Home Repair Tips for Winter Damages

Frozen pipes and damaged roofs are top problems and can cause bigger headaches if not fixed promptly.

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With winter storms regularly sweeping the country and unusually cold temperatures in warm-weather areas such as Florida, the threat of serious water damage has become all too real for many homeowners. Here is some expert advice on dealing with these headaches. It is provided by home-repair specialists who are highly regarded by users of Angie's List, the fee-based online community that shares consumer evaluations of local contractors and service providers.

[See Best Affordable Places to Retire.] The most serious winter damage is caused by water or, more specifically, the fact that water expands when it freezes and turns into ice. The consequence, especially in warm-weather areas without adequate insulation, is frozen pipes that have burst due to the pressure of that freezing water. The worst nightmare occurs when homeowners are traveling and away from their house when the damage occurs. Having free-running water flowing over floors and ceilings, and down walls, can quickly lead to extensive and permanent damage.

"Oftentimes, that's the worst and most cumbersome problem we have," says Jim O'Callaghan, a partner at ACR, a cleaning and restoration company in the western Chicago suburb of Wheeling, IL. "Anything pertaining to water damage requires an immediate response," he says. "Increased levels of humidity and moisture . . . need to be addressed." Simply hoping things will dry up on their own ignores the longer-term damage that can be done by mold, as well as the structural damage you can't see behind walls and in floor and ceiling areas. "They are not going to go away," O'Callahan says. Further, even if a problem was caused by an event covered by insurance, delaying repairs can cause denial of a subsequent insurance claim.

For this reason, it can make sense to have your home inspected by an expert to check for ice damage that might be invisible. This is particularly true with ice that has built up along the gutter areas of roofs, and which can damage the roof. Such damage may not be visible until temperatures turn warmer and the impact of such "ice damming" is evident.

Michael Pridham owns a Servpro franchise in the Cambridge-Belmont area of greater Boston. Servpro provides cleanup and restoration services for buildings with fire or water damage. Most drying work is done with lights and fans. Typically, he says, his firm is brought in after a plumber has fixed any water leaks, but before a homeowner retains a remodeling company to deal with the damages. In drying damp and wet areas of a home, including the contents, Pridham says it is standard industry practice to measure moisture levels and to develop goals for how dry the home and its contents should be for the assignment to be considered complete.

"Consumers should know what the dryness goals for the home and its rooms are, and that their vendor has reached those goals," he explains. Usually, moisture measurements are taken in an undamaged and dry room in the home, thus developing a dryness goal for the entire home. "Our job is to reach those drying goals,"Pridham says. "People should allow the work to completely dry before they do any restoration." Insurers also often insist that a certain dryness standard be achieved before paying a claim.

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Nick Rakel owns Revolution Remodeling, a full-service firm in Cincinnati. Most of the storm damage work he encounters involves roof damage, and much of that damage stems from roof shingles either blown away or loosened by a storm. The damage is often invisible to the eye, particularly with water and ice seeping under loosened roof coverings that may look just fine from ground level. "Always be wary of the cheap fix," Rakel advises consumers. "The thing that seems too good to be true often is."

Rakel says his he won't provide a repair estimate unless his repairmen have been able to get up on a roof and carefully inspect it for damages. He also says consumers are better off if they let his firm work directly with their insurance company. "We can be the consumer's advocate," he says. "We might even be able to get coverage in some situations where the homeowner can't, simply because we know the companies, we know what's covered, and we know the process." Still, he says, insurance adjusters have an incentive to hold down claims payments. When they do reject all or part of a claim, Rakel advises consumers to call their insurance agent. Agents want to continue receiving premium payments from their customers, he says, and often will intercede with adjusters on behalf of the consumer.

The home-repair experts all noted that the emergency nature of storm and water damage requires consumers to aggressively question any potential vendor. Traditional advice -- get three competing bids, look at references, call past customers for their feedback -- does little good when water is flowing down your walls.You need a single contractor and you need him right away.

For this reason, O'Callahan recommends that people have preventive maintenance contracts, certainly for their cooling and heating systems but also to provide seasonal looks at other household systems. Does your home have any pipes that may freeze in bitter weather? Are there any plumbing leaks or signs of a weak pipe? That spot of rust on the exposed pipe you can see may signal thinning pipe walls on the portion of the pipe you can't see. Developing a solid relationship with a vendor also means that you know there's someone you trust that you can not only call in an emergency but also expect to make the time to come to your home.

Good contractors often are overwhelmed in an emergency, getting more calls than they can possibly handle. "The really good contractors are so busy they can't get to a lot of people," O'Callahan says. "Homeowners are left to fend for themselves" at a very vulnerable time.

Pridham says he understands that consumers might be wary of being exploited when they call in an emergency. But, he notes, "we have an established price list that we follow, so it's not like we can charge whatever we like." In terms of responding to an emergency call, he says there is an industry service standard that he follows called the "148" rule. The numbers stand for response times -- one hour to call back the customer, four hours to be on site, and eight hours to provide a detailed estimate for the cost of the job. Still, in an emergency, that rule can go out the window, and it's common for vendors to set up waiting lists. The key disclosure is that consumers should be given a reasonable estimate for when they can be helped.

"Consumers need to be wary of the contractor who comes to their home, knocks on the door, and says, 'You've got some damage, can I go up on your roof and look at it?'" Rakel says. When there are bad storms in the Cincinnati area, he says, it's not uncommon for repair people from other parts of the country to come to town looking for work and some quick revenues. Even if their work is properly done, he notes, they will already have moved on if a consumer does have follow-up needs. He recommends dealing with people who live in your community -- "the kind of people who you might bump into at the grocery store."

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