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Flat roof reality check: leaks are an inevitable outcome for 99% of flat roofs in service today.
If you have a flat roof, chances are that it is already leaking or will begin to leak soon, even if your roof is fairly new and was installed within the last 5-10 years.
If your flat roof is leaking, this repair guide is for you! It will help you understand your options, as well as explain how to do an emergency repair yourself. You will learn basic flat roof repair techniques to fix a Rubber Roof or Tar & Gravel flat roof, using videos and step-by-step DIY Guides.
We will also explain the true costs of roof repair – not just what a contractor will charge to fix your roof, but additional costs incurred after the roof patch leaks. As a result, you may have to spend more money on another repair, as well as interior repairs to your house.
What You Should Do When Your Flat Roof Leaks
First of all, you should put up buckets to collect water, so the leak does not cause more damage than is already done. Once the dripping water is not causing any more damage to the interior, consider the following steps:
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Step 1) If your roof is fairly new – call the roofing company that installed your roof and have them fix it.
Step 2) If it is an older roof, or the original installer will not fix it for some reason, you have three options:
- Fix the roof yourself
- Have a roof repair performed by a roofing contractor specializing in flat roofs
- Or if your roof is near the end of its life, it is best to replace it rather than throw any more money away on repairing it.
Step 3) To prevent more damages to your roof, interior of your home, or the inventory and the equipment of your business, it is a good idea to put up a tarp on your roof, until you choose a course of action – either fixing it yourself or choosing a roofing contractor to repair or replace it.
Step 4) Estimate the real cost to a repair flat roof. Learn what is involved, what the hidden costs and fees are, and why we consider flat roof repair to be “sunk cost”. This comparison will help you decide if it is time to finally replace your flat roof, or if repair is a feasible option.
What happens if you ignore roof leaks for some time?
Once a flat roof starts leaking, the interior damage will span from stained ceilings (in the best case scenario) to thousands of dollars worth of repairs. Falling sheet-rock, electrical system damages, popping hardwoods and destroyed carpets, damaged furniture and home goods – these are only some of the outcomes of those leaks. Patching these leaky roofs may seem like the best solution and the cheapest way out, but, in reality, it usually turns out to be the worst solution. Consider the following: first you incur the cost of patching the roof + fixing whatever damages the leak caused to the interior. Then, in 3-9 months, depending on the type of roof covering and quality of the patch work (which no contractor will ever give warranty for), your roof starts leaking again – maybe in the same place, maybe in a different one, but the process is irreversible. This is because a patch is only a temporary solution and usually will not last. The roof will keep leaking, and every time you patch it, you will throw away your money.
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DIY Flat Roof Repair Guides
Due to a wide scope of flat roofing materials and different roof problems that cause leaks, it is virtually impossible to cover everything that is related to flat roof repair in one article. For your convenience, we have several DIY roof repair guides for a specific flat roof type and specific repair methods. These guides are easy to follow, and are aimed at both home and business owners.
EPDM Rubber Roofs
The biggest issue for homeowners with DIY rubber roof repair is actually obtaining the EPDM roofing materials, which are usually sold only through distribution, and only to roofing contractors.
If you are a homeowner looking to buy Rubber Roofing supplies, such as: uncured flashing material, cover tape, seam tape, roof cleaner, primer, etc., it is best to contact local roofers and buy those roofing materials and flashing from them. Roofing contractors may also sell you a piece of rubber membrane, which you would otherwise have to buy as a 1000 sq. ft. roll.
There are essentially two methods of rubber roof repair, or rather two types of flashing materials that are used to repair it. First, is the older splice adhesive method (black rubber glue) applied directly to the membrane. Second, is a newer / better Peel & Stick method, which provides faster and better adhesion and lasts longer.
- DIY Rubber Roof Repair – our original article about fixing EPDM rubber roofs using using the newer Peel & Stick flashing and EPDM Primer
DIY Rubber Roof Repair Video – learn how to repair EPDM rubber roofs:
Tar & Gravel Roofs
Repairing a Tar and Gravel roof is simpler than fixing a rubber roof. All you really need to do is clean the leaking spot, apply tar, reinforcing mesh, and put gravel over your patch. The biggest problem will be finding the roof leak. Unlike a rubber roof, where it is easy to find a separated seam or flashing, a tar roof is covered with loose gravel, and you do not actually see any holes in the roof. Check out the Tar roof repair video below.
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DIY Tar & Gravel Roof Repair Video:
- 1) Cost of patching a flat roof – you can expect to spend anywhere from $300-500 or more. If someone offers you to fix a flat roof leak for less than $300, that person either desperately needs money, or is not a professional and does not know what is involved in a flat roof repair (unless all that has to be done is to apply a bead of caulking, something you, the homeowner, can usually do yourself).
- 2) Cost of interior repairs – fixing wet sheet-rock, painting ceiling, etc, – $250-400. If it is just a stain on the ceiling, then you can pick up a gallon of white paint at Lowe’s or Home Depot and do it yourself.
- Hire only a roofing contractor – not a handyman. You need a professional who knows all the aspects of flat roof repair, not a jack-of-all-trades.
- If you are not in a big rush and can wait a day or two, ask your friends and neighbors if they can recommend someone. See if there are flat roof houses nearby, and talk to the owner. They must have encountered a problem with their flat roof in the past.
- Use Angie’s List – real homeowners on that website, discuss local service businesses including roofers. Contractors have no say in what others write, and cannot buy advertisements.
- Do not use referral services like Quality Smith or Service-Magic, as contractors go to them when they cannot find any work – possibly due to a bad reputation. Their so-called pre-screening is nothing more than obtaining a copy of a Contractor’s License. All that these companies really care about is getting paid – not your satisfaction. Contractors pay for these appointments anywhere from $50-75. That is how you get ‘free estimates from 3 contractors’.
- Finally, replace your flat roof as soon as you can afford it. Stop the endless repair cycle once and for all. Choose a new flat roofing material that you can trust (IB Roof) – not the inferior, but cheaper option like EPDM rubber roof – which most roofers will offer you because it attracts many homeowners due to low price, but does not hold up well (which the roofer will not tell you about).
Part 2 of this Flat Roof Repair Guide: What to do when your flat roof starts to leak
Whether your roof just started leaking or the water has been coming in for some time now, we recommend that you take a hard look if you should repair or replace it!
The Nature of Flat Roof Leaks
For decades flat roofs in New England have been posing problems for home and building owners. Harsh climate, outdated roofing technology, and very often – standing water, are the major factors affecting the lifetime and performance of flat roofs. The majority of these roofs were not ‘designed’ to withstand leaks or to be properly repaired. The best you could do to repair a flat roof was to pour some tar on the leaky spot. In fact, tar was pretty much the only feasible option. Unfortunately, after a short period of time, you had to fix it again, as tar would dry up, crack and let the water in. New leaks would form elsewhere. As you see – it is a constant repair cycle until a new leak begins and more money is spent.
Why Repairing a Flat Roof is a BAD Option
When your roof starts leaking, repair is the first option that comes to mind. In this situation, you begin to think about the costs of repair, and ways to minimize them. Depending on the severity of the leak, this cost may be just a few hundred dollars, or a few thousand dollars. Here is why: when you begin to see a stained ceiling in your bedroom, it is the last stage of the leak. It means that your roof has been leaking for some time now and finally, after the last heavy rain, it showed up on that ceiling. It also means that the water had to completely soak the insulation, roof deck and rafters before you could see it on the ceiling. Therefore, if you choose the cheapest and most common solution, which is patching the flat roof, you will leave behind the moisture trapped under your roof. This will cause the rotting of your deck and rafters, since there is no way for that water to escape.
Such repairs are a perfect example of sunk costs which cannot be recovered, and the fix lasts only a short period of time. After a series of these repairs, the owner gets sick and tired of it, and gets a ‘new’ roof. The homeowner may get a different type of a flat roof, which unfortunately would have the same inherited problems as the old one, but would carry a different name and would be made of different materials. This seems like a very sad situation for somebody with such a roof – doesn’t it?
As an alternative to repair, many homeowners consider building a pitched frame roof with asphalt shingles on top of their flat roof to stop the leaks. However, there are two problems involved here. First – such an ‘upgrade’ is very costly and you would still have to re-shingle your roof every 12 to 15 years. The second problem is more complex. Adding a sloped roof on top of a flat roof, might be a pretty straight-forward process if you have a small rectangular house. However, that is not always the case. Many homes have odd shapes, multiple levels and a mix of pitched and flat roofs. Now, if you have a 200′ x 100′ factory, that task becomes extremely difficult to implement, and I will not even try to guess the costs involved.
Repairing a flat roof in Massachusetts can and often will cost more than you anticipate (in other parts of the country, market conditions may be different, but the following prices should be just about right). Let us see what goes into the price of flat roof repair.
Above are your direct costs of a flat roof repair. Let’s also consider the indirect costs, which most people do not pay attention to:
Cost of Your Time. When your roof starts leaking, you do not usually wait until the weekend to take care of it. You grab a phone book and start calling local roofers, or someone in the trade, whom you know already. You set up the earliest time for the roofer to look at your roof and to give you the price. You may get a few more people to look at your roof leak, but since it is more of an emergency, you need to fix it NOW. Therefore, you typically give the job to the first reasonable and seemingly professional bidder. Unfortunately, leaks usually start when it is least convenient – during the week, at night, or when you are away. As a result, you have to take a day off at work to meet with the roofer, thus you have to use your sick or vacation day. If you make $20/hour, then you just lost $160.
Do the math. Let us be conservative and use the low numbers – you are looking to spend at least $300+250+160 = $710 in direct and indirect sunk costs, which you cannot recover.
Keep in mind – it usually will not be that cheap. You will also usually get what you pay for. When six month later your flat roof starts leaking again – double that $710 = $1420 – money that you could, for example, spend on updating your kitchen and actually enjoy.
The Bottom Line
Flat roof repairs are a waste of money. They last only a short time and are not covered under warranty. If you opt for a more expensive repair, such as acrylic, urethane or aluminum powder-based coating from Home Depot, you might face an issue of incompatibility, as well as others issues. Also, you need to understand that aluminum roof coating is NOT a roof repair solution – it is merely a reflective surface for black roofs. However, many “roofers” suggest using aluminum coating as a roof repair option. Additionally, a good acrylic or urethane coating will cost you as much as 60% of a new roof.
In the end, when you finally decide that you are sick and tired of repairing your roof and wasting money, you may have spent as much as it would cost you to get a new IB Flat Roof. This is what happened in our Case Study (see the case study at the end of this article). Replacing a flat roof is what we recommend 99% of the time.
But I Cannot Afford a New Roof Now…
Although there are different payment options, a new IB Flat roof can be costly, and some homeowners might not be able to afford one. In that case, we recommend the following steps to minimize costs and aggravation:
Case Study: IB Roof Eliminates the Constant Repair Cycle
In October of 2006, we received a call from a homeowner living on the East Side of Providence. We had just completed a flat roof near the Miriam Hospital, and the homeowners calling us happened to live in the same neighborhood. We scheduled an appointment with them, and at the meeting they said that a new rubber roof was installed just a year ago. However, this new roof was leaking like a sieve, and they actually had to remove a skylight to get rid of the major leaks. It did not eliminate their problems though, as there were other leaks here and there – mainly around a hot-stack pipe.
After thoroughly examining the roof, we came to the conclusion that repairing it was not an option, as the system installed there was not up to the task. First, due to the roof’s shape, two large puddles of ponding water formed in the center of the roof, including the spot where a badly leaking sky-light once was. Since the EPDM rubber roof is not designed to withstand ponding water accumulating on the roof, the water was slowly coming inside the house through the failing seams. The second problem was the round-shaped hot-stack pipe that was patched a number of times, and was still leaking.
A new 50-mil (membrane thickness – 1 mil = 1/1000 of an inch) white IB roof was chosen to replace this nearly new, yet badly-leaking rubber roof. With IB’s pre-made pipe flashings, the leaks around hot stack pipe were eliminated. The ponding water was no longer an issue, as hot-air welded seams created a permanent water-tight protection for this roof. The cool roof properties also made this house more energy-efficient than before. In the end, these homeowners finally eliminated all their roofing headaches and are now covered by the best roof and the best lifetime residential warranty. You can find more photographs of this roof here: Flat roof in Providence, RI.