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How to Check for Previous Water Damage (Before You Buy)

Whether you’re buying a new home or an older one, you need to know how to recognize if there’s water damage and to what extent. Water can damage the walls, floors, ceilings, and structural integrity of a house, as well as cause toxic molds.

Many factors can lead to water damage in a home, including leaking or broken pipes, exterior floods and storms, overflowing water sources, ice dams on roofs, leaky appliances, or even just overfilling a tub or sink.

Often, water damage is highly visible and easy to identify, but when it goes undetected or remains out of sight, not only can it cause costly damage, but it can pose serious health to your family.

Water damage can happen just about anywhere inside the house, but some common high-risk areas should be checked first, especially before making a purchase decision.

Let’s take a look at several important areas to check for signs of water damage.

Check Interior Walls & Floors

Water stains on walls or ceilings are a common sign of water damage, and one of the easiest to identify. These water stains are often a sign of pipe or drain leakage within the walls or ceiling of the house.

Look for water stains in any area where water is used regularly, including sinks, toilets, refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers.

Make sure to inspect the windows, door frames, and any other access points to the interior for stains, as well.

Wet, Swollen, or Soft Drywall

Even if there aren’t visible stains, areas of walls or ceilings that are soft to the touch or have a swollen appearance can be an indication of current or previous water damage.

When drywall comes into contact with moisture, its structural integrity is compromised, causing it to become soft, weak, and susceptible to mold. Once water-damaged, drywall typically will not regain its integrity and will need to be removed and replaced to avoid further deterioration.

Check Water Sources and Pipes

Be sure to Inspect both incoming and out-flowing pipes throughout the house, including kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and basements. Look for leaks, stains, or signs of corrosion (rust) around pipe connections.

Also, inspect the caulking around and kitchen or bathroom fixtures. Loose, damaged, or missing caulk or grout can be a sign of ongoing water seepage.

Be sure to check all piping connected to the water heater, too, as well as for damage to the floor directly under it and any visible rust on the tank itself.

Also, be aware of:

  • Attic or Basement Damage

Look for signs of basement or attic damage, like stained basement walls or attic trusses,

wet or moldy insulation, and areas around vents or chimneys. Make note of any signs of

water damage like cracks, stains, rust, dampness, or mold.

  • Crumbling Wood.

Crumbling wood or damaged drywall around windows, baseboards, and doorways are

also indicators of possible water damage. This is typically caused by exposure to water

infiltration over long periods until rot sets in and it begins to decompose.

  • Musty odors.

Sometimes it's best to follow your nose. Stagnant water, water damage, and the

presence of mold or mildew all carry distinct odors that are easily recognizable to most


Many older homes can take on a slight musty smell over the years, but water damage,

even when out of easy view (underneath flooring or inside the walls), can emit a distinct

and noticeable smell.

Ask a Pro

If you’re unsure about water damage or suspect that it has occurred in a house that you’re looking at, you should feel free to ask the current owner of the house (or the real estate agency) any questions.

However, it’s still strongly advisable to have the home inspected by a certified professional, regardless of the answers you get.

This is really the only way to guarantee that the information you receive is correct, informed, and reliable, before moving forward. Get any findings in writing from the inspector.

Once you receive this detailed water damage inspection report, you’ll have a much better idea of the condition of the house, and your investment risk (if any). This will help you be better prepared to make an informed purchase decision.

Buying a house that has been water damaged is not without its risks, as water can be a leading cause of structural issues and safety hazards.

At the same time, by knowing exactly what you’re getting into, many of these risks can be mitigated with a few minor repairs and some preventative maintenance, and can often offer significant savings in the asking and purchase prices of a home.


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