A Major Worry At The Top

November 15, 1992|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Contributing Writer

Ask a homeowner to name the single greatest fear about their house, and you're likely to get two answers: The basement will leak and eventually flood; and the roof will leak and eventually collapse.

Wayne Norris, a building inspector with Dallmus Norris Associates in Baltimore, says roofs always seem to worry buyers. They might accept a house with peeling paint, creaky floors or sluggish plumbing. "But if the roof leaks," he said, "they're going to freak."

How do you know if a roof is solid and stable? The age of the roof isn't a reliable gauge; a new roof can leak if it has been installed improperly. Looking at the roof from the ground won't tell you much; shingles that look dandy from a distance might be covering a rotting roof frame.

Just about the only way to tell the condition of a roof, contractors and inspectors say, is to get up there and investigate.

Buyers should have the roof of their new house inspected before they settle, most real estate agents say. Mr. Norris says homeowners can do the job themselves -- at least once a year. Now is the time.

"If you have a roof that's questionable, you want to have it replaced before winter when you have a possibility of snow sitting up there," he said.

FTC Assuming you can safely crawl onto the roof, here's what he and other experts say you should look for:

* Brittle shingles, or shingles that have lost their granules:

"Most of the roofs in this area, if they're sloped, have asphalt shingles," Mr. Norris says. "The normal life of an asphalt shingle -- roof is 15 to 20 years. As they age, they start to dry, curl up and get brittle."

A few curled shingles don't usually present a problem. But several in a row can cause leaks. If they are all badly worn, you're probably due for a new roof.

* Missing shingles:

A few blown off during storms can be replaced easily. But if many are missing in whole sections, you've got a major roofing job ahead.

* Damaged or loose "flashing" -- the sheet metal or other material that protects valleys where two roof surfaces intersect, or where the chimney comes out of the roof:

Flashing can detach, rust or acquire holes, leading to leaks.

* Dry, cracked caulking and roof cement used around flashing, skylights and vents:

Brittle caulking does not seal effectively.

* Mold and mildew:

Their presence may simply be a cosmetic problem. But Mr. Norris doesn't ever like to see mold growing on shingles. "If there's mold it means there's enough water standing there to support the growth."

* Exposed or missing nails:

"Every nail exposed is a potential source of leakage," Mr. Norris says. "The water can follow the path of the nail."

If, after your own investigation, you cannot find anything wrong with the roof, but you still suspect a leak, Mr. Norris suggests waiting for a long, penetrating rain and crawling into the attic. If a leak exists, wet rafters and sodden material may be obvious.

Leaks don't always mean the roof should be replaced. In fact, old shingles should be torn off only when they are seriously buckled or if the roof already has two layers of shingles. Removing the shingles takes time and adds cost to a roofing job. Lifted shingles here and there or small cracks in the flashing are often easily repaired.

But if the damage seems to be more severe, you'll probably need to call a roofing contractor.

How do you know you're dealing with a reputable roofer? Mr. Norris recommends using only roofers who have a Maryland contractor's license or a Maryland Home Improvement Commission license. He says he'd probably select one with a Home Improvement Commission license.

Mario W. Fracioli, Maryland commissioner of occupational and professional licensing, says homeowners should take several steps to find a good roofer.

* Evaluate the extent of the roofing job. Can you do it yourself? Or, because of the extent of the problem or safety concerns, do you need to call an expert?

* Obtain three estimates from roofing contractors.

* Ask contractors to show their Maryland Home Improvement license and make sure it is current.

* Call the Home Improvement Commission, (410) 333-6309 in Baltimore, to find out if any complaints have been lodged against the contractor and how they were resolved.

* Request references from the contractor. Donald Meyers, author of "Modern Roofing" (Creative Homeowner Press, 1981)

suggests getting references for customers who had their roofs repaired one or two years ago. They have lived with their roof through a few seasons and might tell you more about the roofer than the customer who just had his roof reshingled in August.

* Get a written contract that is very specific on what is to be done.

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