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Originally published Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 10:01 PM

Time to inspect your roof is before the storm

Assessing the health of your roof requires a discerning eye and a little patience, but it pays enormous dividends for homeowners who use contractors and for those rare people who can safely make roofing repairs themselves.

The New York Times

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Last year's severe winter was a costly beat down for homeowners in the Northeast who don't understand ice dams, those frozen chunks that block their roof gutters and allow snow and ice to pile up.

Lots of desperate people attacked the ice with hammers, chisels and (OK, I'll admit it) 6-foot-long pry bars, without realizing the damage they were inflicting on the roof.

Probably as a result, I chased leaks all spring and finally caved to the possibility that I might need a new roof. But how to tell if the leaks were from the roof or some other source? I could call a roofer, but in my experience, asking a contractor if you need work done is like asking a child if he wants ice cream, $15,000 worth of ice cream.

That's especially true if you enter the conversation poorly prepared. Determined not to let that happen, I called on three specialists for guidance: Mike Guertin, author of "Roofing with Asphalt Shingles"; Jeffrey Beeman, owner of National Roofing, a Connecticut contractor; and Bert Elliott, director of roofing products and programs for Owens Corning.

The take-away: Assessing the health of your roof requires a discerning eye and a little patience, but it pays enormous dividends for homeowners who use contractors and for those rare people who can safely make roofing repairs themselves. Even people with healthy roofs find out when the shingles are just one short rainy season away from failure, thereby avoiding far greater cost.

"Most consumers don't pay attention to the roof until there's a problem," Elliott said. "But you should really look at it closely once a year."

The first step in evaluating your roof is to throw away any preconceptions.

And don't assume that since your roof was projected to last 20 years, it will. "I've had 15-year-warranty shingles last 25 years, and I've seen 25-year-warranty shingles fail after 15 years," Guertin said.

So grab binoculars and head outside on the day after a good rain. The mission: to inspect your roof without climbing onto it.

The first stop is the bottom of the downspouts on the western and southern sides of the house, where the roof gets the most sun and consequently degrades the quickest.

Check the spouts for roofing granules. These are the little ceramic fragments that give a roof its color, but which also protect the asphalt and fiberglass roofing material from sun damage. It's normal to find a few granules there, or even more at homes with newly installed roofs, but if you find enough to fill your palm halfway, Elliott said, you could have problems.

Next comes a binocular inspection of the roof itself, either from the ground, from a dormer window or from another well-placed but safe spot. If you found lots of granules earlier, look for bare spots on the shingles.

Even if you didn't find granules, check the shape of the shingles. They should be straight and flat and fully intact; if you see cracks or curled edges (either up or down), have a closer look with the binoculars and make note of the severity.

Roofing isn't all shingles, though. Nearly every home has a chimney or roof ventilation pipes from a bathroom or kitchen. Those spots are particularly vulnerable.

I once paid a plumber an ungodly sum to tell me that a highly occasional leak in my first-floor ceiling was a mystery. Now, standing in the front yard with my binoculars, I could draw a line from a vent pipe on the roof straight down to that first-floor leak. I looked at the black plastic sleeve at the base of that pipe and saw slight cracking on the shady side. Inconclusive evidence, maybe, but a good clue.

The seals around the chimney looked fine: free of gaps, peeling or cracks that could send water into the siding. The flashing (the metal beneath the shingles that keeps water from the home) also looked undamaged.

Before heading inside, I checked the gutters, to see if the ice dams had left a calling card.

"The weight of the ice can pull the gutters away from the roof just enough that the rain misses them completely," Beeman said. "If that happens, parts of your roof could get more water than they're designed to handle."

Sure enough, in two spots, the gutter nails protruded by at least 3 inches, signaling loosened gutters. One spot was in the area above the sun porch, where, in a recent storm, I'd watched sheets of rain cascade onto the roof and wondered what could be wrong.

Guertin also suggested inspecting the attic after a rain, to look for water stains on the ceiling. I found none, but when I turned off the lights I saw light streaming into the area near the cracked roof vent. (I also found a very well-fed spider.)

At this point I could have called a roofer, confident that I needed some minor repairs. To find reputable ones, Elliott advised calling a local roofing supplier. Beeman further suggested asking prospective contractors to provide references and proof of liability insurance.

Do-it-yourself roofing work is extremely risky, and all my panelists cautioned against it.

But the roof of my sun porch is low enough that, using a ladder, I felt comfortable fixing the problems I'd found.

So I bought some Black Jack roofing cement , reinforcement fabric (and a Master Painter putty knife . I also got some roofing patch , which is costlier than roof cements but seals seams well, and because roof cement is very sticky, I bought rubber gloves and a box of rags .

The day before Hurricane Irene reached the Northeast, I set to work. I needed 15 minutes to hammer back the protruding gutter nails and another 20 minutes to seal the shingles I had torn with the pry bar.

I then climbed carefully onto the second-story roof — keeping my shoes away from the shingle edges, to minimize damage — and approached the cracked vent pipe. That was when I realized I'd forgotten the reinforcement fabric, which is needed to provide a foundation for the roofing cement.

Rather than push my luck on the ladder again, I made a patch with an absurd amount of Leak Stopper, to compensate for the reinforcement fabric I forgot. I closed the hole, but clearly my work would soon need redoing. The roof held nicely during Irene. We lost our power, but once it came back, I jumped online and found I could get a new vent and sleeve for less than $100.

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