Wendy and I have had a problem with our house since the day we moved in. Well, actually it's been a problem since the day of the home inspection, we just didn't realize it.

We mentioned this issue in a post about our home inspection back when we started the blog. During the home inspection the inspector pointed out obligatory issues like "the weather stripping on your back door has failed" or "this window doesn't open all the way because of paint," but we came to later find out he completely ignored the really horrible stuff. One of the ignored items we even pointed out, but it was brushed aside as a non-issue. The problem, deemed a non-issue by Mr. Inspector, was the apparent water spots on the ceiling directly around the base of the skylight. When Wendy pointed it out he said, "Oh, don't worry about that. It's old water damage and looks like it's already been fixed. It just needs a little paint."

Well wouldn't you know it, not a month into living in our house and those "fixed" leaks and "nothing to worry about" water spots became an active drip zone. We first suspected the nasty old skylight, so we called in a roofer. We hired Lyons Contracting, who turned out to be a great company and great people. In June 2003 they replaced the old skylight with a new one and told us that the old skylight had probably leaked since it was installed. Here's a look at the old skylight. It was in pretty rough shape.

The guy doing the job, Mike Simpson, let me hang out on the roof with him and learn/watch what he was doing (an invaluable experience for the DIYer). He pointed out the fact that the old skylight glass and frame was one source of the leak, but there may be others on the roof right around the base of the skylight, and that we would need to watch it. Mike hit the nail on the head with his assessment, and watch it we have.

Whoever installed the original skylight 20-30 years ago did a horrible job. The didn't flash it properly, didn't cut the roof joists properly, really didn't do anything with the install quite right. We took care of the skylight itself, but this shoddy original install has left us with a skylight surround that has leaked on and off since we bought the house.

After not experiencing any water infiltration after the new skylight install, we hoped the leak was fixed. We went ahead and spend hours fixing the crack and damage in the ceiling that was caused by the water, as well as replastering and repainting the entire upstairs hallway and ceiling. All was quiet on the western front for some time, but eventually the water issue resurfaced and ruined the work we had completed, leaving us with an unsightly crack (seen on the left side in the photo below).

In the summer of 2010 I fixed the issue on the roof that caused the big crack on the side of the skylight. But my fix was no match for this summer's rains that would last for days at a time, and another source of water infiltration soon revealed itself. This time we noticed a small drip coming from a point in the ceiling a few feet over from our nasty crack.

I crawled into the attic and back to the skylight. Sure enough, I could see the water getting into the area right at the base of the front side of the skylight, exactly where Mike the roofer said we would need to watch for it. In the photo below you can see that one of the support pieces of wood is actually wet from water that was coming in during a storm.

Recently we finally made the time to take care of this leak (hopefully once and for all). Below is the list of steps and the tools I used to correct the issue. If you ever have unexpected showers in your home, we hope that it can help you take care of your issue too. 

Any day that involves a trip up to the roof involves planning and safety. This is to minimize the trips I need to make up and down the ladder so I can reduce my risk of falling. I took stock of all of the supplies I would need for the chore.

  1. 5-in-1 tool
  2. Small hammer
  3. Utility knife
  4. Small spade
  5. Scissors
  6. Fiberglass screen
  7. Wire brush
  8. Roofing cement
  9. 100% Silicone caulk
  10. Caulk gun
  11. Gloves
  12. Paper towels
  13. Cleaner
  14. Paint can opener

I packed all of these things up in a good and organized way (a contractor bag often works well), and lugged the whole thing up to the roof. Once up there, I got to work identifying the source of the leak. Here's a photo I took of the area where the water was getting in. Do you see the problem?

Look closely, do you see those tiny cracks in the paint on the ridges of the roof? Yep, these...

Those tiny little cracks are the root cause of our problems. The water runs down the roof and sits on these cracks, slowly seeping under the existing roofing cement and getting behind the insufficient flashing around the skylight.

So the first step in fixing the problem is to remove the bad and cracked roofing cement to get to the root of the water infiltration. I did this by using the 5-in-1 tools, hammer, and utility knife to scrape, cut, and pry the old tar away from the roof.

Once I got down to the bare metal roof I was able to see rust (a telltale sign of water issues) and a gap between the flashing and roofing that gave the water an easy path to the inside of the house.

I continued this process in every spot where I had concern for eventual leaks. Might as well fix them all at once rather than waiting for it to ruin our ceiling again in the future. All told I scraped away three different sections.

With the roof exposed I had to prepare the patches. To do this I used my old standby of fiberglass screen. The screen gives the patches something to hold onto while allowing some level of movement and resisting future cracking. I used the scissors to cut roughly sized patches for each area I exposed. It is much easier to cut the patches now, before the sticky cement is all over the place.

Next I used the 100% silicone caulk and pushed it into the deep gaps under the flashing. The point of this caulk it to get into any gaps or areas where water could easily get to. It's a last line of defense, and maybe not 100% necessary, but I like to do it.

I push everything down into the silicone and then allow it a little bit of time to get a partial cure. It will cure on its own since the back side of the caulk is still getting air.

Once the caulk has setup a bit, it's time to start applying the roofing cement with the small trowel. 

It's a total mess but if you take your time and are patient, you can get the cement where it needs to go without much sloppiness. You just want to make sure you overlap the edges of the area you are applying it to pretty significantly.

Once the base coat is down, I apply the pre-cut portions of screen into the roofing cement. Using the trowel I just methodically push the screen into the cement as best as I can, leaving no bubbles or bumps.

The final step is to then cover the base coat and screen with an even more generous coat of roofing cement.This is the final coat so it is best to be as overkill as your are comfortable with. Spread it way out over the edges of the area and don't give the water any chance to get back to the offending portion of the roof.

At this point I just take a step back and look at the project. I make sure I got everything with as much cement as I need to prevent any future leaks. 

The roofing cement needs about 30 days of cure time to reach a full cure so that it can be painted, but it is very waterproof in its unpainted state. After about one day it is dry to the touch, but it is actually ready to take on water almost immediately. Talk about instant gratification.

About two weeks after I finished the work on the roof we had a major day and a half long rain storm. This storm just kept going. I was nervous, but what a great test of the patch. I'm glad to report that after so many hours of rain we didn't have a single drop make it into the attic. Mission accomplished!

I still need a nice warm day to get on the roof to paint the finished work, but I'm happy to check the "fix the roof leak" item off of my to do list. Now I just need to fix those unsightly cracks and water damage in the ceiling.

Oh, I almost forgot my final step in the project. It is to always enjoy the very nice view from the top of our house. Whenever I'm up there I tend to think "roof deck." But those are just dreams...ah to dream.

Do you have a similar roof and need to patch a leak? Or do you have a different roof setup that you've had to patch in the past? I know roofing leaks can be intimidating, but with the right tools and materials fixing almost anything on the roof is a job for the DIYer. Just remember that safety is the top priority on any roof/high height projects such as this, and if you don't feel comfortable fixing it yourself, it's always best to call in the professionals. After all, you may be able to watch and learn something that allows you to take on a roofing issue down the road. 

Comments 9


12/28/2011 at 11:49 AM
Yeah, I've got a leak in my garage roof (which is nearly flat and easy to access) but I think the problem isn't so easy to find. I have looked at the area with the leak several times, and I can't figure out where the water is getting in. I added some roof patch (clear tar) in a few spots with no luck. The real issue is that the roof is toast, but I don't know what the best (new) roofing options are. I'd really like a metal roof (for easy maintenance since I need to sweep-off dead leaves and branches annually) but the slope is about a foot over 14 feet, so I don't know if I can use metal on such a shallow slope.

What's there now is rolled shingle, and it looked like this last year: s1018.photobucket.com/albums/af308/clockmaker15/HOUSE/?action=view&current=Roof-Chimney14.jpg
I definitely think you can do a standing seam metal roof up there. Our sun porch roof is roughly the same slope as your roof. We used to have shingles, but those leaked so often that we replaced it with standing seam copper (since it was visible from the back yard). It ended up looking pretty nice too, but the 10x10 roof wasn't cheap, that's for sure. I know there are pre-fab metal pan roofing options that install really easily as well. You just put down a layer of felt paper and then apply the metal pans over them with cleats and brackets on the edges. The next pan then just snaps over the last one, and you stagger any joints and overlap the pans by about a foot. This directs the water down and off of your roof. I think this is one of the best options when you're looking at a roof without much slope, but it's also one of the more expensive ones.
12/28/2011 at 8:41 PM
Man, you're hard core! I'd never attempt repairs on our flat roof. The stakes are so high if you get it wrong. Memories of failed roof patches on a small flat roof on the side of my parents' house come to mind.

But obviously, it's possible. Sure hope it holds up for you!
Tessa Bowers
12/28/2011 at 9:55 PM
We've got roofers coming tomorrow for a very similar leak. Big difference my roof and my husband.
Thanks Thad. Fingers crossed that third time's the charm!
12/31/2011 at 7:05 AM
Yeah, we had the same issue with our inspector. I guess we were too trusting that he'd be honest since we were paying him. Our old house has become not only the money pit but a major source of strain. We have a what looks like a flat roof on the laundry room which leaks because they didn't put flashing along the edges, just used the rolled asphalt sheet over the edges which is now all cracked. Lots of tar built up along the edges/corners. We're going to try to fix it....so keeping fingers crossed. :-).

PS: you have a gorgeous house.....
Oh no Micki, that totally stinks. I'm sorry to hear about your cruddy inspector and your leaky roof. Good luck fixing it and let us know how it goes!
1/23/2012 at 1:38 PM
Hi Alex and Wendy,

I was looking over my web stats and I saw a traffic source that I didn't recognize- then I see you! Thanks for the linkup.
You've done such nice job with your house so far, I still tell people about the diamond paint pattern in the front hall.
Here's a link that shows another choice when an old metal roof is about to give up.


I'll check back soon to read more posts.

We're so glad you found us, and that you're getting a few people onto your site from our site. As you know, we don't work with a lot of contractors, but when we do and we thing they're good, we try to spread the word.

Any chance you know of a good person to paint our neighbor's roof? It's in need of a coat since the last one was over five years ago and I think the guys did it just before a rain storm.

Thanks again for stopping by, and I hope my roof patch was acceptable (I did paint it after it cured). I mean, I'm not a pro :-)
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