Fortify your roof -- your home’s first line of defense

When winter storms slam into a cross-section of the country and tornado alley turns into an interstate highway from Colorado to Alabama, it makes sense for homeowners to inspect and repair their first line of defense -- the roof over their heads.

Unfortunately, most homeowners don’t pay much attention to their roofs, except when they have to replace the shingles about every 20 years or so. After all, it’s mostly out of sight and, therefore, usually out of mind.

But now, even if you didn’t get caught in these latest fierce winds that shook the walls and brought down trees, wires and tractor trailers, it’s the ideal time to take out the ladder and examine what a season of rough weather can do.

And if you don’t? “A hole in the roof could turn your house into a bucket,” warned Julie Rochman, head of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). It’s an independent, nonprofit supported by property-casualty insurers and reinsurers that have a vested interest -- like homeowners -- in keeping the premises from getting damaged because they have to pay the insurance tab when it happens.

Here are the four basics to care for your roof:

Inspect. Your roof may look fine even though all shingle roofs, which 90 percent of homes have, start to degrade after only five years, said Rochman. The degree of decline depends a lot on climate -- dry, cold, wind and salt water.

And inspecting the roof doesn’t necessarily mean hanging from a 28-foot-ladder like Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” If a neighbor’s house is higher than yours, use an upstairs window in it to take cell phone pictures of your roof and enlarge them. Or use a drone to fly over your house and take pictures.

But what are you looking for? Loose shingles, cracks in shingles, buckling or curling, and shingles with most of the granules worn off. Also, check around chimneys and vent pipes for loose flashing or the occasional nesting squirrel.

Even from the ground you learn a lot. Since it’s almost spring, look for dead trees that overhang your roof and could cause branches to fall down. Trees are highways for rodents who might want to invade your attic, Rochman added.

And don’t forget the gutters. If anything is blooming in them, or if they’re listing and spilling out water in the wrong direction, replace them before the roof rots.

Go up to the attic and check for problems, particularly when the sun is shining. And always look for stains, peeling wallpaper and water spots inside the house.

Repair. Not every damaged roof has to be replaced, unless it’s old or the damage is extensive. In most instances, it makes sense to hire a licensed and bonded contractor to go up that 28-foot ladder. If the contractor is replacing shingles, make sure that he or she uses ring shank nails. They work like screws, have much more hold than smooth nails and will spit out of a nail gun just fine. Ring shank nails are cheap, adding only about $100 to the cost of an average roof repair.

Replace. Eventually every roof needs to be replaced. Costs vary, according to Angie’s List, but $5,000 might be an average. That goes up depending on the area of the country, the square footage involved, the height of the house and whether the old roof needs to be removed.

You can nail a new roof on top of an old one, but that becomes a bad idea, said Rochman. Better to strip down to the deck and start anew. The first layer should always be something impermeable to water, such as felt over the plywood.

Or simply tape between the seams of the plywood, which leaves gaps for expansion and contraction. Either way, don’t count on the shingles holding. They can blow away in a high wind no matter how highly they’re rated. Felt is relatively cheap, and $500 for sealing tape is a worthwhile investment for the average home.

According to Rochman, if you’re purchasing a new roof, don’t let anyone talk you into a “30-year guarantee.” When you check the paperwork on each pack of shingles, you’ll find that the small print usually gives the maker -- and contractor -- an out, such as “not walking on the roof,” which you probably did when you made your inspection.

Improve. Remember that the roof is only one part of the house, and neglecting the rest can invite disaster in the door -- literally. “If high winds blow out a window or a door, the pressure inside the home is likely to take the roof off,” warned IBHS chief engineer Tim Reinhold. Putting on translucent storm shutters helps in inclement weather country: You’ll still have light in your house should the wires go down.

Rochman is an advocate of “straps,” which attach to the joists inside the house and give the entire home a seamless “safety cage” from basement to roof. The cost is only about $400 to $600 for an average home. “Most roofs, except in areas prone to hurricanes, are mainly held on by gravity,” she warned.

Installing solar panels is a nice ecological and money-saving idea, but there’s a caveat. Whoever installs them is probably going to punch holes in your roof to wire the panels down. In a high wind, the panels will fly away and may take chunks of the roof with them. 

Be sure you know who’s responsible for the solar panels -- you or the power company -- because your insurance carrier is sure to ask, and will probably raise your homeowners’ premium if it’s you. Firemen also don’t like to work around electricity, Rochman said.

Skylights are also nice, but if you live in the Midwest, where hail comes down with the size and force of a hardball pitch, you’d better make sure that glass is impact-resistant. The flashing around skylights, and anything else on your roof, is another soft spot. The harder the wind blows, the smaller and more penetrating the rain pellets are.

Of course, if a powerful tornado or hurricane makes a direct on your home, even all these steps may not help. But for far more likely, less-severe scenarios, they’ll help keep your roof where it belongs and doing its vital job.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.