How to Fix a Leaky Roof

Find and repair a leaking roof with this guide, including safety tips, repairing flashing, replacing shingles, and patching valleys.

  • Roof Diagram 1
    When investigating a leak, make sure to take precautions against accidents: stabilize ladders and wear a safety line and harness.
  • Roof Diagram 3
    Repairing a rusted-out valley requires a careful patch.
  • Roof Diagram 2
    Most shingle repair follows the same rules andsteps: Separate and isolate the bad shingle, remove the nails, slide it out,and replace. For chimney-flashing repair, clean out loose mortar andrust, then trowel roof cement the area.

  • Roof Diagram 1
  • Roof Diagram 3
  • Roof Diagram 2

The pattern is always the same. You find a pot, put it under the leak, and watch it drip. If you're smart, you immediately try to contain the water in the attic, using buckets and plastic sheets. If that's not possible, you get to poke a large hole in the ceiling, so water won't collect and spread to form more leaks elsewhere; a shower of filthy water will reward your efforts. Inevitably, you'll begin to get very depressed.

A leaking ceiling means not just a leaky roof, but a failed roof system. That's even worse. Doubt it not, the largest component of your house is a system, comprised of subsystems—peaks, fields, valleys, hips, rakes, eaves and flashing—each of which must be absolutely waterproof everywhere all the time. Any little subsystem failure can make it water-permeable. Historically, from the time of thatched roofs to the present day, this has been an unsolvable bummer. There is no such thing as a one-piece roof.

There are two types of roofs: flat and pitched; and three main types of roofing: built-up, shingle and tile. Flat roofs use tar and gravel, built up in layers (hence the name), while pitched roofs are covered by shingles made from asphalt, wood, slate, fiberglass, tile, hand-hewn shakes or other materials. Given cause, they will all leak—which makes learning how to fix a leaky roof a valuable skill, though you may hope it is one you'll never have to use.

Roof Repair Safety Tips

As you watch the pot fill, it occurs to you that you have no idea where in hell the leak originates. Unless it was caused by a meteor, a chunk of frozen blue airline toilet-water or a stray hunting arrow, nothing will be marking the hole. So, at this point, the source of your problem is unknown—and sure to get worse. Your depression intensifies.

In this mood, many otherwise careful people immediately vault onto their houses, sometimes in the middle of the night, to find and fix leaks, forgetting that even on the happiest day, the roof is not a safe place to be: It can easily injure or kill them. You think you're in a bad mood now? Don't make these the last words you'll ever read.

Here are a few life-and-death tips. Don't go up on any roof when it's wet, icy, covered with snow, or during the hours of darkness. Don't climb a questionable ladder: one that's too short, too old or wobbly, or an extension ladder too hastily set up. Wear a safety line and harness—as reasonable a precaution as car seat belts. Stay far away from wiring and electrical masts. Don't use any ladder as a work platform; use a scaffold instead. The extra cost is a pittance compared to rewiring your spinal cord.

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