Keep Your Basement Dry: Nine Basic Steps

Finding that you have a wet basement or crawl space is among a homeowner and investor’s worst nightmares—right up there with a leaking roof, broken furnace, and frozen pipes. However, once you get over your shock that it has happened, water in the basement or crawl space needs to be quickly removed. This is crucial so it doesn’t cause additional damage and take away from your home’s value and profits. You’ll need to pump it out (or mop it up if not too terrible), clean and dry the area properly to avoid mold and mildew from developing, determine a long-term fix—that may involve excavation—so it doesn’t happen again, and replacing what’s damaged, from flooring to walls and furnishings. In short, this is usually not a simple DIY project.


Robert Elam, United Structural Systems

To advise investors and homeowners how to tackle this home improvement undertaking so it doesn’t reoccur or force renters to move elsewhere, we talked with Robert Elam of United Structural Systems ( in Pleasant View, Tenn., whose company specializes in performing such services. Following are nine critical steps to take before and after water comes, as well as know what to do when there’s a drought, which can cause similar problems, costs, and repairs.



Know your basement or crawl space. It may seem scary, as unappealing as venturing into a dark attic. And many homeowners never look at these areas except when they buy their home. Even then, some may leave checking them out to their real-estate pro or a home inspector if they hire one before closing. “But go take a look,” Elam advises. “Know what your floor joists look like, any beams, your wall structure, so you’ll know if anything changes, if mold develops, and if moisture or water builds,” he says. Besides hiring a home inspector to conduct a thorough search, Elam says it’s wise to hire a licensed structural engineer who will look for more red flags than the average inspector does. “Some home owners may balk at the extra $500 or so cost, but when you’re probably paying several hundred thousand dollars and up for your home, it’s well worth while to avoid future problems,” he says. And then on a regular schedule, go down to your lower level with a flashlight to see if anything has changed and raises concern.


Water damage and mold in basement.

Get a good diagnosis of the cause of water. Unless there’s an obvious plumbing leak—maybe a hole in a basement pipe, your home may have hairline fissures or small cracks that have developed over time. They allow water to seep in, collect and build if not caught and corrected. In addition, soil around the foundation shrinks and swells (due to normal weather patterns of drought and rain), lifting your home up and down in incremental amounts. Fissures will also develop there, water may penetrate, and collect. If you don’t venture into the crawl space or basement periodically, you may not know until you have a big pool of standing water. Indoor humidity will also condense on cold surfaces and collect, but that won’t present the same danger as fissures do, and it can be handled by installing a good humidifier that you periodically empty.


Remove collected water. Sadly, waterproofing walls with paint or other coverings billed as solutions won’t work. “They will make it look cosmetically pretty, but a coat of paint won’t stop water from accumulating; the problem remains,” Elam says. What’s needed in many cases is for a trench to be constructed along the entire interior perimeter—1 foot from the wall and down to the home’s footings. Weep holes are drilled into the trench, drain pipes are installed, the trench is filled with river rocks up to grade level as more protection and the system is connected to a sump pump placed at the lowest point of the crawl space or basement, so water will drain down due to gravity. An electronic drip valve turns on the pump when it fills to a certain level, sending it out through the drain to the exterior. A battery back-up system or generator is another safeguard if funds permit, suggests Stephen Poux, global head of risk management and loss prevention services for AIG’s Private Client Group. Sound expensive? It is, even without the generator, though stopping damage is far less costly than problems that might occur. Generally, Elam says it may cost $6,000 for a basic system to be installed in a crawl space or $8,000 to $10,000 in a basement; the latter is more because of the need to use a jackhammer to remove the typical concrete basement floor. Of course, costs also depend on the size of the area and complexity of getting into all necessary spaces.



Solve similar problems from the outside. Sometimes, the problem needs to be tackled from the exterior, especially if a house has been abandoned. In such cases, his firm has recommended excavating the exterior wall of the basement down to footings, installing new footer drains and possibly new I-beams to reinforce walls. These costs may climb upwards of $20,000, depending on the area’s size and difficulty of the solution.



Avoid humidity. Removing humidity removes the chance for mold and mildew to develop since both need wet conditions to thrive. A dehumidifier attached to a drain line may help reduce condensation. But beware; it won’t remove water from intruding through cracks, so don’t consider a dehumidifier an adequate solution in such cases.


Keep water from the foundation. Landscaping can help divert water from a house. Mound soil into a berm and plant it to keep water from running down to the foundation. Because of topography you may need to do this in certain parts of the perimeter or all around. Take a walk around your property to study how your house sits on the land.


Check gutters and downspouts. Gutters and downspouts act as another line of defense in keeping water away from your home and foundation. Be sure you use large enough gutters—ideally 5 inches to 6 inches in diameter and downspouts at least 4 inches in diameter, with the latter extending at least 8 feet from the home to get water far away. Narrow gutters and downspouts prevent water from moving through them properly with the result it may clog them up. In certain cases, you may also want to attach extended piping to the downspouts to carry water even further away. These can easily be camouflaged by lawn and plantings.



Avoid carpeting. All you need to do is have nice carpeting installed in a basement and have water flood the area to learn this lesson firsthand. In fact, Elam suggests not furnishing most basements since “doing so risks a problem waiting to happen,” he says. He suggests treating concrete—the most common basement floor, so it looks finished, or using inexpensive but nice area rugs that can be removed. Today there are many outdoor-type rugs on the market that can be used indoors, and which look good and aren’t damaged by some moisture. They may not survive a flood, however, and days of being drenched.


Be careful because of drought, too. Water isn’t the only culprit that causes fissures in crawl spaces and basements. When it’s very dry, earth also shrinks and pulls away from a foundation and causes walls to sink and create a void. When rains come, they fill up the openings; cracks also develop. You can improve the situation by planting shrubs around your foundation and topping them with mulch come spring and fall, which retains moisture. When it’s very dry, Elam suggests using old-fashioned soaker hoses around the perimeter to keep the earth wet. If you have the funds, you may want to install a sprinkler system that goes on and off automatically, according to weather conditions.


Example of a soaker hose placed around foundation (at a distance of between 8 and 18 inches).


Bottom line: “Owning a house is all about having a balance in your microenvironment,” Elam says. “You want a stable climate—not too wet or too dry,” he says. For more information about your lower level, see the Global Real Estate Education Network site.

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