An insider’s guide to roof repairs and re-roofing

Your roof is one of the most important elements of your home in terms of both cost and appearance. Though it is often seen as just a functional covering to keep out the elements, with a little imagination it can be a real design statement too.

The roof is one of the most dominant features of your home, accounting for around 20-30 per cent of the visible exterior of your house, and representing a sizable investment. Whilst correctly installed roofs will often last decades – and in the case of natural slate, a lifetime – it is often assumed that they require zero maintenance or attention. However, they are constantly in the frontline of weather abuse, so regardless of the age of your roof ongoing maintenance and repairs are vital if you don’t want to be left facing large bills for replacement, not to mention possible damage to your interior as a result of leaks.

Spotting roofing problems early can save you a fortune, but how often should you inspect your roof, what should you look for, and when should you call in the specialists? 

No matter what kind of roof you have, it pays to have it inspected regularly in order to extend its life and avoid premature repair costs. As John F. Kennedy once famously said: “The best time to repair your roof is when the sun is shining.” So, why not add an annual reminder on your calendar to go out and inspect? Ideally, you should do so at least twice a year and especially after any spell of bad weather. However, if it’s a while since you last checked then there’s no time like the present. 

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Safety first
Working at a height is dangerous and using a ladder with no one else present, even if you are experienced, is not advisable. What may appear to present itself as a simple, easily accessible repair may turn into an incident with potential for serious injury. Unforeseen dangers taken for granted by a professional, e.g. algae or lichens which have qualities not unlike black ice, can prove an effective and sudden trap. The ladder slipping from beneath you is another danger.

If you are used to handling a ladder and can inspect from gutter level, make sure it is firmly secured at the top and footed at the bottom. Never attempt to climb onto the roof unless it is designed for regular access and / or has adequate protection against falling. 

What to do
If possible, carry out a visual inspection from floor level. Stand back and check your roof, flat or pitched (angled) from the ground periodically. A pair of binoculars are handy but pictures on a digital camera are better simply because you can zoom in on a computer or other device and get a closer look.

Windows that have a view of your roof are an obvious bonus but don’t use these as points of access without correct safety equipment being in place at the same time. All in all, to minimise the risks you really should call in the experts. 

Inspect, inspect, inspect: When autumn comes, look for leaves and other debris on the roof and in the gutters, and be sure to inspect it after any storms with heavy winds. Roof tiles, slates or shingles that have broken, slipped out of place, or been blown off are a common occurrence and should be replaced immediately. If not, rainwater can saturate supporting timbers and get into the roof space causing damage. Also check for popped nails that need to be hammered back in place. 

Metal and vinyl flashing around chimneys, skylights, and attic vents that have separated will need to be resealed with caulk. However, flashing and vent boots that are beginning to rust or deteriorate should be replaced.

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Clean the gutters: Clean the gutters, gullies and downspouts in late autumn after the trees have shed their leaves. Check for breaks or gaps in the joints (obvious drips, green staining on the walls or path), and make certain that the brackets holding the gutters against the house are securely attached. Aim to clean your gutters at least every six to 12 months. 

Flashings and sealants: Other parts of the roof can cause leaks and damp, including the flashings (usually lead formed to slates or tiles and lapped over by a cap from brickwork e.g. around chimneys, skylights), chimney stack brickwork or masonry and pots. Again, you may be able to spot these problems yourself, but you will usually need a roofer to put them right. Wind and weather can get underneath defective flashing and rip it loose allowing water ingress. Make sure that the sealant or mortar that the flashings are pointed with hasn’t dried out or become loose. 

Valleys: Usually made of lead, their lifespan is shortened by incorrect fixture to regulated lengths causing splits. Lead just wears out forming holes. Use of sealants and proprietary paints etc. to repair a split or fault in leadwork can only be termed as temporary and replacement is the only permanent solution. All leadwork should be in accordance with recommendations in the current Lead Sheet Association manual. 

Check the roof space: The roof space is where you’re most likely to spot leaks before they become too serious. Water staining in here may be an early warning sign of a problem with the roof covering, so if you spot some call in a reputable roofer straightaway. If leaks go untreated, your home structure can be damaged too. Constant and unchecked leakage may contribute to the formation of something more serious in the guise of rot or mould.

Mind the trees: Leaning branches can dislodge roofing materials when blown by the wind; falling branches from overhanging trees can damage tiles, and fallen leaves can clog gutter systems. If you have trees growing near your home, then you may need to take steps to have them trimmed back from the roof.

Flat roofs: Check for any cracks or splits around the edges. Also, pay attention to any sagging, for as water builds up, the boards can break under the weight. Damp patches on the ceiling are usually a good indication that the roof may have a tear. Stand back and check your flat roof from the ground periodically. If you spot uneven lumps, repairs may be needed. Never attempt to climb onto the roof unless it is designed for regular access and has adequate protection against falling. Use a ladder that is tied and footed and look over the parapet or through an overlooking window to see if there are any blisters, laps that are not properly sealed, flashing coming out of the wall or water ponding.

When to call in the experts: If you’re an experienced DIYer, the chances are that you may be able to fix small problems on one-storey buildings, such as cleaning out gutters at lower levels to enable water to flow away. Anything else is best left to the experts. 

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How to find a reputable roofing company: When choosing a roofing contractor you should consider your choice very carefully and it’s wise to check them out before employing them. If they are reputable in terms of price, reliability and workmanship, then the potential for problems will be greatly reduced. In NI you should look to choose one that is a member of NFRC – National Federation of Roofing Contractors – or one that is a UK Government-endorsed TrustMark roofing contractor. This means that the contractor is inspected, has a complaints procedure, can offer warranties and you have the added security that the roofer is insured to complete your roofing work. In ROI you can choose from the official online Construction Industry Register Ireland (CIRI). 

If your home is a designated heritage building, your roof may need specialist skills to repair or refurbish it. In NI the NFRC maintains the National Heritage Roofing Contractors’ Register which is recognised by all UK Heritage Agencies. In ROI the Irish Georgian Society offers a Traditional Building Skills Register.

Re-roofing? Which roof covering to choose: If you need to re-roof, you will have to decide on a suitable roof covering which could be the same as you currently have or you may want to upgrade or ring the changes. The factors affecting your choice will include the style of your house, your architect, your local planners, and of course, your budget.

Your choice of tiles will also be affected by the pitch and roof structure, so ensure that the rafters can support their weight. Your architect or a structural engineer can work this out, or speak to your tile company. Of course the roof must also comply with Building Regulations and known standards. The pitch of the roof and type of tile used will also affect how many, and in what configuration the tiles must be nailed.

Many outbuildings and garages, and some extensions, have flat roofs. Felt is the most common covering but newer materials such as glass fibre, PVC and rubber are now used.

In fact if you have a flat roof that needs re-roofing you could consider converting it into a terrace (green or not) – if the flat roof is adjacent to a window it should be relatively easily converted into a door. However all of these structural changes, including the terrace’s new load-bearing requirement, will require the input of a structural engineer (in order to make the correct calculations and advise on suitable railings/safety features).     You may also need planning consent (if when standing on the terraced roof you can oversee your neighbours you will in all likelihood need it – in all cases check with your local authority to make sure the conversion is exempt).

Taking good care of your roof is one of the most important yet most neglected responsibilities of owning a home. According to a survey conducted by consumer advice website Roofapedia, 86 per cent of UK homeowners neglect to periodically inspect their roofs for damage. Just over three per cent of homeowners checked their roof once a month while over 40 per cent admit to never checking it at all. ν

Kevin Taylor

www.nfrc.co.uk

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About Astrid Madsen

Astrid Madsen is the editor of SelfBuild & Improve Your Home magazine. She previously held the same role in an Irish trade publication, before that she worked at the National Standards Authority of Ireland. She graduated with a BA in Urban Studies from Columbia University in New York and holds an MBA from the Instituto de Estudios Bursatiles in Madrid. France of origin, she now lives in Portarlington, County Laois, where she's taken on the task of renovating a listed building! Email astrid.madsen@selfbuild.ie

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