Keep Your Roof From Leaking and Surviving Natural Damages

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Anatomy of a modern roof.
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Nailing 3-tab shingles.
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Wrecking bar and slate hook tools.
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Anatomy of a modern roof 2.
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Use slate nails when working with slate.
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Make your own hurricane straps.
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For pulling nails and cutting and removing shingles, a roofer's (shingler's) hatchet is a must.
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Flashing a chimney.
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Collar tie.
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For pulling nails and cutting and removing shingles, a roofer's (shingler's) should use a flat-edged shovel or nursery spade.

How to keep your roof from leaking and ways for your home to survive damages from nature. 

How to keep your roof on while all around you are losing theirs.

It is the steady, purposeful sound of water falling a full story, ceiling straight to floor: the sound of a leaking roof. Unattended, roof-leak water will saturate your insulation, soak your wallboard, infiltrate headers, studs and flooring, and penetrate your footings to create the moist channels that attract termites and carpenter ants. It will spread into wet spots that encourage wood rot and play host to the molds, fungi and slimes that can gang up to convert your home into a pile of moist sawdust. That is, if it doesn’t short out the wiring in the walls to cause a house fire first.

It is these and similar nightmares that conspire to keep us awake at night the first time we hear a leak from the part of the house that is a total out-of-sight-out-of-mind mystery: the roof.

To compound the worry, let us suppose the leak is the result of the single most common cause of open-roof-area leaks in wooded-country homes . . . something yours truly has encountered four times to date. You awaken after a stormy night of howling, high winds, open the front door and step out into an unexpected wall of wet, leafy green to discover that a great spreading lawn tree — trunk, limbs, twigs, leaves, squirrels, birds nests and all — has fallen onto your roof.

A Tree on the Roof

First, check carefully to determine damage, if any, to your house. Get up in the attic and check if rafters are cracked or if roof sheathing appears bowed or dished in. Look for punctures through the roof, where a “flying missile” from a broken branch or the stub end of a splintered branch pierced the shingles and sheathing — perhaps the most common form of serious tree damage to a roof.

If there is a new water leak, some damage occurred for sure. Nonetheless, it might not be sufficient to trigger insurance coverage. Since rogue windstorms have proliferated in recent years, many insurers have quietly expanded the deductibles that you must pay before insurance kick in. (These changes generally show up in the fine print of each year’s new policy, as well as in the periodic coverage update sheets you get in the mail. But who reads the fine print? We all should.)

If damage is substantial, contact your insurance agent and get an adjuster out to investigate before you do anything. However, if you’re certain the cost of the repair is within the deductible, or if blow down damage isn’t covered, or if the tree hit the uninsured barn or shed, you’re on your own.

If rain continues to fall, the quickest way to staunch a severe leak is to cover the damaged area (treetop and all if need be) with a large tarp. Contractors use them to cover homes till the roof is on. Then, take a breath and take action.

Frequently blow downs of old, weak or rotten trees involve broken trunks or the splitting off of a major limb. The latter can deliver quite a blow if the break is clean, the tree close enough to the house and if the limb falls from a good height and hits the roof with full momentum.

When, on the other hand, a living tree is uprooted by a high wind gust, it gives up its grip in the soil with great reluctance. Most of its major upwind roots are ripped out or broken, causing it to hinge over on its unbroken, downwind roots — all of which tends to reduce its momentum and break its fall.

Note, too, that a tree growing a distance from the home that is greater than the height of its trunk will strike with its limber branches only. Sheet-metal gutters, downspouts and window glass may be broken, shutters torn off and siding scarred, but little structural damage will result.

If, however, a tree is planted close enough that the heavy trunk does hit the building, all is not necessarily lost; it may be so close that its arc of fall will be insufficient to generate the momentum needed to cause substantial damage. So it was with one of our blow downs. We walked outside to find the tree — a young sugar maple that had been growing less than ten feet from the house — casually leaning, it seemed, against the roof. It must have struck with a negligible force that was absorbed largely by its branches. Not one of us had been awakened by the impact.

A Tree off the Roof

If a reasonably sized tree, all but the downwind quarter of its root system ripped from the soil, is just leaning against the house, you can take a tip from homeowners in south Florida, where hurricanes are an annual event. Try to replant it.

Before you start working under the tree, be sure it is firmly lodged in place against the house. Toss a loop of rope around the trunk, a limb or root. Move away a safe distance and yank on the rope hard enough from several directions to make the tree wobble. If it wants to fall, encourage it do so when nobody is under it. If a fall would increase damage to house or plantings, guy it in place with ropes at each side leading to stout stakes. If in any doubt at all about safety, call in a team of professional arborists.

Fix three 100 foot ropes as high up on the trunk as you can get with a ladder, or tie them on while working from a window or the roof. (I like to back in my pickup truck parallel to the house, with the rear bumper practically touching the tree, and raise the ladder from the end of the bed; the feet. of the ladder rest snugly in the junctions of the bed floor, the side and the end gate. Plus, the bed gives me a few extra feet of height at the bottom of the ladder.)

Run two of the ropes out from either side of the tree; stake the loose ends securely or else tie them to the bumper of a truck or tractor or to a drawbar behind a horse. These lines steady the tree as you pull it off the house. Tie the end of the third rope to the bumper of a truck, tractor or behind a team of oxen or draft horses and pull forward slowly . . . till the tree eases upward on its own and its roots settle back into their pit. Tie the three ropes to stakes sunk in a half-circle around the tree and leave them on for at least a year, till the tree regrows its feed er roots. Soak the root mass and keep it watered (with at least 1 inch of water a week), as you would any newly planted tree. Fertilize sparingly with compost tea or a diluted general-purpose tree food dissolved in water.

To compensate for lost roots, trim off at least a third — and preferably a full half – of your tree’s limbs and greenery. It will droop and shed all or most of its leaves and may appear dead. Keep watering it and be ready to fend off an occasional insect attack. As you know from gardening, bugs are attracted to weakened plants. The tree may show new growth at a few twig ends almost immediately, or it may not try to leaf out till the following spring. Or it may not leaf out at all and will need to be removed. But at least you tried. Easily transplanted trees such as willows have the best survival rates. Deep-rooted, hard to transplant varieties such as taprooted nut trees are most liable to succumb to a blow down.

If a blown-down tree is too severely damaged, its limbs too deeply imbedded in the roof, or it’s just too large to try and replant, it must be removed by people who know how to do it while inflicting the least added damage to your house. Your best bet is a team of professional arborists. A crew of lithe young daredevils will arrive adorned with tree-climbing ropes and harnesses, cleated boots with climbing spikes, hard hats, chain saws and one or more ten-ton telescoping-arm cranes. They will dissect the tree into manageable pieces and haul it off or, if you ask, leave you with a yard full of compostable leaves and twigs, a cord or more of green firewood — and a massive bill. (Tree work is among the most hazardous of professions and the company must pay high wages and even higher liability and medical insurance rates.)

Tracing the Leak on Your Home Roof

You are lucky if a leak reveals itself by dripping audibly. All too many leaks sneak down through the house undiscovered . . . till you notice a bulge in the ceiling with an ominous little dark stain . . . or a dead-gray-colored mold darkening the wallpaper paste on the back of a patch of peeling paper . . . or an evil dark stain slowly drooling down the wall covering that conceals the brick of your outside flue. You really can’t locate the source of a leak from outside the house. And you really can’t repair one from inside. What to do?

Get your flashlight and trace the leak story to story, from drip to source on the roof. Water seldom moves straight down through a building. It will flow down sloping beams for many feet. It will flatten and move sideways up to 2 inches by capillary action — and do so repeatedly in its course downward. Look for dark spots in walls and glinty wet spots in a dark attic. Look especially carefully at the ridge peak, at the inside junctions of roof eaves and attic floor, and around chimneys and plumbing vents.

With the leak source located, your alternatives are to call in a roofer or try doing a patch yourself.


No roofing contractor is going to stay in business for long by overcharging or doing shoddy work, but they all suffer from the tricks of a few itinerant or “gypsy” roofers. Then there’s the occasional kid who thinks he’s learned it all in a year or two of apprenticing and promises or tackles jobs that are over his head.

Worst are the gypsies. Decades ago, they used to arrive in small country towns with a hot-top tanker truck loaded with a mix of cheap asphalt and used motor oil. They targeted older homes with curled-shingle roofs and dirt drives. The ladders went up and the goop was sprayed on in short order. The perpetrators had cash in hand and were hightailing it to the next county before the black ooze began dripping off the roof or sticking to the dog’s paws or homeowner’s shoes — a mess which left the roof unfixed and the interior carpets ruined forever.

I haven’t seen a gypsy hot-topper since the ’70s. Their modern counterparts, having read of local storm damage, arrive in flashy new pickup trucks. They dress and speak well and convincingly and will try to sell you a whole new roof — “Doing it all now will save you money down the road.” They may offer a low price or claim they want to use your roof as a “demonstration project.” Their tales of what an unrepaired leak can do to your home will top your worst nightmares.

Do It Yourself Roofing?

Never hire a roofing contractor who lacks a good-size office/storeroom, a major display ad in the Yellow Pages and most important — excellent recommendations from your neighbors (take the time to canvass the neighborhood). Expect to pay $130 a “square” — a 10 foot by 10 foot area of installed roofing — and specify fiberglass-asphalt shingles from a recognizable firm such as Certain-Teed or Owens-Corning. Stone, sawn-wood-shingle or split-shake roofs cost more, and slates will run you $500 and up per square.

Before you head to the roof, be honest with yourself: Are you comfortable on high ladders? How about getting from ladder to roof and vice versa? Feel confident running the roof ridge with a 75-pound bundle of shingles on your shoulder? If your answers are yes, frankly, you are in the minority. Most of us are naturally afraid of roof heights and unprepared for the summer temperatures of any roof. No roofing-inexperienced homeowner should climb out onto a second-story roof or any roof with a sharp slope. And never do high ladder work or roof work alone; have someone around to call the ambulance should you fall.

A handy homeowner with good balance, a one-story building and a lowpitch, gritty (good footing) asphalt shingle roof (which 80% of homes have) can do the most common roof repairs working from a ladder, a pickup thick bed or rented scaffolding. Go ahead and fix those leaks from treefalls or simple wind damage. Common areas that need repair are roof edges, flashing around chimneys or vent pipes, holes from fallen tree limbs.

When setting up a ladder, follow the firefighters’ rule: Stand with the ladder’s feet at your toes, extend the ladder out to arm’s length, and that’s the angle at which it should rest against the roof. Steady an uneven ladder by digging out soil from under the long leg, not propping the short leg up with a stone or length of wood that can slip or work itself out too easily. Sink a pair of nails in the house side and lash the ladder to the building, lest it blow down and strand you on the roof or slip out from underfoot as you step on or off.

You’d need a pair of tight-lacing rubber or crepe rubber-soled sneakers or roofer’s crepe-soled, steel-toe boots, along with hip pads to keep the shingle grit from wearing through your jeans. You’ll also want a roofer’s hatchet to drive and pull nails and cut shingles, a flat-edged shovel and pry bar to remove shingles and a disposable-blade utility knife. The most important materials are a gallon can of asphalt roofing cement and a disposable mason’s trowel to lave it on with, plus a roll of 1 inch-wide aluminum flashing (preferably painted black on one side so it won’t show) and tin snips with which to cut it. Get big, flat-headed galvanized roofing nails in 1 inch length for a new roof, 1 1/4 inches if the roof has two or three layers of shingles (no roof is engineered to carry more than three layers of shingles — no matter what any roofer tells you). As for the shingles, match your color as best you can, choosing a fiberglass-base asphalt type with a class A fire rating. For best hurricane protection, fasten conventional 3-tab shingles with six nails rather then the standard four: one at each end and two on either side of tab slots — just above where colored mineral stops on the shingle. (see illustration in the image gallery).

Easiest repair is to nail and cement on shingle patches cut from flashing. Cut underneath mineral-grain-covered exposed tabs of existing shingles to free them from where they sun-cemented themselves to underlying shingles, then slip the aluminum up under.

Where a leak traces to a chimney or plumbing vent, reshape any bent-up flashing and replace any that is torn or gouged out. Use roofing cement to attach patches. If the leak is severe, you may have to remove the old flashing and replace surrounding shingles and felt. You’ll find instructions in the books listed in Sources, but this is a job for a pro.

Roof-edge damage, the most common source of roof leaks, is easy to spot and fix. Wood trim should be replaced where split or crushed. You can often hammer out dings in aluminum trim; if torn, cut out damaged area and replace it. Also, if water barrier is torn, apply a new layer (it is sticky on the bottom and goes right on when you remove the protective paper). If the plywood sheathing is crushed or split along the edge, you can tack wood shingles over the damaged area to support the sticky barrier, a fresh layer of roofing felt and new shingles.

If the sheathing is punctured, you really should getup on the roof, remove shingles, cut out damage between rafters and apply a plywood or board patch. Replace water barrier, felt and shingles. To fit replacement shingles into the sound roofing around the damaged area, pry up sun-cemented tabs of adjoining undamaged shingles. Without splitting the shingle, bend tabs up so you can get in under them. Cut out as much of the old, damaged under-shingle from under the tabs as possible. Trim new shingles so ends will slide in under adjoining tabs and mate with edges of existing shingle. If any area of sheathing is left uncovered by a shingle, fill the space with roofing cement and slide in a section of flashing. Place nails to fasten new shingle under tabs of adjoining over-shingles. Dab nail heads with roofing cement. Weight upbent tabs with a brick if they don’t want to lie back down flat right away.

Slate and metal roofs are so slippery, I use what some roofers call a “chicken ladder” — two wooden ladders pinned together at their top narrow ends, and draped in an upside-down “V” over the roof peak so you can get up either side. Designed originally to combat flue fires, they work equally well for getting a chicken like myself to repair roof damage and to repaint old chimneys. Corrugated metal and fiberglass roofs are fastened with rubber-washer-fitted nails to horizontal 2 by 4 nailers running across rafters. A leak can be cured with a dab of roofing cement.

Ridge caps often get blown off and are frequent leak culprits. A replacement length of cap can be nailed over the damaged sections (use plenty of cement over nails). Do not cover the vent openings, which permit air that enters at the eaves to rise through the roof insulation, keeping it from water logging and losing effectiveness.

Elegant standing-seam metal roof panels are attached with clips or by soldering; repairing them is also best left to the pros.

Slates are hung on a pair of nails or pegs set into nailers across beams or into proper full-sheathing. You can patch most cracks with aluminum flashing; snip 1 inch-long pointed tabs into each edge and bend them down. Use wood shingles to raise adjoining slates, then slide the flashing in; the tabs will snag and hold it in place. To replace a slate, you need a ripper, a long blade with nail-cutting hooks at the end. You’ll have to cut or remove nails, clear out old broken slate and insert a new one. It may take a lot of fishing with the slate ripper to get out all the chips of old slate that are lodged up under the over-slates. Slide new slate up between the two pairs of existing sound slates that meet over and under the new one. Remove wooden shim-wedges and tap around as needed to settle slates back in place.

Fasten the new slate with a slate hanger under its lip — nail through underlying slate layers — or a single long copper nail placed at the top of the seam between the two original slates that lie on top of the new one. (Be sure to use copper or soft aluminum nails in repairs so they can be cut easily to repair if need be.)

To make a hole in slate, rest it on as flat and even a surface as possible (working on the roof, shim slates with wooden wedges — wood shingles — as needed to eliminated wobble). With a pointed steel prick-punch, finishing-nail set or center-punch, tap gently on the hole site at a shallow angle until the slate begins to flake. Flake out slate in a nail-shaft-size through-hole with a shallow funnel shape around it large enough to hold the nail head so its top is even with the slate surface. The nail head for a replacement slate must fit down through the seam between the inside edges of the two slates that meet on top of the new one . . . and then, through the middle of the new slate below. Tap gently and go slow and its a cinch.

It is best if you sink the nail firmly into solid wood sheathing under the layers of slate. But if you don’t, nails running through all that slate should hold for another 100 years or so. Dab the nail head with roofing cement and slip sheathing in under the slates to cover it over.

Advance Preparation for Home Roofing

If you are building, remodeling or landscaping a house, there are several precautionary steps you can take to keep the roof on in a high wind.

First, most rafters are toenailed (nails hammered in and down at an angle) to headers with two big 16d nails to a side. These nails aim down and work fine to keep a roof on under normal conditions. But high storm winds can get under the roof eaves and push up; the roof can fold or, worse, the rafter nails all around can pull out and off goes the roof into the barnyard or the next county.

To keep the roof attached during high winds, install hurricane straps (high-wind brackets) on the rafters during initial framing. Little known outside the hurricane and tornado belts, these inexpensive metal stampings belong on every building that might have to endure a high wind. They are simple galvanized sheet steel brackets, similar to the joist-hangers and other nail-on metal brackets used in place of weak butt joints or complex inlet mortise joints in framing most modern homes. The 18 inch- to 24 inch-long, 2 inch- or 3 inch wide steel strap is bent over the top of the rafter and brought down to be fastened at each end to the top and/or inside face of the 2 by 8 header — the horizontal board that forms the top of the wall framing (see illustration in the image gallery). Nails or screw fasteners running from inside out or at angles into the header oppose the uplifting force of a strong wind and keep the roof on when ordinary vertical fasteners would pull right out. If you can’t find hurricane straps for sale, you can tin-snip your own out of any sturdy galvanized-steel strapping, ribbon or sheet. Cut each steel sheet three and a half tunes the width of your rafter. Nail one end to the inside of the header beside a rafter. Bend it at an out-facing angle so it will twist a quarter turn to fit flat to the rafter top, then bring it up, over and around the rafter. Twist and fasten to the header on the other side of the rafter.

Install collar ties. These are level, horizontal boards — 2 by 6s or 2 by 8s — fastened across opposing rafters in attics built with common rafters (they already exist in roofs built with prefabbed trusses). Position them at a height of one-third to one-half the distance between the roof peak and the floor. Cut ends to fit angle of roof; be sure all are level and at the same height and that they can support an attic ceiling. Nail or power-screw each end to the rafter with four fasteners arranged in a trapezoid. The ties will reinforce snow-holding capability of the roof. And they will resist mightily when a wind tries to rip one of the eaves out and fold the roof up, over and off. 

Plant to Avoid Blowdown Damage

When clearing the land to site a new home in the woods or in placing landscape trees around a new home, plant to avoid potential blow down damage now and in the future. A tall, mature forest tree with a large crown growing many feet above the ground is especially liable to blow down if left alone in a clearing, surrounded by bare ground. Wind has more leverage on the high, compact crown, and the tree will remain a pole in the landscaping; it will never leaf out lower to the ground, as does a specimen tree growing in full sun all its life. For shade near the house, leave (or, on bare ground, plant) small trees with 1 inch-diameter or less trunks. Flowering crabs and other low-growing fruit trees are good. Or choose tap-rooted nut trees, live oaks or other varieties with deep roots, so they won’t heave the foundation as they grow. Plant any large-growing shade tree at a distance from the house that matches at least the height the trunk will be when the tree is fully mature: 40 feet for an oak or maple, for example; or 150 feet for a pecan tree. Avoid fast-growing trees that will throw shade in just a few years. Most such trees fail to put down strong roots as they pack energy into aboveground height. Don’t plant those fast-growing hybrid poplars near the house; unpredictable high winds are liable to push them over onto your roof.

Roofing Preparation and Installation, from Hometime, Chaska, MN, go to Hometime’s Web site to order the roofing video (65 minutes, $11.95):

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