NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Flood damage from Hurricane Katrina obliterated tens of thousands of homes. Residents in outlying areas are returning to homes that may still be saturated with water.
In today's five tips we'll give you the tools to assess water damage and what it can do to your home.
1. Look for red flags
As you first enter your home, take a hard look at your front stairs. If you have wooden steps, you may notice that the wood is warped.
"Front steps are usually made of large dimensional wood," says Home Improvement Expert Lou Manfredini. "This kind of wood will curl."
When you walk into your house, you'll be able to tell if there's a mold or mildew problem simply by the odor. The walls may have a watermark, they may be dirty or stained. In some cases the walls may be bulging or mushy, says Mike McCartin of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America.
You may also have trouble opening the doors since water may have been absorbed in the trim. And don't forget your floors. If your hardwood floors look discolored or appear to be buckling, you should tread lightly. This is a sign that your floors may have sustained damage.
2. Get the water out
Before you can do a real assessment of anything, you'll need to clear out the stagnant water. Grab a broom and start sweeping out that water. Remember to always wear protective gear like rain boots and gloves and make sure your home is ventilated.
Think about purchasing a wet and dry vac. You can typically find these for $60 and up at your local retailer. If you have a carpet, it's a good time to rent an extractor to get the excess water and dirt out of the carpet. You can rent an extractor for about $42 a day. Check out the American Rental Association at www.rentalhq.com to find a rental store in your area.
You should also get rid of appliances that have been water logged. "Just toss it," Manfredini advises.
3. Clear the air
Even if you have flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program, mold damage may not be covered. If you don't take steps to mitigate the mold damage once flood waters have gone, you may not be seeing any cash back.
Try taking matters into your own hands. Stop mold and mildew from growing and open up your windows, turn on a few fans, run the central air conditioning, get a de-humidifier. You want the air to be as dry as possible. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that indoor humidity be below 60 percent of relative humidity. You can buy a relative humidity meter at most hardware stores for about $25.
Keep in mind that homes built after 1970 are so airtight and energy efficient they resemble mayonnaise jars. Even a little bit of water can cause a lot of trouble once it gets trapped. So make sure you know what's lurking in your home.
There are thousands of mold strains out there. About two dozen of them are harmful to you. Take a sample. Check out the do-it-yourself mold test kid from ProLabs. You can get a personalized analysis of the mold that may be growing in your home for $30. You can buy it from retailers like Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal Mart.
Keep in mind that it's never a good idea to ignore mold. If you are exposed to mold for an extended period of time, it's possible that you may develop all kinds of serious health problems, including chronic illnesses, asthma and eczema. For more information, call 1-800-427-0550.
4. Throw in the towel
To rebuild a room, it will cost you about $60 a square foot, according to Manfredini. This excludes the bathroom and the kitchen, which can be up to $250 a square foot. So weigh all the options before you decide to take up the expense.
It can be difficult to tell when a wall can't be salvaged. But generally, if the water is contaminated and has been stagnant for a few days, it's likely that the walls won't be able to be saved, according to Pete Duncanson of ServiceMaster.
"We try to get into homes 24 hours after a flood," he says.
Manfredini says that if you've had more than six inches of water in a room, you'll likely have to replace the wall. Drywall is a material that soaks up water. So, even if you only have three inches of water on the ground, it could have traveled further up the wall.
In many cases the insulation can't be dried and loses its heat value. If you have hardwood floors, sheet laminate or vinyl tile floors, you'll have to replace them if there's been even as little as one inch of water, according to Manfredini.
"Basically if you have any material other than ceramic tile, which may be salvageable, you have to replace your floors," he said.
You may also be able to get away with keeping your carpets as long as the water was not contaminated. All you would need to do is have them professionally cleaned.
5. Call an expert
It's best to call a professional if you have to remove a wall or a floor. Home services company ServiceMaster uses a software program that will calculate if it's even worth your time to replace or restore your walls. For more information call 1-800-Respond.
The typical ServiceMaster fee for general flood cleanup, which includes draining your basement and picking up your carpet is about $1500, says Duncanson, but with hurricanes, that figure can run into the thousands. ServiceMaster can also help you clean your carpet or help with furniture repair.
You can also check out professional organizations like the National Association of the Remodeling Industry find other contractors. Go to www.Nari.org or 800-611-NARI.
The American Homeowners Association also has a list of contractors in your area. Check out the American Homeowners Association at www.ahahome.com or call 1800 -470- 2242.
And be cautious. You should always avoid remodelers when you cannot verify their address or credentials. Other red flags include a contractor who pressures you into signing something right away or someone who insists that all fees be paid up front.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.