MONEY MAGAZINE Real Estate: Value Added

Wet basement? 6 simple fixes

Even a little water down there means big trouble. Avoid it with these low-cost ways to dry out.

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By Josh Garskof, Money Magazine contributing writer

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(Money Magazine) -- Do you dread going into the cellar during a hard rain? You just know you're going to see puddles on the floor or get a sneezing fit from the musty air. A wet basement - a problem that plagues about 60% of homeowners, according to the American Society of Home Inspectors - is not a situation to ignore.

Even intermittent leaks can rot your house's structure, attract termites and carpenter ants, and cause noxious molds to flourish. Any of those could require costly repairs or sink your property value (you know, when people start buying houses again). But you can usually stem the tide with a few simple fixes that don't cost a bundle.

Start outside. If you notice recurring dampness or puddles in a particular part of your basement, head outdoors. Walk along your house to the spot closest to where the leak is occurring. Look up. Chances are the problem is one of three things: a bent, clogged or missing gutter that's dropping roof runoff near the foundation; a down-spout that's releasing its load too close to the house; or an underground collection pipe that has become clogged or broken. A handyman can fix any of these problems for as little as $200 by, for example, replacing the gutter or adding an aboveground discharge pipe that extends at least three feet from the house.

Cover the windows. Is your leak under a basement window? Blame the "well" - the exterior dugout that permits the window to sit below grade. It's funneling rainwater against the foundation, where the water is finding a crack or seam to get in. The easiest fix is a clear plastic well cover (cost: $35 to $45 at home centers) that keeps the water out but lets the sun shine through. If you can't find the right size or shape at the store, go to windowbubble.com.

Plug cracks and holes. Watch for water entering through seams between concrete blocks, cracks in old concrete or holes where pipes penetrate the foundation. If you find such gaps, fill them with hydraulic cement (cost: $10 for a 10-pound container - probably more than enough - at any hardware store). Just mix water with this powder to get the consistency of toothpaste and press as much of it as you can into the opening after you brush out any loose debris. It will harden into a watertight seam.

Seal damp walls. Sometimes water seeps right through the pores of a foundation wall or floor, leaving a telltale white powder behind when it dries. Sure, you could fix the problem by having the exterior of your foundation waterproofed, but that would mean excavating the yard - and paying $5,000 to $15,000. Treat the interior surface instead by painting on Xypex, a professional-grade brush-on sealant (cost: about $130 for enough to cover one wall). It's not available at home stores, but you can get it by calling 800-363-2002.

Dry the air. Even if you don't have any leaks, high humidity is all that mold needs to take root on organic materials such as wood, wallboard and even dust. So if your basement air smells musty, pick up the largest Energy Star-rated, digitally controlled dehumidifier you can find (cost: about $300). Forget about the built-in collection bucket - there's no way you'll empty it every day - and instead use a plastic hose to discharge the water into a utility sink or floor drain. John Lombardi, a basement waterproofer in Silverton, Ore., advises setting the controls to 50% humidity, which is too dry for mold.

Bring in the big guns. If you're getting full-scale floods or see water entering between the wall and the floor, call a basement waterproofing company. Go to the website of the National Association of Waterproofing and Structural Repair Contractors (nawsrc.org), find a few local companies and ask for a free assessment. They will probably recommend a sump pump, an in-floor machine that removes water under your cellar and costs about $2,000 installed. (Aboveground pumps are meant for emergencies, not long-term use.) The best units have a second pump for extreme rainstorms and a battery-operated third in case of a power outage.

The company may also recommend adding an in-floor gutter (cost: $3,000 to $5,000) around the perimeter of your basement floor to collect water and deliver it to the pump. Make sure that the firm you choose provides a warranty that your basement will remain dry for the life of the building. You'll never be afraid to head downstairs again.

Need help with a financial dilemma? In an upcoming issue, Money magazine will be answering reader questions. Email money_letters@moneymail.com. To top of page

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