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10 Roof Problems and What to Do About Them

Your roof covers the largest asset you own, so it pays to know the signs of trouble. Fortunately, many of the danger signals are easy to see-you can sometimes even spot them from the ground. (Tip: Binoculars help!) A small leak can go undetected for years, causing huge damage before you notice anything. It's a good idea to inspect your roof regularly. Many contractors offer free inspections. But even if you have to pay, it's better than finding leaks after the damage is done. Here are a few of the most common and easy to recognize signs of roof problems.

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How to Find Roof LeaksFamily Handyman

How to Find Roof Leaks

When you're trying to track down a leak, start by looking at the roof uphill from the stains. (Plus: here's how to clean roof stains.) The first thing to look for is any roof penetrations. Items that penetrate the roof are by far the most common source of leaks. In fact, it's rare for leaks to develop in open areas of uninterrupted shingles, even on older roofs. Penetrations can include plumbing and roof vents, chimneys, dormers or anything else that projects through the roof. They can be several feet above the leak or to the right or left of it.

If you have attic access, the easiest way to track down a leak is to go up there with a flashlight and look for the evidence. There will be water stains, black marks or mold. But if access is a problem or you have a vaulted ceiling, you'll have to go up onto the roof and examine the suspect(s).

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Solution for a Small LeakFamily Handyman

Solution for a Small Leak

Some roof leaks are tough to locate. Sometimes the water shows up at a ceiling spot distant from the leak. If your ceiling has a plastic vapor barrier between the drywall and the attic insulation, push the insulation aside and look for flow stains on the plastic. Often water runs to openings in the vapor barrier, such as at ceiling light fixtures.

If you can't see any telltale flow marks, and since the stain is fairly small, look at the underside of the roof for 'shiners.' A shiner is a nail that missed the framing member, in this case when the carpenter nailed the roof sheathing to the rafters. Moisture that escapes into the cold attic from the rooms below often condenses on cold nails. Sometimes you can spot this if you climb up into your attic on a cold night. The nails will look white because they're frosted. When the attic heats up a bit during the day, the frost melts and drips, then the nails frost up at night again and so on. The solution is to simply clip the nail with a side-cutting pliers.

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How to Fix Roof VentsFamily Handyman

How to Fix Roof Vents

Check for cracked housings on plastic roof vents and broken seams on metal ones. You might be tempted to throw caulk at the problem, but that solution won't last long. There's really no fix other than replacing the damaged vents. Also look for pulled or missing nails at the base's bottom edge. Replace them with rubber-washered screws. In most cases, you can remove nails under the shingles on both sides of the vent to pull it free. There will be nails across the top of the vent too. Usually you can also work those loose without removing shingles. Screw the bottom in place with rubber-washered screws. Squeeze out a bead of caulk beneath the shingles on both sides of the vent to hold the shingles down and to add a water barrier. That's much easier than renailing the shingles.

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Roof CementFamily Handyman

Roof Cement

Metal flashing prevents leaks where shingles meet other surfaces, like walls and chimneys. Proper flashing work takes time and know-how, so sloppy roofers sometimes slather on roof cement instead. It seals out water long enough for them to cash your check, but it soon hardens, cracks and leaks. In the end, all it does is make a proper repair more difficult. So if you see heavy 'tar' patchwork on your roof, fix it right—before it leaks and leads to interior damage.

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No Chimney CricketFamily Handyman

No Chimney Cricket

A wide chimney forms a dam on your roof. Debris builds up behind that dam and holds moisture, which leads to rusted flashing and wood rot. Any chimney wider than 30 in. needs a cricket, or saddle basically a small roof built behind the chimney. A properly installed chimney cricket will direct water and debris around the chimney and off the roof. If your chimney doesn't have one, watch for holes rusting through the flashing. If you're getting a new roof, be sure the contractor's bid includes a cricket.

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Missing Kick-Out FlashingFamily Handyman

Missing Kick-Out Flashing

Kick-out flashing is critical where a roof edge meets a sidewall. Without it, roof runoff flows down the wall and possibly into the wall. This is worst when there is a door or a window below and water can seep behind the trim. You might not notice it for years, but eventually rot will destroy sheathing and framing. In extreme cases, the stucco is the only thing holding up the wall! Don't wait for that to happen to you. To see how to add kick-out flashing, read Use a Kick-Out Flashing to Stop Rot.

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Bad Chimney FlashingFamily Handyman

Bad Chimney Flashing

Good chimney flashing includes sections of “step flashing” that run up the sides of the chimney, and “counterflashing.” Counterflashing fits into grooves cut into the chimney and covers the step flashing. Cutting, fitting and installing all those parts takes time, so sloppy roofers take shortcuts.

Improperly flashed chimneys (top photo) cause lots of rotting roof sheathing and framing members. Chimneys need to be properly step-flashed and counterflashed so that water can't run down the face of the chimney and into the attic. You can't rely on caulk or roof cement to keep water out. If you suspect your flashing is shoddy, crawl into the attic after a heavy rain. Look for signs of water around the chimney and downhill from it.

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Missing Gutter ApronFamily Handyman

Missing Gutter Apron

When water flows off the edge of your roof, some of it clings to the underside of the shingles and dribbles toward the fascia. If you have gutters but no gutter apron to stop the water, it will wick behind the gutter. Eventually the fascia, soffits and even the roof sheathing will rot. You may see water stains below the gutter on the fascia and soffit. This is a sure sign that the gutter apron is missing.

The best time to add gutter apron is when you're getting new shingles. But it is possible to slip gutter apron under existing shingles. A dab of roof cement every couple feet will “glue” it to the shingles and hold it in place. You'll have to remove gutter brackets or straps and then refasten them after the apron is in place. Gutter apron is available at home centers in 10 ft. lengths.

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Vent Flashing FailureFamily Handyman

Vent Flashing Failure

Your plumbing system includes “vent” pipes that pass through the roof. And like any other roof penetration, that sometimes means trouble. There are two kinds of flashing used to seal vents: a “boot” that relies on a snug rubber seal, and all-metal flashing with soft lead that can be bent over and into the pipe. Some versions are made completely from lead; others are galvanized steel with a lead collar. When any type of vent flashing fails, the solution is to replace it. To see how, read more on plumbing vent flashing.

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Hail DamageFamily Handyman

Hail Damage

When a large hailstone hits an asphalt shingle, it can tear or even puncture the shingle. But usually, it just knocks granules off the surface. When a shingle loses its protective layer of granules, UV rays from the sun begin to destroy it. More granules fall off around the damaged spot and the bruise grows. The damage may not be obvious at first, so if you suspect hail damage, get an inspection from a roofing contractor. Most offer free hail damage inspections.