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What to do when your roof is leaking, and how to find someone to fix it

A roof leak is more than an annoying drip: It can cause real damage to your home. Here’s how to get it repaired.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Q: Help! After all the recent storms, my roof seems to have sprung a leak. How do I get it fixed?

A: The exclamation before your question is appropriate. Roof leaks, if not addressed promptly, can lead to expensive repairs and moldy indoor air that can affect the health of your family. But when massive storms roll through an area, roof damage tends to show up on a lot of houses at once. Getting someone to respond quickly can be difficult, especially these days, when numerous contractors report difficulty finding enough qualified people to hire, even when storm damage isn’t an issue.

Your first step should be to do what you can to limit the damage. Start by setting buckets or pots under drips to prevent damage to furniture or flooring.

Next, assess how significant the damage is. In daylight — and never during a storm — stand on the ground outside and peer through binoculars to see where shingles might be broken, curled or missing. Also check for cracks in caulk or loose sections of flashing around the chimney, vent pipes or skylights. If you’re comfortable working on a ladder, you can probably get a better view by climbing up to the level of the gutters. Don’t walk on the roof, though, or attempt roof repairs yourself unless you know what you’re doing. Instead, try to estimate how many square feet of your roof need to be repaired. And take pictures.

This one trick at installation can help your new roof last longer

If there is just one damp area of a ceiling or wall and you have a way to get into the attic, put on a headlamp and grab a strong flashlight. From the access area, try to determine where the water is coming in by looking for wood or insulation that is dark from moisture or mildew. The leak probably isn’t directly above the damp ceiling, but much higher, with water traveling down along rafters. Count the number of rafter bays inside, and measure the distance from the leak to the wall or roof peak to help pinpoint the corresponding section of the roof outside. If the problem is with flashing around the chimney, water is probably coming in on the uphill side, then dribbling down and making the wall on the lower side wet.

If a windstorm or hail caused the damage, it is probably covered by your homeowners insurance. Call your agent and discuss the situation, sharing what you observed and the pictures you took. Ask whether the agent can call or recommend someone to make temporary repairs — even spreading a tarp over the roof, if necessary — or whether you need to find someone on your own. If the cost of repairs is less than the insurance deductible, then dealing with the problem yourself probably makes the most sense.

Insurance does not cover damage that’s unrelated to storms. You’re on your own if the roof is so old that asphalt shingles have lost most of their surface grit, which shields the shingles from damage by ultraviolet rays, or if leaves or needles were left piled up for months.

Unless your insurance agent can line up a roofer, search for a qualified contractor by calling established roofing companies in your area. Working on a roof is inherently dangerous, and accidental injuries can be serious. As a homeowner, you need to make sure anyone you hire is insured. And because you probably aren’t going to be up on the roof inspecting the quality of the work, you also need to trust that the crew knows how to do it correctly.

Ask neighbors for recommendations, but always follow up by checking yourself. For example, you might start by going to the Better Business Bureau’s website (bbb.org) and typing in the names of companies that neighbors suggest. Or you can use the BBB website to search for roofers in or near your Zip code who have A-plus ratings. Then check records for licensing and workers’ compensation. These requirements vary by state; find local ones by searching your state’s name and terms such as “roofing contractor licensing.” Some states include a wide range of data in their listings, including notices of past complaints, length of time in business and insurance coverage in case of an accident.

How to find a good deal on a roofer

Look at the websites of promising companies, too, to see examples of their work and to determine how long they have been in business. If a company doesn’t list a physical address, call and ask.

Once you have identified a few promising companies, get written bids that list the scope of work. For example, does the bid include hauling away debris, replacing plywood or other material underneath the roofing, and venting at eaves? If you need only an area of the roof repaired, contractors might not be able to estimate how extensive the damage is until they begin tearing out shingles and old flashing. A time-and-materials estimate may be all you can get. Whatever the scope, ask for expected start and end dates in writing. After a storm, particularly during the pandemic, there could be quite a delay. Will the company do temporary repairs in the meantime?

Ask for references of past customers, then call some. To guard against getting only well-rehearsed references, ask for details about one or two current or recently completed projects.

If it turns out you need a whole new roof, spend time investigating options. Maybe it’s time to spring for a metal roof, which should last for many decades, rather than asphalt shingles, which need to be replaced more frequently. Also ask the roofing contractors whether you can beef up insulation and protect against ice dams as part of the job.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

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