century or more. Its price relects its value.
Slate shingles can be replaced by the amateur, though they'renot as forgiving as asphalt. Buy them pre-sized or cut them carefully by first deeply scoring, then snapping the slate over a straight edge. Roofing cement and nails are fine for slate shingles, but pre-drill the nail holes so you don't split the shingle when hammering. You can expect to replace one or two broken slates a year.
Once satisfied that all is high and dry with your shingles, turn your attention to a frequent trouble spot: the flashing. Flashing, or strips of copper, aluminum, galvanized steel or other material, covers joints in a roof, such as where it meets the chimney or vent pipe.
Flashing joints usually are secured with roofing cement, and after years of weathering and settling, these seams can become cracked or pull away fromtheir undersurface. Inspect flashing carefully -- water can find itsway through pinpoint holes -- and re-seal it with galvanized nails and roofing cement. If the flashing material itself is badly deteriorated, it must be replaced.
The early fall and spring are ideal times to schedule expeditions to your home's summit. The surface is warm enough that asphalt tiles can be worked, but not the grill that is a roof in July.