Home & Garden Columns
I met a very nice fellow today. A composer. Funny how homeowners end up being something other than just … homeowners. Neat guy, writes music for films, TV, industrials (corporate film) and the like. He also had the composure of musician, smooth and philosophical. Good thing for all those involved in selling him this house because let me tell you, he had some pain and it would be very easy to acrimonious with this particular type.
Seems the guy just bought a house way up in the hills. Must have cost a wee bit too. Very stylish, loads of room, views to-die-for and all those things that conspire to create the oh so modern manse. I near expected to see Hef and some bunnies lounging before the fireplace.
About a day after he moves into the house, there’s a bit of rain and he starts to notice paint sheets scrunching up on the wall downstairs from the entryway. Next, water starts dripping through the ceiling. Oh my! It’s not supposed to rain inside the house. Well, he started by doing the right thing and removing some of the sheetrock from where the water was dribbling in. This does two things, it makes it possible to examine the area where the leak is occurring but also helps to lower the atmospheric moisture level in the space, thus decreasing the growth of funguses that eat wood and all the pulpy stuff we building houses with these days.
After a short while we found the leak. Funny, it was inside the door. They’d looked for several hours and ran hoses all over the place and couldn’t get it to leak but we inspectors have the magic of hindsight working for us and I’ve seen my share of leaks that first required water to blow under the door to begin their soppy work. We both did the happy dance (his being more subtle and artist-like than mine).
Now as fun as all of this stuff is, it’s not what I want to talk about. It’s the porch itself. It wasn’t what he had me over about but when I walked down to the front door, my face nearly turned white. The front door was at the bottom of a set of about 5 or six steps and had walls all around, except for the front door, which for purposes of full disclosure, I will refer to as “the drain.”
Now, there was a drain in this swimming pool of an entryway but it was small and half clogged with caulk and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t identify. When the dog drops his gooey tennis ball and it rolls into the unscreened drain (that’s where drains are, you know, at the bottom of the incline, just waiting for the ball) the next rain fall is going to be able to put 4’ of water right against the doorway (glug, glug). Not to worry. The door doesn’t hold water all that well. It will just drain right into the house until you get back from Maui all tanned and relaxed.
This particular house was virtually all downstairs from the front entry door. One of those hillside beauties where you park on top and walk down to the living room and down some more to the bedroom (glug, glug, glug). Oh my G-d. Now don’t get me wrong. It had not happened but hey, misery lies in wait just around the corner, does it not? So here’s what I had to say to our friend, the musician. Please, oh please, add a “secondary drain.” OK, it’s not the only thing I recommended but it was the absolute number one. The porch will, sadly, have to be replaced due to the damage caused at the doorway.
The plywood was rotting away and this extended back toward the exterior porch quite some distance.
Therefore, the porch was going to have to be ripped up and replaced anyway; so my strong advice to him was to install a secondary drain when he put the porch back together. Now what is a secondary drain? Is it just another drain? No, it’s different in a couple of respects but to answer the question, let’s get up on your flat roof. If you have a flat roof with some short (or not so short) walls, called parapets, around the edge, you have a …. swimming pool, just like our friend’s entryway.
I see these all the time and you may well have one. They’re everywhere. The code books demand (and good builders provide) secondary drains on these roofs. First, they’re elevated somewhat above the main drain. This often means that they are up on the parapet wall a few inches above the drain in the roof surface or the “scupper” in the bottom of the parapet wall.
This placement means two thing. First it means that nothing is going to readily clog this drain because it’s not on the roof (or porch?) surface. Things can’t fall into a hole that’s up on a wall. It also means that it will be clear and unused until that fateful day when the main drain clogs and the swimming pool starts to fill.
Secondary drains should NOT have downspouts
When we put these life-savers in, we should not use a downspout. This may sound odd but there’s a really good reason for it. When the secondary drain starts to discharge, it means that something is very wrong and we don’t want it going about its business in a nice quiet friendly way. We want it to splash on your neighbors house or to knock your trash can lid off onto the cat. It should announce itself. Although I’ve never seen it, every secondary drain should have a set of wind chimes dangling from the spout just to broaden the effect. You want to take notice and get up there and clear drain number one as soon as you can because flat roofs with parapet walls can hold hundred (or even thousands) of gallons when the drains clog up.
So, that’s what I would like our musical fellow to have. A porch with a drain and one more for good measure. That secondary drain could easily prevent $100,000 worth of damage if the surfing junket goes on long enough.
There’s another message embedded in this experience that’s a little harder to see but just as vital and this is that looking at houses is a tricky business. If you have a list of things to check, it’s easy to miss the forest. Sometimes you need to back up, cross the street and just stare at the thing until it hits you. I never know what it’s going to be but if I slow down a little it’s often there. There are no books for this stuff but my clever clients often pick them out without any building education at all. So when you’re looking at your house or a new house or a friend’s house. Take a minute, sit down and look and you might just find yourself turning white and saying “Oh my G-d!”
Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at email@example.com.