Help! There’s a Water Stain on My Ceiling – What Should I Do?

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: December 28, 2023

In addition to being unsightly, water stains on the ceiling can indicate hidden leaks and serious water damage. This problem needs to be fixed quickly.

At ServiceMaster by Zaba, we have been restoring water-damaged ceilings in Chicago, IL, and the suburbs for over 85 years, so we understand this problem and how to address it.

Water Stains on Ceilings: Causes & Solutions

burst ceiling pipe
Leaky or burst overhead pipes are common causes of ceiling water stains.

Even if a water stain on the ceiling isn’t wet, you need to identify and repair the source of the problem as soon as possible.

With that in mind, here are a few of the most common causes of ceiling water stains:

1. Roof leaks due to bad shingles and flashing

Signs: Ceiling stains, buckling or damaged shingles, damp external walls, bad odors.

Fix: Inspect, repair, and replace broken, displaced, or faulty shingles and worn-out flashing around your chimney.

2. Leaking pipes in the attic or AC condensate line clogs

Signs: Ceiling stains, damp or soggy drywall, mold, dripping sounds.

Fix: Repair issues in the attic that may be causing a leak – depending on the source of the leak, you may install vapor barriers and improve ventilation in the attic. Check out this article on common attic problems for more information. 

3. Leaking radiators or plumbing issues in overhead pipes

Signs: Dripping sounds, ceiling stains, decreased radiator function, sagging or damp patches on the ceiling, strange plumbing malfunctions, such as fluctuating water pressure or temperature. 

Fix: Before you can fix the water stain on the ceiling, you need to address the cause of the leak. 

If the issue is a leaking radiator, contact a professional for radiator repairs. If the problem is a leak or crack in overhead pipes, check for obvious problems, such as bad fittings or worn gaskets. Simple DIY repairs are usually enough to stop the leak. If you’re dealing with a serious plumbing failure, call in a licensed plumber for expert pipe repair and replacement. 

If you have water spots on the ceiling, but no leak is obvious, the problem could be attic pipes that sweat because of poor insulation. If you live in an apartment, you may be dealing with a leak from a neighbor’s unit upstairs. Always call the landlord if you have a water stain on the ceiling in your apartment.

4. Dripping bathroom tubs or sinks

Signs: Discoloration or staining directly beneath bathroom fixtures, damp spots on the floor, mold or mildew formation. 

Fix: The solution to this problem is usually an easy one: contact a plumber to fix the drip in your tub or sink and then replace the caulk around the fixture. To do this, use a flexible putty knife to remove old caulk, clean the area with soap and water, dry it thoroughly, and apply a new silicone-based caulk to the area around your bath fixtures. Once dry, this caulk will prevent minor leaks and spills from making their way down into your ceiling. 

5. Failing seals around upstairs windows

Signs: Condensation buildup between window panes, ceiling stains, mold and mildew formation. 

Fix: Contact a professional window installation company to repair failing seals around your upstairs windows. Depending on the type of window and the nature of the failed seal, a technician may need to drill a tiny hole into the glass to expel moisture and stop leaks. 

6. Leaking HVAC system

Signs: Sound of dripping water, ceiling stains, diminished HVAC function. 

Fix: Contact a professional HVAC repair company to pinpoint the source of the leak and provide the needed repairs. Once you’re sure the HVAC system is no longer leaking, you can get to work fixing the water stain on your ceiling. 

How to Paint Over a Ceiling Stain

If the leak is minor and the damage is concentrated in a small area, you may DIY the repairs. 

In this case, give yourself extra on-the-job protection by preparing appropriately. If you don’t plan on using a paint roller extension pole, plan on staying safe on the ladder

Make sure rungs are secure, and spreader bars are firmly locked in place. We also recommend wearing shoes with anti-slip soles, gloves, and goggles. Mask your ceiling and baseboard trim with painter’s tape, and cover the floor with a drop cloth before you begin. 

Follow these easy steps for painting the water-stained ceiling.

  • Pre-Clean the Stain – Mix 1 cup of bleach and 3 cups of warm water, and clean the affected area. This fades the stain and discourages mold growth. Rinse with a spray of clean water, and let the ceiling dry.
  • Match Roller With Texture – Take a close look at the ceiling’s texture. A 3/8-inch nap roller cover works best on smooth ceiling surfaces. If you’re painting a textured or popcorn ceiling, use a roller with a 3/4- to 1 1/4-inch nap. Spray-on primers are a good choice for heavily textured ceilings.
  • Apply a Stain-Blocking Primer – Prime the ceiling stain with an oil-based primer that contains a high volume of polymers. This type of primer binds pigments and prevents bleeding from the stained area. It also reduces the risk of mold growth in the stained ceiling. Let the primer dry for at least two hours.
  • Paint Over the Water Stain – Both latex and oil-based paints work well on textured ceilings. However, be sure to choose a paint specifically formulated for ceilings. Use the same type of roller cover that you used for applying the primer. Paint over the ceiling water stain, let it dry for at least 4 hours, and finish the job with a second coat.

Who to Call When You Have a Ceiling Water Stain

mold removal
Professional restoration companies will take care of mold removal as well.

Water-damaged ceilings often require more than just a fresh coat of paint. 

For structural repairs like replacing drywall or ceiling tiles, and for mold issues in damp materials, we recommend consulting water damage restoration professionals. These experts not only repair ceilings but also offer certified mold remediation and can address plumbing leaks.

While painting a water-stained ceiling can be a DIY task, more complex repairs such as shingle and flashing replacement are best left to professional roofers. They can also identify and fix other potential roofing issues.

If you’re facing significant water damage or suspect mold in your ceiling, consider hiring a service like ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba in Chicago, IL. They specialize in mold removal, water damage mitigation, drywall replacement, and other structural repairs, including minor plumbing fixes.

For renters, a water-stained ceiling in your apartment should be reported to your landlord immediately, as the issue may stem from the unit above.

Have a Water Stain on the Ceiling of Your Chicago, IL, Home? We Can Help!

We know you’re handy around the house, but a water-stained ceiling can challenge anyone’s best DIY intentions. We take care of everything from identifying and addressing the water source to restoring your ceiling.

When you need help with any type of water damage at the house, you want the best restoration contractor in Chicago, IL, and the suburbs. We’re always ready for your call here at ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba: 773-647-1985.


Is That Really A Water Stain or Something Else? 

moisture reader
Professional moisture readers can detect water damage behind the surface.

Before you get started with water stain repair, make sure that what you’re looking at is really a water stain. You can tell if a stain is from water by paying attention to the shape: water stains are large and amorphous, with indistinct boundaries, while other kinds of stains – like smoke stains – are smaller with more distinct boundaries. Water stains are also dark-colored and may be wet or damp to the touch. 

Once you’ve confirmed that the stain on your ceiling is a water stain, take some time to consider whether it’s truly a DIY fix. Large water stains often indicate hidden plumbing leaks and the presence of mold and mildew, which means they may be better suited to a professional repair. If you plan to DIY the repair, make sure you stay safe in the process. We recommend turning off the electricity and water supply in the area of the house where you’ll be working and wearing the proper equipment, including eye protection and sturdy, closed-toed shoes. 

If you’re still having trouble confirming that the stain on your ceiling is from water or deciding what to do about it, hire a restoration company like ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba. Our team uses professional-grade moisture readers to detect hidden water damage and underlying mold and come up with comprehensive remediation plans for your property. 

The Dangers Behind a Water-Stained Ceiling

Whether a water stain on the ceiling is old or new, it’s an obvious sign of trouble. We’ve covered the most common reasons for water-stained ceilings, so let’s take a look at the potential dangers.

roof collapse
The most severe outcome of a ceiling water stain is roof collapse.

They range from fire and electrical hazards to plumbing and structural problems.

  • Fire caused by shorts or sparks from wet wiring
  • Water leaking through a ceiling light fixture
  • Attic insulation ruined by accumulated moisture
  • Excessive attic humidity that affects HVAC performance
  • Overhead plumbing problems due to corrosion buildup
  • Ceiling support failure caused by water damage

These are just a few of the reasons for working with restoration professionals who know how to identify and solve problems that show up as water stains on the ceiling. Their services preserve your home’s structural integrity and the safety of its electrical and plumbing systems. That assurance gives you invaluable peace of mind.

What Are the Signs on Ceiling Water Damage?

Ceiling stains show up as pale patches or discolored, uneven rings. They appear after moisture in ceiling material dries, leaving behind mineral deposits. A dark, wet spot is a sure sign of ongoing water damage.