Should Roof Damage Stop You From Buying a House You Love?

buying a house with an old roof

I can picture the scene clearly. As if it happened yesterday. I arrived at a property with a family member who was looking to take that big first step into homeownership. The home was a fixer-upper, but the lot and the location were really fantastic. If he could swing the repairs himself, and get financing for a home in as-is condition, it would be a great deal.

A simple roof leak is exactly that: simple. No problem. Get a roofer or DIY a quick repair. Most of the time you’re looking at a few shingles, a little bit of flashing and some roofing cement.

We needed to get a closer look at the roof. The seller had a portion covered with a blue tarp … never a good sign. In previous conversations about the tarp, the seller indicated that it was just a small leak and the tarp was a quick and easy fix. He just “hadn’t had a chance to get up there and fix it yet.” He assured us it was no big deal.

Since a roof problem can block the sales process entirely, I figured maybe I’d just fix it myself to keep the ball rolling. Best case, I helped my family get into the house. Worst case, I did a good deed and fixed this older fella’s roof for free.

That was before we pulled off the tarp.

What we found under that blue tarp was a surprise, to say the least. A 20’ x 30’ portion of the shingle-clad roof was shot. In addition to the shingles, the plywood underneath was completely rotten to the point of needing full replacement. If that weren’t enough, the real “blue tarp of death” moment came in the realization that the roof framing itself was severely rotten.

The repair in this case would include:

  • New shingles
  • New underlayment
  • New plywood decking (sheathing)
  • New roof framing
  • Removal and re-connecting of electrical and plumbing lines
  • Replacement of the insulation
  • Replacement of the ceiling drywall
  • Repair of the wall drywall at the ceiling joint
  • Painting of the walls and ceiling in all the impacted rooms
  • Potential further damage if there is bad rain during the process of repair

Overall we were probably looking at over $10,000 minimum in repairs. Not counting the cost of reroofing the rest of the house.

We covered up the rotten spot and left in a hurry. That wasn’t the house for him.

Roof Problems Come in Many Forms

Thankfully, roof problems are usually far less intense than what I encountered that day. Here is a short list of common roof issues you’ll find while house hunting.

Simple Roof Leaks

A simple roof leak is exactly that: simple. No problem. Get a roofer or DIY a quick repair. Most of the time you’re looking at a few shingles, a little bit of flashing and some roofing cement (the black tar looking stuff). These types of leaks can be caused by a protruding roofing nail, an errant corner of roof sheathing that’s sticking up or a bit of poorly installed flashing. The location is normally easy to find because there is a stain on the ceiling directly below.

If you’re looking at a house with this type of leak, you may use the damage as a negotiation point, especially if you feel confident that you can fix it yourself. However, it’s usually easiest just to have the seller take care of it before closing.

Complicated Roof Leaks

By complicated, I don’t really mean “complex,” I mean “wicked hard to figure out.” These leaks occur when water comes through the roof at Point A and exits the roof structure and shows a ceiling spot at Point B. The greater the distance between points A and B, the more complicated things get. Finding the leak source can be a bear. Ridge vents are notorious for this type of leak. Tile roofs are also very prone to this type of damage.

If you choose to purchase a home with this kind of roof leak, you’re getting into a really unknown repair situation. You might need to replace a few square feet of roofing, or you might have to tear an entire slope off to fix the problem! A good roof repair specialist can usually find the problem, but it can be costly. From a buyer’s perspective, it might be best to assume the worst when you consider how much to offer.

Structural Damage

Bad leaks lead to structural damage eventually. Water infiltrates and saturates wooden structure that isn’t supposed to get wet. Since that wood isn’t out in the sun where it can dry, it stays wet and leads to rot. Rot tends to spread and worsen over time, eventually destroying the roof framing itself.

If caught early, the repair can be as simple as “sistering” the framing member by attaching another piece of good wood alongside the damaged piece. But there are cases, as in the blue tarp situation, where the framing is too far damaged and the entire section has to be rebuilt.

Before you get serious about a home with structural damage, you want to be very sure what the repair will cost. You’ll also most likely need to be a cash buyer. Obtaining financing on a structurally damaged property is all but impossible.

Roof Age Issues

You, your insurance company or your lender may want a roof replaced simply because it’s too close to the end of its expected useful life. This is a preventative measure and may have no basis in an actual “problem” with the current roof.

The standard practices of insurance companies and lenders vary from place to place on this so be sure to ask your real estate agent, insurance agent or lender about this if you’re looking at a house with less than ten years projected life remaining on the roof. Once the inspection period allowed in your contract has expired, it may be too late to negotiate on the basis of the roof needing to be replaced. Especially if the seller feels like “this roof is totally fine!”

Roof Building Code Issues

Of all the roof problems out there, this one is the least common and probably the most frustrating. Occasionally a roof has been replaced without the proper permits, which can be a real problem for you as the buyer. Once you close escrow on the house, any building code violations become your problem!

No permit means no inspections. It means the roof may be up to code, or it may not.

The situation usually unfolds like this:

The seller says, “New roof! Last year!” Then someone on the buyer’s side, such as a home inspector, a real estate or the title company, will do a permit search and see that no permit was pulled for the roof.

No permit means no inspections. It means the roof may be up to code, or it may not. This situation is usually not easy to remedy. The seller often will be very clear that he or she doesn’t want anyone “making waves” with the building department. As the buyer, however, you really need the situation resolved prior to purchase.

The official “resolution” to the problem will depend on the local building official. Maybe the official just lets a permit be issued and does an inspection. Maybe he or she requires a bunch of fees and a signed-and-sealed engineer’s report that states that the roof is installed to current code (most common). Or, maybe, the official wants the entire roof yanked off the building and redone! They can do that!

Trust me, it’s worth the trouble to make sure the permits were pulled if you’re buying a house with a new roof (or any other new construction work, for that matter).

If You Can, Buy a House with a Solid Roof

I’ve listed out a few of the most common roof issues you’ll find as you navigate the world of home buying. A good team of professionals and a healthy dose of due diligence goes a long way to save you trouble down the road.

If you can, find a house with a great new roof! If not, be sure to consider the advice I’ve offered above – and be sensible.