Home Maintenance Newsletter

July 2010


During a heavy rainstorm (without lightning), grab an umbrella and go outside. Walk around your house and look around at the roof and property. A rainstorm is the perfect time to look at how the roof, downspouts and grading is performing. Observe the drainage patterns of your entire property, as well as the property of your neighbor. The ground around your house should slope away from all sides. Downspouts, surface gutters and drains should be directing water away from the foundation.


Poor drainage. Most problems with moisture in basements and crawlspaces are caused by poor site drainage. The ground should slope away from window wells, outside basement stairs, and other ways of egress. The bottom of each of these areas should be sloped to a drain. Each drain should have piping that connects it to a storm water drainage system (if there is one) or that drains to either a discharge at a lower grade or into a sump pit that collects and discharges the water away from the building.

Your job.  You job is to monitor and maintain the drains and piping.  Drains and piping should be open and clear of leaves, earth and debris. A garden hose can be used to check water flow, although its discharge cannot approximate storm conditions.

Hillside. Where a building is situated on a hillside, it is more difficult to slope the ground away from the building on all sides. On the high ground side of the building, the slope of the ground toward the building could be interrupted by a surface drainage system that collects and disposes of rainwater runoff. Swales can be used to direct surface water away from the foundation. There are two general types of surface drainage systems: an open system, consisting of a swale (often referred to as a ditch), sometimes with a culvert at its end to collect and channel water away and; a closed system, consisting of gutters with catch basins.


Check the planting beds adjacent to the foundations. Plantings are often installed in a way that traps water. The structure around the planting beds acts like a dam and traps water. Flower planters should never be installed up against a house exterior wall.

Puddles are not good. The ground surface beneath decks, porches and other parts of a building that are supported by posts or cantilevered structures should be checked. It should not have any low-lying areas, but should be sloped so that water will not collect and puddle there. Settled backfill allows water to collect next to the foundation wall and penetrates into the basement. See illustration.

Downspouts need adjustment. Water from the roof reaches the ground through gutters and downspouts or by flowing directly off roof edges. Because downspouts create concentrated sources of water in the landscape, where they discharge is important. Downspouts should not discharge where water will flow directly on or over a walk, drive, or stairs. The downspouts on a hillside building should discharge on the downhill side of the building. The force of water leaving a downspout is sometimes great enough to damage the adjacent ground, so some protection at grade such as a splash block or a paved drainage chute is needed. In urban areas, it is better to drain downspouts to an underground storm water drainage system, if there is one, or underground to discharge at a lower grade away from buildings.

Water that flows directly off a roof lacking gutters and downspouts can cause damage below. Accordingly, some provision in the landscaping may be needed, such as a gravel bed or paved drainage way.

Sump pump should not recycle. When a sump pump is used to keep a building interior dry, the discharge should drain away from the building and should not add to the subsurface water condition the sump pump is meant to control.

Naturally wet. Look around the entire site for the presence of springs, standing water, saturated or boggy ground, a high water table, and dry creeks or other seasonal drainage ways, all of which may affect surface drainage.


Well-maintained landscaping and other improvements to the property are important for the enjoyment of a healthy and durable property.


Plants, trees, and shrubs.

Check the location and condition of all trees and shrubbery. Those that are overgrown should be pruned or trimmed.  Where trees or bushes have overgrown, complete removal may be necessary.

Trees need to be trimmed. Overhanging branches should not interfere with a chimney's draft, damage utility wires, or deposit leaves and twigs on the roof, or inside gutters and drains. Trees and shrubbery that are very close to exterior walls or roofs can cause damage. They can make it difficult to perform homeowner maintenance inspections and make repairs. Branches around the perimeter of the house should be pruned back. Tree roots under concrete walks can cause damage. Roots are usually exposed near the surface and can be cut back. Tree roots can cause foundations to crack by pushing against foundations from the outside. Consider hiring an arborist. An arborist is a specialist in the cultivation and care of trees and shrubs, including tree surgery, the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of tree diseases, and the control of pests. Find a certified arborist in the U.S. at http://www.natlarb.com and http://www.canadian-forests.com/urban_con.htm for Canada.

Fences fall apart and lean over. Fences are usually installed to provide physical or visual privacy. Fences should be plumb.

Check wooden fences for development of rot or insect infestation. Check metal fences for rust development. All gates and their hardware should have proper fitting, operation and clearances. Fences are often addressed in homeowner association bylaws and deed covenants. Pay special attention to fence locations and your property lines. Neighbors can get quite "un-neighborly" about property lines.

Concrete pavement cracks and settlement. Monitor paved areas. Where there is a difference in elevation in a walk or drive that creates a tripping hazard, the higher portion of concrete may be ground down to the level of the lower portion, although the grinding will change the appearance of the concrete. Paved areas immediately adjacent to a building should slope away from the perimeter of the building walls (foundation walls). Paving that is not sloped to drain water away from a building should be repaired. Repair any paving that has large cracks, broken sections, high areas, low areas that trap water and tripping hazards. Repairing concrete often requires total replacement. Resurfacing with a thin layer of more concrete cannot repair concrete. Concrete should be no less than three inches thick. Cracks in concrete can be cut open and sealed with a flexible sealant compound, which will extend its service life. For sidewalks that have settled downward, it may be possible to lift up sections.

Asphalt surface. Sealing asphalt paving extends its life. Homeowners should seal coat their asphalt driveways every 3 to 5 years. Examine the paving to determine when sealing is needed. Check asphalt driveways for sunken areas that hold water. Low areas in asphalt paving can be brought to level with an asphalt repair.

Paving. Paving does not last forever. Brick or stone patio paving could be set on a concrete slab, in a mortar bed with mortar joints or in a sand bed that is laid on earth. Mortar joints can be tuck-pointed. Loose bricks or stones can be reset in a new mortar bed. Pavers set in sand can be taken up easily, sand added or removed, and the pavers replaced. The maintenance and repair of sidewalks, drive aprons and curbs at the street may be your responsibility or that of the local jurisdiction.

Exterior steps. Check the condition of exterior stairs and railings. Every once in a while, shake all railings vigorously to check their stability and inspect their fastenings. Every stair with more than three steps should have a handrail located 34 to 38 inches (865 to 965 mm) above the edges of the stair tread.

Stairs that are more than 30 inches (760 mm) above the adjacent grade and walks located more than 30 inches (760 mm) above the grade immediately below should have guards not less than 36 inches (915 mm) high and intermediate rails that will not allow the passage of a sphere 4 inches (100 mm) in diameter. Wooden steps should have proper support and strength and no rot or insect infestation should be allowed to develop. At steel stairs, look for the development of rust, weakened strength or poor attachment. Deteriorated stairs should be repaired or replaced. Stair treads should be as level as possible without holding water. Stair riser heights and tread depths should stay uniform.

Retaining walls. If possible, weep holes and related drains should be looked at following a heavy rain to make sure they are working properly. If they are not discharging water, the drains should be cleaned out and observed again in the next rain. Retaining walls more than two feet in height should be backed with drainage material, such as gravel. There should be drains at the bottom of the drainage material. The drains should discharge water either at the end of the wall or through pipes. These drains and the drainage material behind the wall relieve the pressure of ground water on the wall. Failure to drain could be remedied by excavating behind the wall, replacing the drainage material and damaged drainage piping, and backfilling. In all but the driest climates, improper drainage of water from behind a retaining wall can cause the wall to fail.

Look for movement in your retaining walls. Bowing (vertical bulges), sweeping (horizontal bulges), and cracking in retaining walls can be caused by water pressure (or hydrostatic pressure). Bulging can also be a result of inadequate strength to resist the load of the earth behind the wall. Bowing and sweeping failures may be correctable if found early enough and if the cause is poor drainage.

There are other types of failures of retaining walls. Failure by over-turning (leaning from the top) or sliding may be caused by inadequate wall strength. In addition, water behind a wall can create moist bearing, especially in clay soils, and contribute to sliding. Retaining walls also fail due to settlement and heaving. Settlement occurs whenever filled earth below the wall compacts soon after the wall is built, or when wet earth caused by poor drainage dries out and soil consolidates. Poor drainage contributes to failure in cold climates by creating heaving from frozen ground. Both overturning and sliding may be stabilized and sometimes corrected if the amount of movement is not extreme. Settling may be corrected on small, low walls of concrete or masonry, and heaving may be controlled by proper drainage. Significant failure of any kind usually requires rebuilding or replacing all or part of a wall. Consult a qualified professional when major repairs or corrections are needed.

Buried oil tanks. A buried oil tank can be covered-up by heavy landscaping. Buried ferrous metal oil tanks are common on older properties that have the home or domestic water heated by oil. The presence of a buried oil tank usually can be determined by finding the fill and vent pipes that extend above ground. Abandoned and very old buried ferrous metal oil tanks are an environmental hazard. If you have a buried tank on the property the soil around it should be tested by a qualified environmental professional for the presence of oil seepage. If leaking has occurred, the tank and all contaminated soil around it must be removed. If leaking has not occurred, it may still be a potential problem. Even if a tank is empty, it still may have residual oil in the bottom that is a pollutant.

Note: As with all underground items, a buried oil tank is not within the scope of a visual home inspection.


Keep detached garages, storage sheds and other outbuildings in good condition in the same way that your home is maintained. Monitor each outbuilding's water shedding capability and the adequacy of its foundations. Look for roof leaks from inside the buildings. Wood frame structures should be checked for rot and insect infestation. Check that doors and windows provide adequate weather protection and security for the buildings. Small outbuildings should have sufficient structural strength to sustain wind loads or seismic forces - this may be more than just a simple judgment call. If the site is in a hurricane or high-wind region, check all outbuildings for their ability to resist a storm without coming apart and becoming windborne debris. Consider consulting a qualified professional.

Yards and Courts

In urban areas, two or more dwelling units may share a yard or court to provide light and ventilation to interior rooms. The adequacy of the light provided to the interior rooms of the home may be a function of the dimensions of the yard or court. Check these characteristics, as well as zoning and building and housing code requirements pertaining to light, ventilation, and privacy screening for yards and courts. Such requirements may affect the reuse of the property and their implications should be understood before the property is altered.

Flood Zones

Check with local authorities to determine if your home is in a flood-risk zone. If it is, check with local building officials. Higher standards than those set by national agencies have been adopted by many communities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Flood Insurance Program have established and defined five major flood-risk zones and created special flood resistance requirements for each.  For a flood map visit http://www.msc.fema.gov/. Improperly designed grading and drainage may aggravate flood hazards to buildings and cause runoff, soil erosion and sedimentation in the zones of lower flood risk, the Interflood Zone and the Non-Regulated Flood Plain. In these locations, local agencies may regulate building elevations above street or sewer levels. In the next higher risk zones, the Special Flood Hazard Areas and the Non-Velocity Coastal Flood Areas (both Zone A), the elevation of the lowest floor and its structural members above the base flood elevation is required. In the zone of highest flood risk, the Coastal High Hazard Areas (Velocity Zone, Zone V), additional structural requirements apply.

Other Factors

The following are several factors about a home and its property that are often overlooked.

Slope. Look at the property around the house and the slope of the ground. If your house is on a ground slope of 20 degrees or more (in all seismic regions, including regions of low seismic activity), a structural engineer should be considered to further examine the building in relation to the slope.

Wind. Look for loose fences, tree limbs, landscaping materials such as gravel and small rocks, and other objects that could become windborne debris in a storm, if the building is in a hurricane or high wind region.

Floods. Check with local authorities. Major flood-risk zones have been established to define where floods occur and special flood resistance requirements have been created for each zone.

Lead. Consider checking for the presence of lead in the soil, which can be a hazard to children playing outdoors and can be brought indoors on shoes. Lead in soil can come from different sources such as discarded lead-based paint, lead-based paint chips at the perimeter of stone foundations where the paint is flaking and old trash sites where items containing lead were discarded. Consider having the soil and home tested for lead by a qualified professional inspector. For more information visit http://www.epa.gov/lead.

Wildfires. In locations where wildfires can occur, some jurisdictions have requirements for hydrant locations and restrictions on the use of certain building materials as well as restrictions on plantings close to a building.  In the context of fire control, defensible space is the area around a structure that has been landscaped to reduce fire danger. Check with the local building official and the fire marshal for such requirements.

Construction Expansion. If a future construction project on the house includes expansion, an assessment of the site for this future work is critical. The use of the land around the existing house is likely restricted by coverage and set-back requirements, which define the areas of the property that can be used for future construction projects.

Site Restrictions. Homeowner association bylaws and deed covenants sometimes include requirements that can affect changes or additions to a building or out-building.

Accessibility. When universal design is a need, consult a code-certified professional inspector for detailed information about parking, walks, patios and egress.


The inspector is responsible for checking the roof gutters, downspouts and surface drainage, but is not responsible for inspecting any underground drainage pipes.  The inspector is not required to inspect erosion control, earth stabilization measures, geological or soil conditions.