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How to Fix a Leaky Basement

The most common enemy of a basement is water. Whether your basement suffers from water seeping in through the walls and floors or condensation buildup, it can wreak havoc for a home. This chapter will help you deal with water damage in your basement, as well as prevent further damage through maintenance.
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In This Chapter

  • Determining whether you have a water problem in your basement

  • Keeping your basement dry to prevent problems

  • Directing water away from your house to prevent leaks

  • Waterproofing your walls

  • Maintaining your sump pump

I grew up in Atlanta, where everyone had basements. Personally, I love a house with a basement. My cousins, on the other hand, grew up in Florida where basements are rare in the home. I always felt bad for my cousins until one night we got such a bad rainstorm that we were up all night removing the 5" of water that had puddled up in our basement. This was before wet vacuums existed, so our family became an assembly line of buckets and wet rags. It was then when I realized why my mom said to my aunt that she should be happy she didn't have a basement.

Homes that were built in the 1970s and earlier have minimal waterproofing or sealing. As techniques have gotten better and building codes gotten stricter, we've ended up with better-built homes that today are energy efficient and deal with the home as an integrated system of proper airflow, insulation, and moisture control. But, for many of us who've bought a fixer-upper or an older home, leaks or moisture is a problem. My experience has been that the longer this issue isn't addressed, the worse the problem will get down the line.


The most common enemy of a basement is water. Whether your basement suffers from water seeping in through the walls and floors or condensation buildup, it can wreak havoc for a home. Many people associate a basement with a dank, musty odor, and where there is a musty odor there is mold. Mold has become such a problem that there are multimillion dollar businesses popping up to properly tackle and remove mold from a home. I remember a case where a million-dollar home had to be bulldozed because of mold.

Water and condensation can also cause wood to rot. Often, the wood jambs and thresholds are the first to go. Moisture also makes a great environment for termites to have a smorgasbord. So, removing water and moisture from your basement is serious business.

There are a few ways to deal with the moisture or water that gets into your basement. You may want to hire a home inspector to give you his opinion on the matter and the best way to tackle the situation. Waterproofing companies deal with this issue, too. However, some of these companies will push one method when you might need more than that. First, figure out if it is a leak or a moisture problem.

Leaking or Condensation

Water leaking in or condensation? A quick test to determine if you are having a water leak through your wall is to tape a piece of plastic or tin foil to the wall where you suspect water is coming in (see Figure 3.1). Make sure you tape down all the sides, and then wait a few days. If beads of moisture have formed on the inside of the foil/plastic and between it and the wall, you have a leak coming through that wall. If there is moisture on the outside of the foil/plastic, your basement is suffering from a moisture problem.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 Tape a piece of plastic to a wall to check for leaks and moisture.

Condensation is a result of too much moisture in the air. When warm air touches a glass of iced tea in the summer, the cool glass brings down the temperature of the air around it, drawing out the moisture which sits on the outside of the glass. Similarly, when there is too much moisture in your home or basement, the coolness of the walls pulls the moisture out of the air and the water droplets sit on the walls, metal, and other cool surfaces, creating a damp basement.

Condensation Solutions

Many people are not aware that a family’s living habits create moisture in the air. This moisture needs to be dealt with by using proper ventilation. (See Chapter 15, "Insulation and Ventilation," for more information on ventilating your home.) The following can put moisture into the air: a clothing line, a dryer, cooking, showers, and dew in the air. The following tips will help you keep condensation from becoming a problem:

  • First, if you are drying clothes on a line in your basement, move them to the outdoors in the warmer months.

  • If your washer and dryer are in your basement, make sure your dryer is vented properly and the vent is clear of any obstructions or lint build-up. Make sure there are no holes in the vent allowing moist air to leak into your living space. Check for leaks by feeling around the vent when the dryer is on. Every three years, take the vent apart and clean the lint build-up. The vent should be made of a 4" metal pipe and should exit your house close to the dryer. If you notice your clothes are not drying, you might have a clogged vent and should clean it as soon as possible.

  • Clean your lint tray often and wash it with soapy water and a stiff brush to remove any dryer sheet buildup.

  • Check your plumbing pipes and make sure there are no leaks coming from sinks or toilets up above.

  • If you have a shower in the basement, make sure you install a fan and vent it properly.

  • Check your air conditioner’s drain pan and drain line for leaks or clogs. The drain line can become clogged due to algae or debris that will back into the drain pan. It won’t take much for the drain pan to fill up and start to spill over. If this happens, you may want to call a professional to service the unit. For central air conditioning units, this drain line will look like it comes out of the furnace.

If condensation is not that big of a problem, you may have an air circulation problem. Sometimes homes are buttoned up so tightly that there isn’t proper airflow. If you have central air conditioning, you can install more vents leading into your basement. This is relatively easy and should help a minor moisture problem. You can also use an exhaust fan to help remove moisture and create airflow. Remember, for the basement to have proper airflow, the air must have room to move. If you have a lot of clutter, maybe now is the time to have a yard sale or remove the clutter.

Personally, I would install a dehumidifier. This is a very proactive way to remove moisture. To determine if your basement needs a dehumidifier, see whether you have any of the following conditions:

  • Condensation on the windows

  • Mold

  • Musty smells and stuffiness

  • Rotting wood

  • Wet stains on ceilings or walls

Leaky Basements

The second way a basement gets moisture is through ground water. Most people have water coming in from the walls or floors of their basements. When rainwater runs into your house, this is called hydrostatic, or water pressure. The water can crack a foundation, leading to many ways in which water can penetrate through the walls. This is a bigger problem and one that first needs to be addressed from the outside of the house. How and why is water getting in?

Once you get to know what is going on during a hard rain, you can start to address the problem. Let’s start from the top.

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