3 Easy Steps to Prevent a Wet Basement

sump pump filling after heavy rain

Need more room in your home? It could be underneath your feet. The basement is a tremendous bonus area, a huge source of extra space in homes fortunate enough to have one, but many homeowners just don’t utilize them as they could or should. But if you have a wet basement, this could damper your ability to utilize the space.

Far and away, the biggest problem we hear about concerning basements is water, in all of its manifestations: seepage, leakage, dampness, flooding, you name it. Many people just take it for granted that wet basements are a fact of life. It’s a favorite call-in topic on The Money Pit, and it keeps a lot of good home inspectors and not-so-good waterproofing contractors busy. Poor ventilation, poor lighting, condensation, odors, and mold are also high on the list of things people hate most about their basements. Even those issues all come back to water intrusion.

Here’s what we say: basements don’t have to be dungeons. And if you do get water in your basement, it’s usually easier and less costly to fix than you think. Once it’s properly dry and watertight, you can turn your basement into any kind of room you want, without worries ─ make it a family room, office, entertainment center or even extra bedrooms. If it’s done right, you’ll probably forget it’s a basement altogether. It’ll just be another room in your house.

But there is one service regarding basements you that need to be forewarned about: basement waterproofing companies, a group of notorious fear-mongers who frequently panic-peddle their way into the homes of unsuspecting consumers who either have or fear having a wet basement and its associated structural and mold problems. As you’ll read below, their expensive drainage systems are rarely needed and often ineffective in dealing with these issues. We’ll tell you how you can correct and maintain any drainage and dampness issues with basic homeowner smarts and seasonal maintenance.

Wet basement myths and false ‘solutions’
Let’s start by examining how not to solve the problem. Ask 10 people how to fix a wet basement and you’re likely to get answers that include use of jackhammers to break up basement floors, backhoes to dig out dirt from foundation walls, sump pumps that have to be wired and plumbed, and other such drastic and expensive measures.

While these solutions may seem to make sense, they all attempt the impossible: to seal a foundation so tightly that it will somehow hold off water like a boat. Unless your Money Pit is a houseboat, we’re not trying to get it to float.

A popular myth is that wet basements are caused by a high water table, the natural level of water in the soil under the building site. Not true: homes are not built below water tables. Builders attempting such a feat would find themselves constructing a foundation in a muddy mess.

Likewise, it’s not rising water tables that cause your basement to flood after a storm. A water table moves slowly and seasonally. If leaks show up after a heavy rainfall or snowmelt, you’re lucky because it means leak will be easy to spot and to fix.

The real root problem, and the real solutions
The majority of basement leaks can be traced to trouble with the drainage conditions around the outside of the house. If too much water is allowed to collect in the soil around the foundation, it will naturally leak into the basement through the walls, or even up through the center of the floor.

Now for some good news: it’s easy and inexpensive to improve your drainage conditions. You just have to take the following three steps:

  1. Maintain adequate gutters and downspouts. Preventing a wet basement actually starts on your roof — the main collection point for water during any rainstorm, big or small. A functional, well-maintained continuous gutter system can carry things in the right direction, especially if it has at least one downspout for every 600 to 800 square feet of roof surface. Downspouts should extend to discharge at least four to six feet from your home’s foundation. Gutters must also be kept clean and clear of the debris that dams up water’s flow, sending it right where you don’t want it: up against your foundation.
  2. Ensure proper soil grading. Next to gutter problems, the angle of the soil around a foundation’s perimeter is the second major cause of wet basement woes. This soil should slope away from the house on a downward angle of six inches over the first four feet from the foundation wall. Thereafter, it can be graded more gradually, but should never allow water to flow back toward the house to collect against outer walls. If you need to improve your grade, do it with clean fill dirt and add just a small layer of topsoil over that to support grass or other plantings. Heavy amounts of topsoil can hold water against a foundation and should be avoided when the job is to improve drainage.
  3. Know the enemies of good drainage. Brick or wood edging placed too closely to a home’s foundation can hold water against the building, as can heavily overgrown bushes and trees.

Following these simple guidelines will solve 99% of wet basement blues. The improvements are inexpensive and can usually be done yourself or with a little help from your friends. So with a few common-sense solutions, you can keep your basement dry and have a usable bonus space in the bargain.

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