Water is one of those seemingly innocent things around the house that gets underestimated in its potential to do damage. A trap that’s not tight, a toilet seal that’s lost its grip, a water line with a tiny drip – it’s not much water and it’s hard to see or hear, but every day it continues it has the potential to wear away structural members, cause mold growth and create a number of problems for you and your home. For the most part, though, water leaks leave their warning signs, so you need to be aware if your home is using any of the following visual clues to try and warn you.


The most obvious water leak indicator, other than standing water, is a water stain. Stains may appear:

  • Around windows or the bottom of exterior doors, indicating that water is entering from the outside;

  • At the joint between the ceiling and an exterior wall. This could be an indication of a roof leak, but in this location it probably indicates an ice-damming problem.

  • Anywhere else along the ceiling. Unless you have water lines that run in the attic, which is pretty uncommon, a ceiling stain almost certainly indicates a roof leak. Remember, that the location of the stain does not necessarily mean the roof leak is right above it – it usually originates higher up and drips down.

  • In cabinets: If you see a water stain or a whitish ring on the floor of a cabinet that houses a sink, it’s probably a sign of water leaking from the trap, or from somewhere else in the sink’s drain system.

  • Mold and mildew stains: If you see mold or mildew growing, it’s an obvious indicator of a moisture problem, but not necessarily an actual water leak. In a bathroom, it usually means there’s inadequate ventilation to rid the room of moisture. At the bottom of an exterior wall, it might mean ground water from sprinklers or other sources is coming in. In a closet, behind a bed, or in other areas with little or no air circulation it could mean a variety of things, most likely an overly damp crawl space.


One common indicator of the presence of water is a floor that begins to buckle slightly, with hills and valleys. Vinyl floors are typically laid over particleboard underlayment, which absorbs water like a sponge and then swells up. Hardwood floors will show water by cupping up around the tongue-and-groove joints. 

Common floor areas to keep an eye on for potential water problems are in the kitchen around the dishwasher, where there is both a water supply and a drain line that can leak, and around refrigerators equipped with ice-maker lines. In the bathroom, pay close attention to the floor around the toilet. If the wax ring deteriorates over time, water can leak out around the base of the toilet onto the floor.

The worst area in the bathroom is in front of the tub or shower, where water damage can occur from splashing, partially-opened shower curtains, shower or tub doors that don’t seal completely, and especially from people stepping out and dripping water on the floor. This is a very typical area in a home to find water damage and dryrot, so keep a very close eye on these areas and act quickly if you see any stains or evidence of buckling.

With repeated exposure to water, drywall will soften and break down, so here’s another indicator. The drywall will usually take on a discolored and slightly swollen appearance, and will gradually soften until you can put your finger through it with just a slight amount of pressure.

Drywall indicators are usually found in the same areas as the water stains and buckled floors mentioned above. Pay particular attention to the drywall near the floor around toilets, and also down in the corners near where the bathtub or shower meet the floor.


At the first indication of a water leak, make it an absolute priority to locate and deal with the water source. It may be obvious – a wet patch under a dishwasher and nowhere else in the house would make a pretty strong case for a leak in that appliance – or it may be a stain or a patch of mildew that could be coming from a variety of sources.

If you are unable to locate the source of the water leak yourself, get some help from a pro. Companies that specialize in water damage restoration have very sophisticated and accurate water detection meters that can locate the presence of moisture in a wide variety of materials, and in otherwise concealed areas. Check the Yellow Pages under “Water Damage Restoration,” “Fire and Water Damage Restoration,” or “Carpet,” or ask your insurance agent for recommendations.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at paul2887@direcway.com.


What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to opinion@inman.com.

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