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Common Winter Damage Repairs

When winter weather strikes, homes and businesses may face a variety of mishaps that can damage properties, including ice dams, frozen pipes and water leaks.

One January about 20 years ago, Tim Sweeney, co-owner of Sweeney Construction Corp., in Madison, Wis., received a desperate call for help from a family who had returned home from the holidays to find a homeowner’s nightmare — the inside of their house had flooded and the water was now frozen.

In an attempt to avoid the water line freezing, like it had in the past, the homeowners had left the water running in an upstairs bathtub faucet. But during the week the family was gone, the sewage drain for the bathtub had frozen, causing it to overflow. From there, the water flowed down to the first floor and into the basement, which caused the furnace to stop working and the house to freeze.

When Sweeney arrived, he witnessed buckling floors, peeling wallpaper and sagging ceilings as a result of the moisture. With little left to salvage, Sweeney’s team worked over two months to replace flooring and drywall, gutting and painting the bathroom. “With cold weather, things are more likely to fail,” he says. “You never know what to expect.”

When temperatures drop in many areas of the country, it can cause a number of winter-related disasters, including frozen pipes, ice dams and water damage. Here are some common winter-related mishaps that can damage homes and buildings:

Ice Dams

When snow builds up on the edge of a roof or a poorly insulated house, the heat from the house can melt the snow and ice from below, creating a pool of water that cannot escape. The water then works its way backward into the house causing an ice dam, says Paul Sullivan, second vice chair of National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and president of The Sullivan Company, a residential contracting company in Newton, Mass. As more snow melts, the dam forces water under the shingles, ultimately causing water damage to the home.

There are a number of removal methods, including power spraying, salting and pounding the dam with a hammer. However, all procedures damage your roof in some way, Sweeney says. “But sometimes you have no choice, and you have to pick the lesser of two evils [and remove the ice dam],” Sweeney says.

“There’s no perfect solution,” says Geep Moore, chairman of NAHB and a remodeler in Elm Grove, La. Moore says he prefers to let the dam thaw naturally and then repair the moisture damage.  

Leaky or Frozen Water Pipes

As a result of leaky or frozen pipes, water damage and flooding are common occurrences during the cold season. Even if you don’t get snow, freezing rain and low temperatures they can cause pipes to freeze and burst, especially in homes that are poorly insulated, Moore says. Tiny air leaks from cracks in a home’s exterior, via television or cable outlets and AC wall unit cavities, can also be a culprit of pipes freezing inside the home, Sweeney says.

Depending on the extent of the problem, a section of leaky pipes can be patched. In these situations, Sweeney recommends offering clients the option to replace their home’s insulation or caulk air leaks as a preventative measure for next winter. “The spring is a good time to do those repairs because the location of the problem areas are fresh in clients’ minds,” Sweeney says.

Storm Damage to Roof

Severe weather can cause damage to a home as well. In Louisiana, for example, storms can bring large hail that damages roofs to the point of needing replacement, Moore says. Hurricanes in that area also lead to roof leaks. “My priority is to get the house dry within 24 hours of an event because it will mildew in this climate,” Moore says. He uses air movers and dehumidifiers to dry the affected areas.

Although you can’t always predict what winter will bring, Sullivan recommends offering preventative home inspections to clients in the fall to minimize incidents. “It helps improve your relationship with clients when they know you’re looking out for them,” Sullivan says.

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