Is That Water Damage New or Old? Here’s How You Can Tell

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: May 21, 2024

As you change a light in an overhead fixture, you notice a small water stain on the ceiling.

How long has it been there? Does it matter?

The short answer is yes.

ServiceMaster by Zaba brings more than 85 years of combined experience to water damage cleanup every day. We can help you narrow down a water damage time frame and navigate the best course of action for your home.

Old or New Water Damage: What’s the Difference?

When you’re dealing with water damage, age counts. It makes a difference in cleanup strategies and can even affect the structural integrity of your home.

If the damage is less than 24 hours old, you can usually take care of it yourself. Water damage that’s gone undetected for more than a few days causes long-term problems that need to be handled by industry professionals.

The following guidelines can help you navigate the difference and make the best decision for your situation.

How to Recognize New Water Damage

water damage restoration van

Sign: Visible Leaks or Drips

This obvious sign of trouble is typically an indication of a problem that’s occurring in the moment. Whether you see water dripping under the sink or leaking from behind the washing machine, the damage is ongoing.

Insider Tip: Restoration expert Diana Rodriguez-Zaba advises, “Stay safe by turning off the electricity to the affected room and leaving it off until after you’ve stopped the leak.”

Sign: Damp Stains or Streaks

Fresh water damage often shows up as stains or streaks on ceilings and walls. It feels damp and cool to the touch. As the damage spreads, the stains and streaks become visibly larger in a short time.

Insider Tip: This clue to new water damage typically appears on drywall or wood.

Sign: Damp Odors

Recent water damage can give off an odd, damp odor. Wet materials might be inside a wall, overhead in ceiling tiles or deep in wood structural supports. The smell may be your only clue to the problem.

Insider Tip: Damp odors in the attic could be due to shingle or flashing damage on the roof.

How to Detect Old Water Damage

water damage from the condo above

Sign: Bubbling and Peeling

Bubbles on painted drywall surfaces are sure signs of older water damage. That same trapped moisture can also loosen wall coverings, causing them to peel away. Both clues usually indicate undetected plumbing problems inside the walls.

Insider Tip: A moisture meter can help locate hidden leaks that cause bubbles and peeling on wall surfaces.

Sign: Dark or Circular Stains

Over time, water stains become darker, appearing as brown or blackish areas. Old ceiling stains grow into dark irregular circles. This type of water damage often goes unnoticed in closets and storage areas.

Insider Tip: Use a flashlight to regularly check for signs of water damage in dark areas throughout the house.

Sign: Warped Baseboards or Buckled Flooring

It’s easy to overlook older water damage at floor level, but even slight warping and buckling are indicators of previous problems. Wood trim, hardwood floors and vinyl flooring retain moisture and continue to swell after exposure to water.

Insider Tip: If you’re dealing with this type of older water damage, be sure to check the condition of adjacent areas as well as the room’s subflooring.

Sign: Recurring Mold Growth

Mold removal is a part of water damage cleanup, but fungal growth that keeps coming back indicates deeper, older damage. Large patches of mold are another clue to lingering water damage that needs to be addressed by professionals like ServiceMaster by Zaba.

Insider Tip: If the splotches appear to be toxic black mold, it’s very important to let certified technicians take care of mold removal and remediation.

How to Fix Water Damage

Whether it’s old or new, water damage needs to be addressed right away. Start with these basic steps.

1. Locate and Repair

Determine exactly where the water is coming from. If it’s a plumbing problem, take care of it with temporary repairs, and call a plumber. If the damage resulted from a leaking roof, bring in a roofing professional.

2. Mop Up and Evaluate

Mop up standing water, or use a wet vac to clear floors and carpets. As you work through initial cleanup, assess the extent of damages. You may want to let a restoration company handle water damage mitigation and remediation.

3. Set Up Drying Equipment

Place large fans throughout the water-damaged area, setting them up at different heights. This creates cross streams of constantly moving air. A large dehumidifier can speed up the drying process.

Plan on letting the equipment operate 24/7 for several days.

4. Call Your Insurance Carrier

Homeowners insurance covers most damages resulting from plumbing breakdowns. Call your agent, discuss the situation, and set the claims process in motion. This includes scheduling an inspection by the company’s adjuster.

5. Back Up Your Loss Claim

Take pictures and video of the water damage. It’s important to make and keep digital files that detail damaged interiors, furniture, general contents and personal belongings.

Document everything, even items that will have to be thrown away.

6. Tear Out, Clean and Rebuild

Next, tear out and dispose of badly damaged materials and structural supports inside walls or ceilings. Replace or rebuild areas that are a complete loss.

Finish up by cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces, including drywall, flooring and trim.

7. Know When to Call the Pros

Dealing with new or old water damage can quickly become a big project. Recent damage can leave water standing in the basement or subflooring. Older water damage often includes large areas of mold growth and serious structural issues.

If you have any doubts about doing everything by yourself, call a company that specializes in water damage cleanup and restoration. Let industry-certified technicians handle the heavy work.

Old or New, We’re Ready to Help

The age of your home’s water damage can make a difference, but don’t risk your personal safety by taking on too much. If you live in the Chicago area, let us navigate the situation and get things back to normal.

Our teams are available with certified restoration solutions for every type of water damage problem. Just give us a call here at ServiceMaster by Zaba: (773) 647-1985.

What causes water damage?

Plumbing breakdowns are the most common cause of water damage. Other sources include appliance failures, leaking roofs or gutter problems, foundation issues and flooding due to storm events.

How long does water damage take to show?

In most cases, water damage shows up immediately, especially in porous materials like drywall and wood trim. However, if the source is behind a wall or up in a ceiling, it can take days or weeks for the damage to become visible.

Does water damage get worse over time?

Yes. Long-term problems include ruined drywall, buckled flooring, plumbing corrosion and extensive mold growth. Without proper repairs and cleanup, water damage can affect a home’s electrical system and compromise its structural integrity.

Can my insurance cover old water damage?

Generally, homeowners insurance doesn’t cover water damages resulting from pre-existing problems. For example, neglected maintenance or substandard repairs can void coverage for damages caused by plumbing failures or structural issues. Talk to your agent about your policy’s details.