This is the second in a series describing our adventures remodeling a one-hundred-year-old home. Last week I shared our experiences with a nightmare insulation contractor. This week, we learn that the damage was worse than we had thought.

As you’ll recall, when we bought this old house, we paid a company (GCS) to install insulation. They messed up the job in four ways, three of which were apparent immediately:

  • they drilled holes in the wainscoting despite explicit instructions not to do so,
  • as one of the workers was crawling around in the attic, he fell through the ceiling, and
  • while working in the mud room, they knocked over a shelf unit full of food.

In September of 2004, we learned that GCS had made another, more serious error. One morning, after a particularly stormy night, Kris woke to find discoloration on the upstairs hallway ceiling. “That looks like water damage,” she said. My heart sank. I climbed onto the roof. The contractors had installed four roof vents. One of them (on a flat section of roof) had peeled loose, the plastic/rubber edges curling, pulling away from the tar that was meant to hold it in place. We created a make-shift patch from duct tape and plastic, and then made a polite but firm call to the contractor. The company sent a man to fix the leak. “This wasn’t done right to begin with,” he told me.

No kidding.

A year passed without incident. After Christmas 2005, Portland was deluged with heavy rains. Kris and I began to notice more water stains on the ceiling, but not just in the hallway — in three of the four bedrooms upstairs, too. We were faced with a choice: call GCS again, or try to handle the problem ourselves. We weren’t convinced that GCS would be able to make competent repairs. Besides, the problem needed immediate attention. I am no handy man, but I felt it would be impossible for me to make the problem worse.

I scoured home-repair manuals. I searched the internet. I made a list of materials and headed to the hardware store where I spent an hour reading labels on cans and tubes and buckets of roofing sealant. I brought home several options. I carried the cans and tubes and buckets up to the roof, and spent the afternoon crawling around, trying the various products, patching anything remotely resembling a hole. I believed the leaks were repaired.

A couple of weeks passed. The ceiling dried, and as it did more stains appeared and the paint cracked. But when heavy rains returned in mid-January, the hallway ceiling turned damp once more. I called in the help of a friend. Because there was no existing ceiling access, we ripped open a chunk of sheetrock (spilling insulation and water onto the floor) to peek into the attic.

We discovered several large wet spots and lots of mold. The only obvious leak was at the vent, as expected. (The photo above not only shows some of our knob-and-tube wiring, but also the leaky vent.) I gunked things up as best I could, but when it rained the next day, the leak returned — it had been reduced, but not eliminated. Worse, water was seeping in from someplace high on the roofline, someplace I could not see.

Our “attic” is divided into three sections. One section was dry. The section we opened had minor leakage from the roof vent. Most of the trouble seemed to be coming from the third attic section, the section above the spare room. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see into this space, even with mirrors and flashlights. To test for problems, we drilled a hole into the ceiling of the spare room. I stuck a dowel through the hole. The next morning, the dowel was swollen with water.

I crawled back onto the roof and spent an afternoon gunking up every hole, nook, and cranny above the spare room. “I’m done,” I told Kris. “This summer, let’s pay to have a professional fix this mess.”

“What about GCS?” she asked. “This is all their fault.”

“I know,” I said. “But I don’t care. I’m through with them. Let’s just move on.”

In July we hired a roofing contractor. For a few hundred dollars, he tore out the old vent and replaced it with something appropriate for the space. “What kind of idiot puts a vent like that on a flat roof?” he asked.

“GCS,” I told him.

“Huh,” he said. “They’re supposed to be pretty good.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Everyone keeps telling us that, but we’re not impressed.”

Portland has experienced heavy rains for the past week. I just crawled into the attic to check for leaks for the first time this autumn. It’s dry as a bone. Finally.

Next week: last fall’s heavy rains didn’t just expose problems in the attic — they caused problems in other parts of the house, too.

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