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.

| September/October 1990

Roof Diagram 1

When investigating a leak, make sure to take precautions against accidents: stabilize ladders and wear a safety line and harness.


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.

roofing portl
7/24/2015 3:55:29 AM

I don’t get on my roof a lot, so I had no idea my roofs were leaking until I went into the attic after it had rained. They’re only leaking along a trough by the dormer, so it shouldn’t be too hard to repair. I don’t have a lot of time, though, so I went to they did agreat job now my roofs are perfect.

4/9/2015 5:13:30 PM

I feel this article makes a great point which most people don't consider about leaky roofs. It isn't just the one spot that is compromised, but it's the entire system. It may not seem like a big deal if there's one small leak, but this can lead to many more problems with the system.

3/11/2015 5:14:18 PM

Your are absolutely right, we never just recklessly jump onto the roof to try to fix the roof even under a great weather condition. The other day after a heavy shower rain we experienced water leaking in the kitchen, my wife persistently suggested me to call an expert for fixing that instead of me doing it. A couple of days later we heard in our neighborhood that a man fell off from the roof when trying to fix something, now badly injured, sad to hear!

3/11/2015 10:23:34 AM

Thanks for the information about how to fix leaky roofs. During a recent rain storm my parents found out that their roof had a leak in it. I hope that they can get it fixed as soon as possible because the longer they wait the more damage is being caused to their home which is costing them more money. I hope that they will be able to get it fixed really soon, do you have any tips that I can share with them so that they can get their roof fixed?

3/4/2015 10:54:29 AM

Thank you for your advice on finding the leak. You are right that not knowing where the leak is can be very frustrating. Your advice to turn off the flashlight in the attic and look for visible anomalies like a pinprick or light is very smart. I would have never thought to do that on my own.

2/17/2015 7:34:50 AM

My fiance woke up this morning, outraged because we have a leak in our kitchen. He wanted to immediately go up on the roof and fix it, but it is still extremely dark outside. I told him to first read some safety tips before I would allow him to go outside, and this is the first page that he stumbled across. The very first thing you say is to not go out when it is unsafe (dark, wet, icy), and to not go out when you're mad. I've finally got him all calmed down, and he won't be going up there until it's nice and light outside, and safe.

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