Agents, beware — the increase in moisture during the winter season can produce significant foundation issues over time. Here are five key tips for helping buyers purchase a home during the cold-weather months.

Other than the obvious changes in temperature, warmer apparel, an upsurge in auto accidents and the onslaught of holiday shopping, in most parts of the country, winter also brings an increase in the amount of moisture descending from the heavens.

It’s easy to see the outward changes brought about by the advent of winter, and it’s also easy to spot any moisture intruding through ceilings, leaky windows, doors and the like. What is not so obvious, however, is that the same moisture can introduce significant hidden problems as well.

Water is one of our primary natural resources and, in the same way a shortage can cause significant problems, too much of a good thing can also have dire effects. Potential foundation issues fall into two categories: the first is damage to the actual foundation itself, and the second is damage to interior surfaces after water has penetrated the foundation.

Whether it descends in a deluge or quietly works away one drop at a time, water is not the friend of a home’s foundation. Foundations are designed to support a structure — not keep water out.

Concrete is actually porous and, if water is allowed to pool on the outside of a foundation, it’s only a matter of time before moisture will make its way through into crawlspaces and basements. The resultant humidity can not only damage the physical components of a home, it can introduce health issues as well.

While building conditions across the country vary, most foundations are built on soil. Soil acts differently when it is wet than when it’s dry. As an example, much of our regional soil is expansive, which means it expands when wet and shrinks when dry. If water interacts regularly with expansive soil, the constant shrinking/expanding movement can lead to foundation cracks.

Once a crack appears, the solution just became more expensive. If left unrepaired, additional water might enter the crack and cause the internal rebar to rust and expand up to four times its original size, causing additional damage. Unchecked streams of water hitting a foundation can also undermine the footings, resulting in a reduction in foundation integrity.

Rather than a buyer having to deal with water and foundation issues after a purchase, prudent agents can help identify potential issues before they emerge. Here are five tips to help your buyers effectively evaluate a home for moisture during a winter purchase.

1. Hire a competent inspector

We recommend that every buyer hire inspectors to examine every aspect of their potential purchase. Make sure they check the foundation for any prospective issues or existing cracks. 

Since many buyers will trust their agent for recommendations, make sure the inspectors in your network are well acquainted with potential water-related issues, especially as they apply to foundations.

2. Identify potential water sources

Regardless of where your buyer is looking to purchase, water can cause issues. Homes in predominantly flat areas encounter water mostly through storms depositing water on the roof of a home and the yard.

Homes in hilly regions are prone to runoff water cascading down nearby slopes and from adjacent properties. Properties located close to a body of water may have a high water table under the home. Some even have subterranean streams to contend with.

While some sources of water will be easy to remedy, others may require extreme measures. Have your inspector identify potential sources of moisture, whether from outside or underneath the home.

3. Ensure water is diverted away from the exterior of the foundation

The best way to prevent damage is to ensure water never reaches the exterior of a foundation to begin with. This can be done by channeling water that hits a roof through downspouts and gutters that divert it a minimum of 3 feet away from the foundation.

Effective downspout solutions, along with extensions and diverters, can be found at most home improvement stores. An ideal solution, although not possible in all areas, is for downspouts to be connected directly to local storm drains.

Yards can be more problematic. Make sure that moisture flows away from the structure; soil and hardscape should be tilted away from the foundation to force water to drain away from the home.

If this is not possible due to the surrounding topography, look for French drains installed close to the foundation. If a home has a full basement, then drainage systems should be installed around the perimeter of the foundation as deep as possible, ideally at the footings.

Additionally, look for waterproof coatings or membranes installed on the outside of the foundation as a protective barrier. Although there are waterproofing substances that can be installed on the interior of foundations, these are typically not as effective as those applied on the exterior. The best idea is to halt the flow of water before it actually gets inside.

I have seen countless homes where the sidewalks and other concrete surfaces actually direct water toward the foundation. While soil can usually be moved fairly easily, once concrete or other hardscape is in place, remediation becomes much more difficult and expensive.

If your buyer is interested in a home with hardscape sloping towards the house, make sure they understand that they may have some potentially expensive repairs in their future. In hilly areas, look for culverts, storm drains and other substantial drainage mechanisms.

4. Interior water sources should be controlled with pumps

Even with exterior management, water may still find its way into a crawlspace or basement, especially if there is a water source under the property. In these cases, water is often coming up from the bottom rather than in from the perimeter.

Increased moisture during the winter can aggravate the problem, if it’s not managed correctly. Long-term effects can include damage to interior surfaces and even mildew and mold.

The most effective way to deal with this type of water is to have catch basins and sump pumps to get the water up and out. Make sure the inspector thoroughly tests the pumps to ensure they are working correctly. In neighborhoods where moisture is a known problem, look for moisture barriers installed in crawl spaces and waterproofing systems installed in basements.

5. Carefully examine the perimeter

Even with proper drainage systems in place, vegetation too close to the foundation can trap water and introduce problems. Storing anything directly against the home is not recommended, especially items such as stacks of wood. Additionally, piles of snow built up around a home can produce issues when they begin to melt.

Watch for diverters and extensions that have been removed. Falling leaves collecting close to a home can prevent water from freely running away. Whenever water is trapped close to a foundation, problems can ensue.

As the rains and snow descend, this is a great time to check crawl spaces and/or basements of prospective properties. If you see water activity, ask the sellers if they have any plans to remediate the water prior to close. If not, you may recommend that your buyer pass to ensure that a current dampness issue does not lead to an expensive problem down the road.

Carl Medford is the CEO of The Medford Team.

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