What Causes Water Damage in Homes? 15 Most Common Problems

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: April 18, 2024

Old plumbing and leaky appliances around the house aren’t out to get you, but it can seem that way. The weather plays a part too with winter freezes and spring floods.

With more than 85 years of combined restoration experience, ServiceMaster by Zaba has seen it all.

Based on that industry expertise, we’ve put together this guide to common causes of residential water damage. We’ve also included helpful links and tips for preventing soggy disasters.

15 Causes of Home Water Damage: What You Need to Know

frozen water pipe burst

1. Freezing Temperatures

During a hard freeze, pipes can burst in just a few hours. The flooding can soak the house from ceiling to basement. Ice dams on roof edges and seams are another common source of wintertime water damage.

Preventative Tips: Always check and insulate your home’s plumbing before winter settles in. Head off ice dam blockages by making sure the roof is winter-ready.

2. Severe Weather

On average, more than 140 million people are impacted by storm flooding every year. Heavy rains can cause extensive damage to your home’s exterior and interior. Basements are especially vulnerable to flood events.

Preventative Tips: Grade the yard so that heavy rainfall is directed away from your home’s foundation. Make sure downspout splash blocks are secure and channel water several feet away from the house.

Home Exterior Issues

3. Leaking Roof Components

Loose shingles, old underlayment and damaged flashing allow rain to leak through the roof and into the attic. Undetected roof problems eventually show up as stains on ceilings and walls.

Preventative Tips: Schedule an inspection once a year with a licensed roofing professional. Double-check the roof’s condition after severe weather, and take care of repairs right away.

4. Clogged or Damaged Gutters

When gutters overflow, rainwater spills down exterior walls, pooling around your home’s foundation. It can also seep into wall voids, soaking wood supports and creating structural problems, including rot and mold.

Preventative Tips: Put gutter maintenance on your to-do list every fall and spring, and keep trees and shrubs trimmed away from the house. Consider installing gutter guard systems that minimize clog risks.

5. Cracked Foundation Walls

Over time, exterior foundation walls become cracked, allowing groundwater to seep into the concrete and cause structural issues. Cracked foundation walls are also a source of water in the basement.

Preventative Tips: Don’t let shrub or tree roots crowd against foundation walls. Keep gutters and downspouts in good condition, and make sure the yard is properly graded.

6. Badly Sealed Windows

Improperly sealed windows allow moisture to seep into wall voids. Hot, humid days generate condensation that penetrates old caulking and hairline frame cracks.

The resulting water damage slowly spreads through walls and into floors.

Preventative Tips: Regularly check the caulking around your home’s windows. Restoration professional Diana Rodriguez-Zaba recommends, “When resealing window frames, be sure to use a caulk formulated specifically for exterior or interior use.”

Common Plumbing Problems

bathtub overflow

7. Clogged or Backed-Up Drain Lines

These simple outlets can complicate an ordinary day by leaving standing water in a tub, the kitchen sink or the basement. A clogged tub or sink is a big nuisance, but a backed-up drain line under a floor can fill a basement or crawlspace with Category 3 gray water.

Preventative Tips: Flush drain lines once a month with boiling water and dishwashing liquid. A mixture of white vinegar and baking soda also helps keep drain lines clear. Install mesh drain covers in sinks and tubs.

8. Leaky Pipes Inside Walls

Slow and steady, leaks inside walls often go undetected until the damage becomes serious.

This type of plumbing problem is usually the result of corroded pipes or damaged components. Moisture from a leaking pipe eventually soaks into adjacent walls and floors.

Preventative Tips: Be aware of the signs of hidden leaks, including stains on walls, bubbling paint, peeling wall coverings and musty smells. Damp or stained baseboards are also indicators of pipe leaks in wall voids.

9. Toilet Leaks and Overflows

When the toilet constantly runs, it’s annoying. When it springs a bad leak or overflows, it ruins floors and walls. Water damage from a backed-up toilet is always a concern because it’s a source of hazardous Category 3 water contamination.

Preventative Tips: When cleaning behind the toilet, keep an eye out for drips on pipes or puddles on the floor. Make sure everyone understands that only toilet paper should be flushed down the fixture.

10. Sewer Line Backups

Backed-up sewer lines are typically caused by heavy rainfall or blockage from tree roots. This type of Category 3 water damage pushes hazardous contaminants and chemicals into the house, creating a dangerous environment.

Sewage backup and flooding should always be taken care of by industry-certified professionals.

Preventative Tips: You can’t stop the storm flooding that can back up a sewer pipe. You can minimize the risk of a backup by not allowing trees and shrubs to grow over or near the main line.

Equipment and Appliance Breakdowns

water heater tank leak

11. Faulty Fire Sprinkler Systems

High-rises, condos and many single-family homes feature these life-saving systems.

However, loose connections, worn components or damaged sprinkler heads can cause extensive water damage in a very short time. Fire sprinkler systems are also prone to freezing without proper winter maintenance.

Preventative Tips: Keep fire sprinklers operating properly with regular maintenance. Bring in a licensed professional to confirm system integrity once a year, or ask your local fire department for assistance.

12. Damaged HVAC Equipment

Your home’s HVAC system pulls humidity out of the air and condenses moisture into the unit’s overflow pan so that water travels outside through the condensate line.

If the pan is damaged or the line is clogged. the drainage system quits working The results are wet walls, floors, insulation and any belongings stored adjacent to the equipment.

Preventative Tips: Have the system inspected twice a year by an HVAC professional. Reduce humidity around the interior unit by keeping the area well-ventilated. Keep the outdoor condenser free of dirt and debris.

13. Ruptured Appliance Supply Lines

Your dishwasher and washing machine quickly fill with water because their supply lines are under constant pressure. Older rubber or PVC lines wear out and rupture, and that failure turns the laundry room into a flood zone.

Preventative Tips: Avoid this potential mess by replacing old supply lines with braided stainless steel. Routinely check the condition of hose connections and shut-off valves on the washing machine.

14. Broken Water Heaters

This appliance is often located in basements, and that can make cleanup even more challenging after a bad leak. Sometimes, a water heater problem is due to condensation, but it’s more likely a faulty water outlet or drain valve.

Older units can develop leaks in the bottom of the tank and flood the entire basement.

Preventative Tips: Have a plumbing professional check and clean the water heater once a year. If yours is older than 10 years, reduce the chances of a breakdown by upgrading to an energy-efficient model.

15. Sump Pump Breakdowns

Whether it’s caused by heavy rain or an appliance failure, water in the basement is a disaster when the sump pump stops working. You have to deal with water removal, thoroughly dry everything and address mold and mildew growth.

It’s best to let professionals handle this type of basement flooding.

Preventative Tips: Check and clean the well on a regular basis. If the sump pump is older than 10 years, replace it with a high-capacity model. Consider installing a backup pump that operates on battery power.

Immediate Actions After Water Damage

Regardless of the cause, water damage spreads quickly. It permeates porous materials, including wood structures and supports, and creates a humid environment that breeds unhealthy fungal growth.

These steps help you take control of the situation and minimize the damage to your home’s interior and contents.

  • Identify and shut down the source of the water damage.
  • You may need to turn off your home’s main water supply.
  • Take care of temporary repairs, and then call a plumbing professional.
  • Call your homeowners insurance carrier, and explain the situation.
  • Contact an experienced restoration company, like ServiceMaster by Zaba.
  • Document the damage with photos to support your insurance claim.
  • Leave damaged contents in place so that the adjuster can see the extent of your losses.

We’re Here for the Big Jobs

water damage restoration team

We hope this overview serves as a quick reference guide for managing water damage at your home. Our teams are always happy to share information and preventative tips that can make things easier for you around the house.

If you need help with water damage in Chicago, ServiceMaster by Zaba is always here. We provide certified restoration services for area home and business owners, and we take care of the surrounding suburbs too.

Our teams are ready to respond 24/7, so give us a call: 773-647-1985.

What are the three categories of water damage?

Category 1 water is considered clean because it originates from a sanitary source such as a supply line. Water from a drain line or an appliance breakdown is classified as Category 2 gray water. Dangerous black water contamination is caused by Category 3 water, generated by sewage backups and storm flooding.

How can you tell if there has been water damage?

Signs of water damage include stains on walls and ceilings and damp areas on floors. Pervasive musty odors are often signs of damage inside wall voids. Persistent mold growth in porous materials may indicate hidden damage.

How long does it take for water damage to occur?

Water damage begins to spread within a few minutes. Over the next several hours, humidity levels increase substantially. Within 24 to 48 hours, mold growth takes hold in wet porous materials. If the damage goes undetected, it can cause serious structural issues in just a few weeks.