You can take many steps to prevent water damage, but accidents happen, and no one controls the weather. Knowing all possible signs of water damage in your home can help you catch any damage early on, protect yourself, prevent structural damage, and minimize the cost of repair. 

In the U.S., 37% of homeowners have experienced loss from water damage in the past. So, in states like Florida—where a torrential downpour is your typical summer afternoon—it’s even more important to know what you’re looking for.

Some water damage signs are obvious, but others can be easy to miss. If you notice any signs of damage, it’s safest to have a professional diagnose the full impact.

If you’re buying a new home, always have a professional inspect the house first to protect you and your wallet from surprises down the road. 

What Does Water Damage Look Like?

Most often, water damage looks like brown or yellow water stains on the ceilings or walls. Water stains appear as spots or rings and don’t have to be symmetrical. Water damage can also look like swollen drywall and cracking or flaking paint. 

Although we cover more possible signs of water damage below, the most common are these water stains, swollen structures, and the presence of water where it shouldn’t be. 

How to Tell if You Have Water Damage

Water damage in the home can come from internal sources, like an appliance or plumbing leak, or external sources, like the weather. 

When you check your home for water damage, work from the outside in, and look for these signs.  

1. Cracked or Missing Roof Shingles

Having damaged or missing shingles on your roof doesn’t automatically mean you have water damage. But, depending on how long they have been that way, it does mean that water could have gotten into your home during bad weather. 

Inspect your roof, and contact a roofing professional to assess and repair potential damage.

2. Damaged Seals Around Windows and Doors

Your windows, doors, and window and door frames should be sealed tight so that no water can seep into the walls around them. 

You can quickly check for any spaces or cracks where they are sealed and ensure no water leaks in during the next storm. 

3. Water Stains on Walls or Ceilings

One of the most common signs of water damage in walls and ceilings is discoloration (aka water stains). 

Take a walk around the outside and inside of your home to check for brown spots and rings that shouldn’t be there. Give special attention to cabinets under sinks, walls near plumbing pipes, and your attic if you have one. These locations are particularly vulnerable to leaks. 

If you have a multi-story home and notice signs of water damage on the ceiling, take note of which floor you’re on. If you’re on the top floor, the water damage is likely coming from the roof. If you’re on a lower floor, a bathroom or appliance on the floor above is likely the culprit. 

4. Soft Spots on Walls or Ceilings

Although common, water stains don’t always show up when there’s water damage. As a result, it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for soft spots on your walls and ceilings. When there is water damage in walls, it will soften up drywall and housing materials over time. 

If you suspect water damage but don’t see a stain, press gently on the area you suspect. If the wall gives way at all, it’s likely water damage. 

5. Bulging or Sagging in the Home

Misshapen walls, flooring, and ceilings are another sign:

  • Bulging is a sign of water-damaged walls.
  • Sagging and water bubbles are signs of water damage on the ceiling. 
  • Warped appearance and sagging are signs of water damage under the floor. 

Tip: When examining floors, give special attention to the areas around bathtubs, showers, sinks, and water-using appliances like dishwashers, washing machines, and water heaters. 

6. Peeling or Bubbling Paint

The cracking, flaking, or bubbling of paint can also indicate water damage inside walls, but this goes for paint anywhere in your home. If your cupboards are peeling, it could be because of water damage. 

7. Water Where It Shouldn’t Be

Water puddles or water drips where they shouldn’t be may seem like an obvious clue, but sometimes we attribute these to spills and condensation. 

Call a professional right away if any puddles show up on the floor or water drips appear on the ceiling or walls without explanation. Even in a new home, the construction could be sealed incorrectly.

8. Poor Caulking

Caulk seals the seams anywhere water could enter your home, like around your windows or where a bathtub meets the wall. If you have loose, cracked, or missing caulk, water could have been able to get through and cause some damage. 

Regularly check the caulking around your windows, doors, counters, sinks, toilets, and showers.

9. Visible Signs of Mold or Mildew

Mold and mildew thrive in damp places, making them a possible sign of water damage. Mold appears as black, green, brown, and sometimes red splotches that may or may not be fuzzy. If left untreated, it will continue to grow. 

A small amount of mold may grow in your shower or on your shower liner over time, and while it should be cleaned, it’s normal. If you find it anywhere else or in excessive amounts, you should have your home inspected to ensure there isn’t more hiding behind the walls.

10. A Damp or Musty Smell

Your eyes aren’t the only thing that can help you detect water damage in a house. If a room in your home smells damp or musty, there’s a possibility it’s because of water damage, mold, or both. 

11. The Sound of Water Dripping or Rushing

If your nose and eyes haven’t noticed anything wrong, there’s a chance your ears might. Any unusual sounds of dripping or rushing water could be a water leak. 

If you can, try to follow the sound to where it’s coming from. You’ll be able to hear more clearly at night with less ambient noise. 

12. A Spike in Your Water Bill

Lastly, if your water bill has suddenly increased, it could also be a sign that you’re losing water through a leak of some kind. If the spike is consistent or large enough to convince you of a leak, but you can’t find the source, hire a professional to make sure. 

Inspecting a Potential Home for Water Damage

It’s always a good idea to have a new home inspected for water damage before finalizing the purchase. But, if you haven’t settled on your dream home just yet, there are some extra signs you can look for.  

  • A yard sloped towards the house: If the house isn’t on the highest part of a sloped yard, water will run back towards it during storms and sit around the foundations. This doesn’t guarantee water damage, but you’ll need regular inspections to keep the foundation in good shape.
  • Ineffective gutters: Gutters and downspouts are essential to keep rainwater off the roof and walls and direct it away from the house.
  • Obvious wall repairs or patch jobs: If you can tell a wall was patched in the past, it could have been due to water damage. If there is a small area painted over, it could be covering a water stain. 

How to Tell if Water Damage is New or Old

The type of water stain and the softness of the surface can tell you if water damage is new or old. Early signs of water damage include small water stain spots, while older stains will have larger rings around them.

Take Action as Soon as You See Signs of Water Damage

Water damage can be a minor fix or ruin a house’s foundations if left unattended. If you discover signs of water damage in your home, call an expert to have it looked at. Sometimes a DIY fix works, but a professional should make that call. Otherwise, it could cover a surface-level issue while the real problem continues behind the scenes. 

We also recommend getting a water detection and shutoff system. These can prevent leaks by discovering them early on and turning the water off for you. And as a bonus, smart home systems are one of the many rewards that lower your premium with OpenHouse home insurance.