House Rules: Water, water everywhere…

Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 12:00am

In recent weeks, we’ve had a lot of rain. In Nashville, lots of rain usually means wet basements all over town. And don’t you know, even now, when I’m not inspecting houses that are for sale, I still get a lot of questions about how to keep basements dry.

First thing you need to know: Nashville gets more rain than Seattle. The difference is that Seattle gets mists and soaking rains, while we get gully-washing rain, the kind of rain that might just entice a bold yet crazy man to kayak through the city sewers.

Second thing you need to know: If you live in the old-house part of town and you have a limestone foundation, the basement won't just leak sometimes. It'll leak pretty much all the time.
If your house is relatively new, if the people who waterproofed the basement walls were very careful, and if you scrupulously maintain your gutters and drains, there is a chance that your basement won’t leak. Don’t count on that happening. I’ve yet to see a newish house with well-waterproofed walls.

Best I know, you homeowners should just assume that your basement will leak. The question is: How can you make your basement leak less? Well, I'm going to tell you.

Clean out your gutters. Better yet, get somebody else to clean them out. At my house, cleaning the gutters involves climbing a giant ladder, getting on a roof, pulling the ladder up to the roof you’re on, and then climbing the ladder again – not just once, but three times. That's acrobat work, and I'm not suited to it. So I hire a gutter cleaner.

Now, you might be wondering,” What do the gutters have to do with my wet basement?” Well, most likely, the gutters are dumping water in your basement. It spills over the edges of the gutters, cuts a little trench along the foundation wall, and the next thing you know, you've got a perfect basement-wetting system.

Once you've got the gutters and downspouts clean, make sure the water from the downspouts actually goes away from the house. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is to attach some cheap black plastic drain pipe — made especially for this purpose — to the ends of the downspouts. Run the pipe downhill, away from the house. I suggest burying the ugly pipe in a trench, then covering it up with mulch.

If you've got an old gutter-and-downspout system in which the downspouts run into clay drain pipes that disappear underground, you need to do a little drain remodeling. Old clay drains are usually clogged, broken or both. Water that starts out in the drains ends up in your basement. So, you have to re-route the downspouts away from the old drains. You'll probably have to break up the clay pipes to get to the ends of the downspouts. Then, hook the downspouts up to cheap black plastic drain pipes, as described above.

Once you’ve got the gutters and drains fixed, make sure that the soil around the house pitches downhill, away from the house. The soil should drop at least six inches in the first 10 feet. If you don't have 10 feet to work with – which might be the case if there's a wall or a drive in your way – you still need to get the six-inch drop.

If you do all this, and you still get water in your basement, you’re going to have to do something more expensive than just re-routing gutters and drains. A sump pump is the only decent low-cost water-removal option. The problem with a sump pump is that it just gets rid of water that's already in your basement. It doesn't keep water from running into your basement and damaging your foundation walls.

The usual fancy, expensive solution is a perimeter drain system. Perimeter drains catch underground water before it gets to your foundation walls, then directs the water away from your house. The problem with these systems is that they have to be designed carefully and installed perfectly, or they just don't work. Most of the ones I’ve seen don't work.

As far as I know, the best last-ditch defense against basement water is a basement waterproofing system. I've seen a few dozen of these systems, and all of them worked. If I had ongoing basement water troubles, I'd get one of these systems. But I wouldn’t count on the basement staying dry, and I wouldn’t put anything fancier than a ping pong table on the basement floor.

Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at

3 Comments on this post:

By: eastnashville37207 on 8/6/09 at 3:32

CP use to have Don Mcgonagil write for them and I really miss all his articles. I even hired him as an inspector and so glad I did because with his advice my home was always in perfect shape and he saved me lots of money.
I miss you Don Mcgonagil and all your wisdom. Maybe soon I will read your advice again soon.

By: Funditto on 8/6/09 at 11:29

I don't think this dude even does home inspections any longer. McGonagil was the BEST!

By: govskeptic on 8/6/09 at 3:53

What's with the hostility-I find Mr. Jowers information very helpful and very often solutions to problems I have been having. Builders old and new have never given the required attention on the front end for this problem, but it can sure be hell and expensive for the homeowner a lttle later.