Leak Lessons: A True Story Tips to Avoid Getting Soaked

Leaks happen all the time. American Leak Detection, a nationwide company (unrelated to the Scooter Libby trial), claims to have discovered 1.4 million leaks last year alone—and that's just one company! Common as they are, leaks can cause quite a bit of damage. The drip-drip of a leaky bathtub is literally the sound of money going down the drain—and if the leak is hidden deep in a wall somewhere, the damage can worsen and spread for months before you even know there's a problem.

Recently, I had the misfortune of being dealt some leak issues of my own. I'd like to share with you lessons that I learned—the hard way—so that other apartment owners might avoid having to go through the same ordeal.

An Unwelcome Discovery

We returned home the last week in December 2006 after spending the holidays in Madison, Wisconsin. On the ceiling in our living room, a few feet from the front door, the popcorn paint was damp and sagging toward the floor—it looked like a gray, upside-down bubble on a pizza crust. Obviously, there was a situation in the upstairs bathroom.

"Oh, great," I said to my wife. "We have a leak."

I called the plumber, who was dispatched quickly, and set about shutting off the water, just in case the leak was from the water source. This involved climbing into a closet, unscrewing a piece of plywood, and shining a flashlight into the space beneath the bathtub.

Sure enough, there was a small puddle of water beneath the drain of the tub, and the fiberglass was damp. I also discovered, much to my musophobic (that's an acute fear of mice, by the way) dismay, something else—the recent remains of a well-fed mouse, surrounded by a charming array of droppings and other evidence.

Lesson #1: Mice use water pipes as highways to travel under floorboards and up and down walls.

Indeed, we have two hardy cats and plenty of mouse bait. No matter—when it gets cold, the mice come in, even if they never set their furry little feet in your house or apartment proper. They're still there, scampering from floor to floor and setting up house wherever it's warm and cozy.

According to the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, mice can enter buildings through a hole the size of a dime. "To exclude mice," the site advises, "seal all holes and openings larger than one-quarter inch (0.6 cm) across."

But back to the business at hand. The leak in our home posed something of a mystery. The bathroom is full sized, equipped with a toilet, a sink, and a bath, and we use all three all the time—our two children bathe up there. We'd lived here for almost two years, so why the leak now?

Lesson #2: Leaks can happen for a long time before they're discovered.

And sometimes, they're only discovered when a bad situation gets worse.

"It depends on what the water is leaking into," says Lawrence Ubell, chief inspector for Brooklyn's Accurate Building Inspectors, who does home inspections in the tri-state area.

"If it's a ceiling tile, you know right away. With drywall, it has to find the seam and then come through, which takes longer," he says. "With plaster, there's nowhere for the water to go. Over time it gets loaded with water weight, and the plaster eventually fails."

Some leaks are never detected. Ours should have been, before the damage was done. We should have smelled a rat, so to speak. And we did—we just didn't know what it was.

Lesson #3: Wet fiberglass has a pungent smell.

Early detection is the key to minimizing damages, both to your home and your wallet. There was an odd odor we noticed when the heat went on, a sort of wet-dog smell that we couldn't explain, somewhere in the living room (bloodhounds are good at identifying the sources of smells; humans, not so much).

As it happens, that smell was damp fiberglass being heated by the hot-water pipes. Had we only been able to identify the smell, we might have nipped the problem in the bud.

The next day, a general contractor arrived early. He cut a big hole in the living room ceiling, and removed the wet sheetrock, wet fiberglass, and dead mouse (true be told--I was too squeamish to touch the last).

Then the plumber came. He shone a bright flashlight on the ceiling—now sporting exposed beams—and turned the water back on. Then he turned on the sink. No leak. Flushed the toilet. No leak. Ran the tub. No leak. Huh?

"We should try the shower."

"But we don't use the shower."

"Yeah, but we should try everything."

So we tried the shower—and water cascaded down, through the open ceiling, and into the plumber's waiting bucket. Bingo. As it turned out, my wife had in fact used the shower in early December—a few weeks before the popcorn paint sagged on the living room ceiling.

Lesson #4: A little caulk goes a long way.

There were two problems—first, the showerhead was shot; second, the caulk around the showerhead was either inadequate or nonexistent.

Bad caulking or worn-out fixtures don't automatically mean you'll spot a leak right when it happens. "The drips might evaporate before they leak through," Ubell notes. "Or it might only leak when a fixture is in use." If the fixture in question is rarely used, or if your apartment is warm and dry, it might take a while before conditions converge to produce a visible problem.

In our case, it took half an hour for the plumber to find the source of the leak, and five minutes for him to fix it. This did have its advantages—the bill for the plumber wound up being a mere $200. Although, as deficient as my home improvement skills may be, I probably could have done the job myself for far less money—and I would have had an excuse to use my caulking gun, which is one of my favorite tools to employ for any given task.

Lesson #5: Some leaks are fixable by non-professionals—sometimes.

"People just don't want to do the work themselves—even though in many cases they can," says Stuart Somerville, the owner and chief inspector for National Property Inspections, in Neptune, New Jersey.

Most leaks, he says, are like mine; the most difficult part of the job is pinpointing the location of the leak. And most people, he says, are like me; afraid to make a bad situation worse. So they let the professionals handle the job.

In the case of multi-story, multifamily buildings however, letting a professional contractor take care of finding and fixing a leak is probably the only option, unless your co-op or condo is blessed with a truly outstanding superintendent who has the skills and experience to track down a leak and cut it off at the source. A leak that shows up in the ceiling of apartment #3D might originate in apartment #4D—or it could be coming from somewhere else entirely. If you live in a co-op or condo, it's probably wisest to leave anything more involved than a drippy faucet or showerhead to a pro.

In the case of our leak, the plumber left, and I made plans to have the ceiling repaired. That night, after everything had dried, I gave my son a bath, and it seemed that harmony was restored. And then the leak came back.

Lesson #6: The obvious cause of the leak might not be the only cause.

The plumber returned the next day, a sheepish look on his face. He recaulked the faucet—a spot he'd missed the first time—and changed the handles on the water valves. This time, problem solved.

Lesson #7: Make sure the leak is really fixed before repairing anything else.

But if we had not tested everything, and made sure the repair worked, we might have had to tear the ceiling down twice!

Lesson #8: Leak damage can add up.

The entire project wound up costing about $1,300 to fix—$800 for the contractor to tear the ceiling down, replace it, and paint it, and the rest for the plumber. Also, our lives were disrupted for a good week. And because the ceiling is popcorn paint, which is almost impossible to blend, the patchwork repair, while as good as it could be, is still obvious.

But I got lucky. I got a good deal on the labor, because I'd used the plumber before. Plus, the only family affected by the damage was my own. The bathroom leaked into my own living room—not the living room of a lawsuit-happy co-op resident downstairs, who might have demanded that the popcorn paint job be without flaw.

Such a situation would have been a headache for me, my neighbor, the property manager, and probably the board, too. All because my wife took a shower upstairs instead of downstairs, and we didn't have enough caulk.

In the case of leaks in high-rise or multifamily buildings, "You're looking at structural damage—replacing wood, floor joists, girders," Somerville says. "You have to call in a contractor for replacement work, and that takes a long time."

Lesson #9: Your insurance policy might cover it.

There was a silver lining in all of this, in a way. I called up my insurance company, and some of the work was covered. The plumbing, I had to pay for—in most policies, you're responsible for wear and tear of that kind. The ceiling damage, however, was covered. After a deductible, but still, it's worth looking into.

So there you have it. Obviously, there are many reasons you might have a leak. Your building's roof might have holes in it, or your neighbor might let his sink or bathtub run over, or a mouse or rat might have gnawed the caulking or insulation around a pipe to shreds, letting the moisture flow forth. Implied in all of this is the tenth and final lesson, namely:

Lesson #10: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Be on the lookout for problems, and make sure your managing agent is too. Make sure water isn't seeping from your pipes into the walls or ceiling of your neighbors. Check your fixtures every once in awhile—according to the professionals, toilets need to be replaced every twenty years or so, and wax rings (which are no longer made of wax) wear out. Remember my story; a bit of caulk, and I'd be $1,300 richer, and my living room ceiling wouldn't look like paper mache.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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21 Comments

  • Did your ceiling have asbestos or was it installed post -1978? We just resolved a bathroom leak issue (into our apartement from upstairs neighbor's bathroom). We would like small bubbles fixed and rust stain, but building won't pay for asbestos contractor! Any suggestions?
  • Can cracks in tile in an upstairs shower cause leaks. I was just wondering, so far we do not have any signs of problems but I was concerned if I should use the shower upstairs. I was told it was only a cosmetic problem, but I am worried about the long term problems -. Thanks!
  • My tenant who lives on the floor below, has a leak only when we take a shower. I had a plumber replace the body shower, and a tile man caulk the bathtub. Now the leak is still happening, and I see a couple of the border pieces are loose. Do you think I should caulk them and that maybe this is the problem. One day my husband flushed the toilet and the toilet backed up and couldn't be stopped. Water all over the place. The water went downstairs into the ceiling of the tenant and traveled to the basement. This tells me that water does travel thought the walls and ceilings.
  • cracks in the tile in your shower can cause leaks downstairs. I would have a tile man regrout the tile before you do have a expensive problem it happen to me water is getting behind the craked tile and making it loose till it falls off then you have a problem call a tile and carpet installer and have him look at it it might just need some caulk or the tile might need to replaced and see if there are any wet tile's behind it water goes down Good Luck don't let them tell you the whole wall has to come down and all new tile I would have a couple different contractor's look at it and ask any friends you know if they have ever had the same problem and if they knew a honest contractor to look at it My Cousin is a tile and rug installer all his life very honest but I don't know where you live I lve in Saratoga,NY Good Luck bye Larry
  • Thank's for the tip. My neighbors upstairs have been showering and doing exactly the same thing. My grandfather taught me to look for obvious solutions so I just stopped off at the store for some caulking and now I can sleep in my bed again. The landlord said I can fix it and he will give me some money for the damaged mettress. A little exspense goes a long way. I figured I'd get a little info online before I start the project in a few minutes.
  • Not so smart boyfriend of daughters bestfriend flooded the upstairs bathroom which then went through the downstairs ceiling and then progressed into the light fittings. I now need to idiot proof bathroom with a door weatherstrip and reseal all around the floor area to hopefully keep the water in and go down the drain hole in the floor. Don't know the long term implications of the wet ceiling, also had a big water bubble that went away and now have rust coloured stains coming through. Hopefully just need to wait till it dries and then repaint.
  • Great tips - thanks for a well-written article! The only item I would rethink is #9. Even the largest insurance companies are canceling people if they make a couple of claims. In fact, I was told by a plumber and by a different person working in mold remediation that some companies are canceling after one claim. Yes, they can get away with this. For something small like this, we have to think self-insured or we run the risk of having our policy canceled. Do a search online to learn more and think long and hard before filing a claim you can pay out of pocket without too much damage to the pocketbook.
  • I have two leakage issues that three " Master" plumbers are unable to identify cause of either one. Problem 1: Master bathroom- Water appears, intermittently, arround the caulking area trim atop the sink counter. However, there isn't any indication as to where the water comes from. Problem 2: Basement floor - Waters appears, intermittently, on basement floor with no traceable signs leading to a cause. Three plumbers gave up after they charged me. Could this be paranormal? D' Ramon
  • We hired a young contractor to remodel the upstairs bathroom. We had family that he did work for ,went to see two of his remodeling jobs. When he started tearing out the old tub shower combination, he did not turn off the water or ask us too. Then he starts yellling I need the water off now! He cut through a pipe behind the tub. We have a cubby that I showed him where you can pretty much see the pipes. I ask him why he did not turn the water off before beginning. He said he never does, but the pipes were not where he thought they would be. Water ran down on our Liv. Rm ceiling. To say the least I am not happy with him. Any anwers. I have a registered older plubmer coming out to check everything before this guy starts installing the new tub. I have always taken care of this home and to say the least I am P. Then he tried to lie out of it.
  • In Sept. 2011, the unit owner below claimed that I had a leak coming from my bathroom that was causing damage to his bathroom. I immediately called the super and asked him to respond to my unit to inspect it (I was not home at time). Super found no leak. Everything was bone dry. This spring I received a letter that I was being sued for damages. Unit claimed I was negligent. He stated that leak was either from tub overflowing or renovation neither which was true. Court Arbritator suggested that complaintant have a certified plumber come in and open up his ceiling. The finding was leak coming from the Tub Shoe which is located under my bathtub. Am I or Condo Association responsible ? President of association said their not. I filed insurance claim upon being notified of suit and have an attorney assigned to me. I fowarded By-Laws to lawyer and have requested that insurance company have a claim adjustor come out to look at damages. What other steps should I take.
  • How's responsible for paying for leak coming from damage shoe drain under recessed bathtub ? HOA said they are not. Pipe is located between my subfloor and downstair unit ceiling.
  • how one tell if a new caukling job was done the right way? I had a person just re caulk my bathtub
  • During a move in, we piled lots of boxes in an upstairs bathroom. went up a day later and found the toilet leaking. It came through the floor to the kitchen. Did the weight cause this?
  • I discovered my water bill was high in June while we were on vacation and now it is back to the average usage. I was told by the water company that it was sporadic leakage. This has never happened in the past nor is this happening now. Can you explain this.
  • Water mark on lounge ceiling, have taken up floorboards in en-suite above - everything completely dry, have re-grouted shower several times, at this stage considering cutting hole in lounge ceiling. Any suggestions?
  • I live in a prewar condo (converted from a rental in the early 80's). The unit owners were just told they would be charged a $600.00 assessment to cover needed structural repairs (pipes and a new boiler). Less than half the residents (owners will carry these costs which involve the inspection of 34 (the buildings total # of units). Does this seem a legit way to raise this money, and to be applied for 12 months to these minority share of unit owners. Do you have any idea how we can find out what the reasonable cost would be without relying on the board member's stated assessment?
  • @D. Ramon... it sounds to me like your "Master" Plumbers are in fact real plumbers. What they are not, is psychic. Believe it or not, we plumbers don't automatically know the cause of all water mysteries in your home. If I had to guess, the water in you basement is being caused by water that leaks from overhead only at certain times. Go into your basement and look up. Do you see anything? The water is probably coming from whatever is directly overhead. The water that appears sometimes on your vanity is coming from the sink faucet obviously. Dry up the water, stopper the sink, and turn on the faucet. Do you notice water splashing around? Run your hands under the stream of water and see how it changes directions. Look closely at the stream of water. Is it uniform, or might there be an obstruction in the aerator causing the water to angle off to one side? If nothing you do is causing water to splash onto the vanity, then could it be from condensate? Try to apply a little common sense before you start insulting professionals. I'm free to be a jerk because I'm anonymous, but chances are the plumbers you called out aren't at liberty to do so, so their only option is to smile, scratch their head, and charge you a service call.
  • There is no reason to have unmatched ceiling popcorn. That would look horrible. To match it, all you have to do is get a good tape and bed guy to do your Sheetrock. Then you'll need to knock down a significant amount of the old popcorn with a popcorn rake. Then you mud the ceiling twice. Primer. Mud again and blow heavy ceiling acoustic. Primer. Blow medium ceiling acoustic. Let cure 72'hours. Then knock it all back with a popcorn rake. Mud. Blow light or medium ceiling acoustic. Primer 3 times and then paint twice.
  • Hlo..Greg, hope you are doing well!!! I read your article,the best way to protect against this potential loss is to ensure that the building components which enclose the structure, known as the building envelope, are water-resistant.Also, you will want to ensure that manufacturing processes, if present, do not allow excess water to accumulate. All buildings are different, but each is at risk for water damage...Good to see your article that you shared with us..... keep posting.....
  • We are living in first floor flat which we occupies in july 2013. Now ground floor occupants are comlpaing about our bathroom leakage which is spoiling their roof and demanding us to bear expenses fully for repsir. We are requesting for half half payment. What is correct way
  • It's a bit surprising that some leaks are never detected. I can only imagine how much money it must safe if it was easier to detect if there was a problem. For the most part, I imagine that the best prevention is to take precautions and stay on top of maintenance.