Flat roof is leaking with problems

#84 in a series of true experiences in real estate
January 1995, Hills Newspapers

We ran into a flat roof problem recently. I wonder why anyone ever built houses with flat roofs? Probably it’s less expensive than building a pitch, but it seems like there are many problems with roofs that are flat.

Water stands on them in puddles. Drains that should carry water off get clogged up and cause difficulties. Often the owners aren’t even aware that water is seeping in.

We see flat-roofed stucco houses all the time that have rot in the walls. We’ve seen a few that had such extensive damage that when the stucco was removed from the outside, there was hardly anything left behind it. Made us wonder what was keeping them upright.

Clearly, anyone owning a house with a flat roof needs to be (ha, ha) on top of it. Must get up on that roof and make sure the drains are clear, the flashing secure with no cracks anywhere to let water run inside.

We are not roofers. We know very little about the whys and wherefores of roofing methods and materials, but it seems pretty obvious that sloped roofs are more likely to readily shed water. That’s what roofs are supposed to do, and when they don’t –– well, looking at houses for years has impressed us with what happens to sodden buildings.

This most recent flat roof is the covering for only a portion of the house our buyers are buying, a part that is old and brittle with tar that has cracked in spots. We arrive to do our physical inspection, and although it has not rained for some days, there are pools of water standing on it. When the inspector unclogs one of the roof drains, a great flood comes noisily rushing through, out onto the ground.

All of the ceilings inside the house are open –– pretty fir finished with some sort of thinned whitewash. When we look carefully, we can see where the rain, sometime in the past, has come in. There are small, now dried, dribbles on the ceiling.

The house needs a new roof. Simple enough: call a roofer. We called several roofers.

We asked about adding a slope to the roof so that gravity would carry the water away. We inquired about adding insulation to the roof. And, of course, we asked how much everything would cost.

What we got were different opinions and different bids. Each roofer has his own best idea, strongly felt, about what to do. We heard about the joys and the application of traditional tar and gravel. And about roof systems that employ fabric and liquid plastics.

There was talk of building up the flat section and of properly tying it into the rest of the roof. Also of flashing, ultraviolet rays, aluminum paint, and evenly-raked gravel. Downspouts and gutters, eaves and soffits, and rafter tails.

It was mind-stuffing stuff.

I don’t know what was going on with everyone else, but I was beginning to feel like someone needing surgery –– or maybe not. One doctor says, “Cut it out.” Another recommends, “Wait and see.” A friend says, “Don’t listen to the medicos. Good nutrition is the key.”

Worrying over a roof, even one that is actively leaking, is not in the same league, of course, as worrying over a personal illness. But water that is coming inside your living space can loom large, drip cold. That is why we and our buyers were taking this roof thing so seriously.

We all stood in the empty living room of the house listening to dueling roofing contractors. By chance, two had arrived at the same time and now each enthusiastically defended his own (different) roof fix.

The lady buyer wanted to get on with buying her house. On the other hand, she didn’t want to do something stupid. Right then, what the man buyer wanted was to be told once and for all what would make the roof watertight.

We must have been getting a little punchy. I loved it when our lady buyer asked what I thought was the best roof question of all: “When is it going to leak again?”

I know she hoped for a reassuring answer. Perhaps, “No matter how much rain we get this winter, this roof is fine for another year.” But the contractors didn’t seem to know this one.

Of course, that’s how it is with houses. Nothing is exact, nothing predictable. Different parts fail at different ages. No doubt there are better ways to build houses in the first place and better ways to fix them when they get old.

But how to figure it? Who to believe? You hope you make a good choice, something not terribly expensive yet durable, and to do so before any damage is done.

Our buyers are thinking on it. They searched for this particular house for a long time, a house that fulfills more of their wishes than they believed possible. They are well aware that every house gets old, that all houses need looking after. The roof renewal, or revision, will work out. I do hope.

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