Causes of Water Damage | The Most Common Causes of Water Damage
Water Damage

Causes of Water Damage: What Causes Water Damage

Water is a natural solvent that will break down nearly any material with enough time.  Many of the building materials within homes and businesses are especially susceptible to water damage. In most cases, drywall and particleboard may stain within hours and weaken in as little as a few days. Hardwood and tile will often take longer before they weaken, but stains and mold may appear within 24 to 48 hours. Obviously, water is the simplest answer to the question of what causes water damage. However, if you’re trying to diagnose a water problem, that is less than helpful. We dive into the most common causes of water damage and the signs you can expect from each.

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Most Common Causes of Water Damage

These are some of the most common causes of water damage in homes and businesses. Although extensive, this is certainly not a complete list of what causes water damage.

  • Floods – There are many causes of floods and they can come in all sizes. They also have the potential for causing the most devastating water damage.
  • Sewage Backup – Like floods, sewage backups can cause extensive damage. It also carries the risk of bacteria, mold, parasites, and other hazards.
  • Roof and Siding Leaks – Because it’s hard to see your roof and siding, leaks often go undetected for an extended period.
  • Clogged Gutters and Downspouts – A clog in your downspouts or gutters can result in water pooling around your foundation or sitting along your roof edge.
  • Foundation Issues – This covers a wide variety of issues that can cause minor to severe water damage in your basement or crawlspace.
  • Washing Machine Malfunction – Although a washing machine flood or malfunction is possible, the most common issue is leaky valves or hoses.
  • Refrigerator Malfunction – While self-defrosting freezes may leak occasionally, water supply lines to ice makers and water dispensers are most likely to cause water damage.
  • Sump Pump Failure – Sump pumps are designed to prevent water damage, but a power failure or other issue can result in significant damage.
  • Frozen and Burst Pipes – When pipes freeze, the water inside expands and creates pressure. This can result in extensive damage.
  • Leaky Plumbing Valves – All plumbing equipment wears out over time and valves are easily overlooked. They can cause slow or even steady leaks.
  • Hot Water Heater Failure – Your hot water tank can leak or even fall completely, resulting in a significant flood.
  • HVAC System Malfunctions – Your heating and cooling systems often produce a small amount of water. If not drained properly, this can cause minor to moderate water damage.
  • Dishwasher Leaks and Malfunctions – Your dishwasher is another cause of water damage, with leaky supply lines often going unnoticed for extended periods.
  • Leaks Under Sinks – It’s easy to overlook a leak under the sink but over time even the smallest leak can cause moderate water damage.
  • Toilet Leaks – Most toilet leaks are caused by the shutoff valve or the supply line and can result in mild to extreme water damage.
  • Worn Out Caulking – This is one of the most easily overlooked causes of water damage. Look for old caulking in bathrooms and kitchens, as well as around windows.

Signs of Water Damage

If you’re concerned that you may have water damage, these are a few things to look for. Our signs of water damage guide cover them in more detail.

  • Changes to Flooring, Walls, or Ceilings – Bubbling, warping, cracking, sagging, or other changes are signs that the surface has water damage.
  • Visible Stains or Mold – Stains and mold are extremely common with water issues. Stains are usually yellow-brown, while mold can appear in many colors.
  • Musty Odors – Water issues are likely to cause damp or musty odors, especially in areas with poor airflow.
  • High Utility Bills – A sudden increase in water usage may indicate an issue, but also look for minor increases that you can’t account for.
  • Outdated Pipes and Plumbing Fixtures – We often take our plumbing for granted, but everything wears out eventually. Inspect your plumbing at least once a year.

How to Dry Water Damage

You can limit the cost of repairing water damage by beginning the cleanup and drying process as soon as possible after a water incident. Our drying water damage guide offers more details and tips for drying out after a water incident.

  1. Stop the Water – When possible turn off your water main to limit the damage. For natural water damage, begin cleanup immediately.
  2. Extract Standing Water – Soak up standing water with towels and mops. Use a bucket or a pump to bail our deeper water. Then remove as much additional water with a wet/dry vacuum.
  3. Remove Items – Clear the area as much as possible. This includes removing items you want to save, as well as items that are damaged and need to be thrown away. Removing items while you’re extracting water can make the process easier.
  4. Dry Out the Area – Dry the area with fans and dehumidifiers. Decrease the drying time by increasing airflow. Opening cabinet and closet doors and propping up carpeting.
  5. Disinfect and Deodorize – Use a disinfectant to clean and sanitize hard surfaces. Baking soda is effective at deodorizing most porous materials like rugs carpeting, and upholstery.
  6. Rebuild – Depending on the extent of the damage, you may need to rebuild the area. This can include installing new drywall, laying carpeting, or replacing cabinets.

The Most Common Causes of Water Damage


Floods are one of the widest categories of water damage. Most people associate floods with groundwater that enter your property during a severe storm or natural. However, a flood could also occur from a malfunctioning appliance, supply line, or HVAC system. Any area this is submerged in a large amount of water can constitute a flood.

Signs of a flood are usually easy to detect and include standing water, wet materials, puddles, stains, and even mold. Floods in crawlspaces or unfinished basements, however, can go undetected for an extended period. You should inspect these areas after severe storms or any time a flood warning is issued in your area.

Sewage Backup

Sewage backups can occur on their own or with other forms of flooding. When a sewage backup occurs, the water will contain human waste as well as other items that go down your drain. Sewage is likely to carry bacteria, parasites, mold, and other contaminants that pose a health risk to both humans and pets.

As with flooding, the signs of a sewage backup are usually easy to detect. Look for staining water, pools of water or waste, and wet materials. Odors are very common after sewage backups and mold may appear in as little as 24 hours. Open floor drains are the most common cause of a sewage backup, but they can happen even with closed waste systems.

Roof and Siding Leaks

Leaky roofs and siding are usually the results of unrepaired damage to those materials. Roofing shingles, roof decking, and the siding materials to your building wear out over time. As they weaken, they increase the chances that water, snow, or hail will damage your property.

Unfortunately, roofing or siding leak may go undetected for a significant period of time. Perform a visual inspection of the exterior of your property at least twice a year and make repairs as necessary. On the inside, look for water stains, mold, and soft or weakened building materials. When possible check attics and crawl spaces for damage too.

Clogged Gutters and Downspouts

Your gutters and downspouts are designed to channel rainwater and snowmelt away from your property. If they are clogged, they can allow water, snow, and ice to damage the edge of your roof or pool around your foundation. A small leak can result in mold, while a larger leak can damage structural materials.

Clean your gutters and downspouts at least twice a year or install a gutter protection system to prevent buildup and clogs. Even with such a system, you still need to check your gutters annually. Make sure they channel water at least 6 feet away from your foundation. Look for ice dams or extreme icicles in the winter, as they could indicate water damage to your roof or attic.

Foundation Issues

There are a large number of causes of water damage related to your foundation. Water can enter your basement or crawl space from below, above, and even through foundation walls. Cracks, gaps, and other issues with walls increase the chances of water damage.

Inspect your basement or crawl space after severe storms, persistent rainfalls, and during fast snow melts. Puddles or moisture are obvious signs of water damage, but also look for stains, soft or weakened materials, higher levels of humidity, and mold. Unfinished basements and crawlspaces are more susceptible to damage because they are used less frequently.

Washing Machine Malfunction

Another common cause of water damage is a malfunctioning or leaky washing machine. This can result from a failure with the washing machine, but more often than not it’s the result of an issue with the hoses or water connections. A slow leak can go undetected for weeks or months and a sudden failure could cause extensive flooding.

To prevent water damage from a washing machine malfunction, inspect the area at least twice a year. Check that the connections are tight and replace hoses every 2 to 4 years. Move your washer and dryer out from the wall and look underneath for water stains, mold, or other issues that indicate a problem.

Refrigerator Malfunction

Supply lines that feed ice makers and water dispensers are the most common cause of water damage. However, it’s easy to overlook other types of water damage caused by your refrigerator.

Self-defrosting units may cause small leaks that result in mold or damage that can go unnoticed for months or years. Clean and defrost units that do not self-defrost every month, as the ice build-up can shorten the lifespan of the fridge. A power outage or other issue can cause a large amount of water to leak from the unit in just a few days.

Check the water line connections every year and replace worn out or damaged materials when necessary. Replace your fridge every 12 to 25 years depending on the recommendation from the manufacturer. Service your refrigerator every 5 or 6 years to ensure it’s in proper working condition.

Sump Pump Failure

Although they are designed to prevent water damage, a malfunctioning sump pump can result in extensive damage. In rare cases, an especially severe storm can overwhelm a properly working unit. The result of either is a flood in your basement or crawlspace. Water may subside quickly, so look for puddles, water stains, and wet materials.

Prevent a sump pump failure by serving your unit at least twice a year. Turn off the power, then remove the pump and drain the basin. Clean the pump and basin, the replace them. Pour a bucket of water into the basin to ensure the pump works properly. Replace your pump every 6 to 8 years depending on the make, model, and the how frequently the unit runs.

Frozen and Burst Pipes

Pipes are likely to freeze when the temperatures fall below 20° F / -7° C. When this happens, the water in the pipes expand and create pressure. This may result in a burst pipe that causes water damage throughout your home or business.

Prevent frozen and burst pipes by insulating your pipes and never allow the area around your pipes to fall below 55° F / 13° C. During extremely cold spells, open under sink cabinets to allow for better airflow and leave faucets running at a bare trickle.

Leaky Plumbing Valves

Your plumbing valves and fixtures wear out over time and may cause small leaks. It’s difficult to identify leaky water valves in basements, crawlspace, under sinks, and inside of walls because they only release a small amount of water at a time. This can allow water damage to go unnoticed for an extended period of time.

You should visually inspect all valves at least twice a year and replace valves every 20 to 40 years depending on their condition. If you have valves inside walls, look for water spots, bubbling paint, or sagging drywall. Consider cutting open the wall every 20 to 30 years to visually inspect the valve as well.

Hot Water Heater Failure

Most hot water tanks hold 30 to 60 gallons of water, plus there is a supply line that feeds the tank. If the unit fails, it could flood your property with 100 gallons or more of water in just a few minutes. This can damage building materials as well as impact other appliances in the area.

Inspect your hot water tank at least once a year for signs of wear and damage. Check the valves, supply line, and all connections for leaks or corrosion. Look around the tank for rust or mineral deposits that may indicate a leak. Replace your unit every 3 to 12 years based on your manufacturers’ rating.

HVAC System Malfunctions

Another overlooked cause of water damage is your HVAC systems. Your heating and cooling systems both produce a small amount of condensation during normal operation. Under normal conditions, this water drains away from the unit safely. However, it can result in water damage if there is a clogged drainage tube or another issue.

Service your HVAC systems at least once a year and replace them when necessary to prevent unnecessary issues. Additionally, keep the area around your heating and cooling systems clear. This will allow you to easily detect a water issue and take action before it becomes severe.

Dishwasher Leaks and Malfunctions

The dishwasher is another common cause of water damage in the kitchen. A leaky supply or drain line can result in mold or water damage under the unit. This may go undetected for weeks or months. A leak is also likely to worsen and a dishwasher flood is more likely if there is already a leak.

Service your dishwasher at least twice a year for signs of wear and leaks. Check the supply line and drain hose and replace it when necessary. Inspect the gasket and make sure it forms a water-tight seal. Clean the spray nozzles and drain to prevent clogs that can result in water damage.

Leaks Under Sinks

Under-sink leaks are common from both supply lines and drain pipes. These leaks can go undetected for extended periods and often result in mold and water damage to the structure of your cabinets or vanity. This can affect the structure underneath the sink and damage the floor below.

Open sink cabinets and check for signs of mold and damage at least once a month. Avoid overfilling cabinets to make it easier to identify an issue. Replace supply lines every 10 to 20 years depending on the conditions and the frequency of use. Cast-iron drain lines will last 80 to 10 years, while PVC pipes are designed to last 25 to 40 years with regular use.

Toilet Leaks

The shutoff valve and supply line are the most likely cause of a toilet leak. However, the gasket between the toilet bowl and toilet tank as well as the o-ring will wear out over time. A supply line leak can cause extensive water damage, while an issue with the o-ring can cause a sewage problem.

Prevent water damage in your bathroom by checking your toilet once a month. Make sure the mechanism inside is working properly and make repairs as necessary. Tighten the connections to prevent leaks, but avoid overtightening to prevent issues. The shutoff valve should last 20 years or more with regular use but check for signs of leaks or excessive wear. Replace the supply line every 10 to 20 years or when it shows signs of rust or wear.

Worn Out Caulking

It is extremely common to overlook caulking in kitchens, bathrooms, and around windows. Worn out caulking can lead to minor leaks that cause extensive damage over time. The caulk in your shower is the most likely to cause water damage, but caulk lines around sinks and windows will also cause issues.

Inspect all of your caulk lines at least once per year and reapply ass necessary. Clean the area with a mild detergent first. Then use a disinfectant to prevent mold and bacteria from growing underneath the caulk. Use a fan or dehumidifier to dry the area thoroughly before applying new caulk.

Water Damage Restoration From a Certified Company In Your Area

If the water damage is too extensive to make repairs on your own, we will connect you with a certified water damage restoration company near you. Our network includes both popular franchises like 911 Restoration, DKI Restoration, PuroClean, and Restoration 1 as well as independent restoration contractors. Choose a water damage company near you now. For emergency services, call 1-888-443-3110 to speak with our on-call contractor in your area. They offer 24-hour service, 60-minute response, and a free, no-obligation estimate on water damage restoration.

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