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Water damage in your basement or ceiling is one of the most dreaded problems for apartment and home owners. Many New Yorkers have vivid memories of the havoc caused by Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, when entire neighborhoods were flooded. But it doesn't take a major hurricane to do some damage—even a relatively small amount of water can be destructive.
Backed up pipes, a blocked roof drain, neighbor's leaking deck, or faulty sump pump—whatever the reason for the damage, the solution is the same. You need to find the source, remove the water, assess for mold, do additional remediation if necessary, and then replace what's damaged. There’s also the paperwork to deal with—addressing the problem with your insurance company and when relevant, your co-op or condo board.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this was published in October 2020. We are presenting it again in case you missed it.
Find the water source
Before you can move forward, you need to establish the source of the leak or damage. Depending on the circumstances, this might involve the expertise of professionals like an engineer, plumber, roofer, or foundation expert.
“If you don’t stop the water from coming in, there’s little point of trying to manage the water that’s already there,” says Jeffrey Gross, chief operating officer at Maxons Restoration, a New York property damage restoration firm.
Remove the standing water
Your next step is to deal with the standing water that's inside your place, by extracting, pumping, or mopping up what's on the floor. The sooner you are able to do this the better, Gross says.
"If you have a basement and there are six inches of water and you have no means of doing it immediately but could get someone the following day, that would be ok, but if you're on the 19th floor and you have two inches of water, it's a more urgent requirement," he says.
Limit further damage
With water damage, you need to move fast to protect both the building and the furnishings. Once you've removed the water, you may need to move furniture out of harm's way and prevent the water spreading and doing even more damage.
"Sometimes it’s as simple as keeping the door closed and putting a towel under the door or picking up furniture and moving it to another location. Other times it is getting professionals involved to move things out," Gross says.
One strategy Gross's team use is to put furniture that can't be easily moved onto foam blocks. "This can allow air flow underneath the furnishings and allow them to dry out and prevent secondary damage to them," he says.
Based on how insurance polices are written, Gross says you have an obligation to make every attempt to mitigate the damage and prevent secondary or further damage. "Some people are paralyzed by the event and want everyone to see it before anyone touches anything." Don't do this, he says. Instead, take lots of photos and get a move on.
"You need to act quickly," says Jeff Schneider, president of insurance company, Gotham Brokerage (a Brick Underground sponsor, FYI). "Remember it can take several weeks for a floor to dry out completely, before you can see the extent of the damage."
Work out the extent of the damage
Part of the next step is establishing the extent of the damage. In some cases there is very little standing water because it's been absorbed by the dry wall, says Perry Hiiman, owner of the company New York Total Damage Restoration.
Gross says his team will take moisture readings and visually inspect surfaces and materials to determine where the water might have traveled. Predicting where the water has reached isn't impossible but very often it is difficult to confirm. "We are looking for moisture trapped in wall cavities, behind built-ins, things like that," Gross says.
Don't be surprised if you hear the term "strategic demolition." Gross says to dry out cavities or pockets where moisture can hide you may need to make some holes in the wall. Double-layer dry wall, something used in modern buildings, can be challenging to dry and it can be complicated when a wall separates two apartments or an apartment and a public space, and remediation creates security and privacy issues.
Other options include dehumidifiers and maximizing air movement. Anything that cannot be dried needs to be removed.
One of the biggest issues with hidden water is mold. "It starts behind the walls," Hiiman says. He points out removing soggy insulation or damp dry walling is part of the remediation process but it needs to be done within a month of the damage. "It cannot wait—mold can be very toxic and it is not healthy," he says.
Gross says after the place is dried out, but before you proceed with construction, if you have any concerns or if there are any odors, it's time to get a qualified mold assessor to do an independent test. They will take air samples and compare the samples to unaffected areas. "A mold assessor will make an evaluation on whether the place is considered ready for repair," he says.
Hiiman says you need to be especially diligent if sewer water was present.
Repair and restoration
When it comes to liability, it will depend on the type of damage and the type of apartment in which you live.
If you're a shareholder in a co-op, the landlord-tenant structure of these types of buildings protects you through the warranty of habitability. The board is responsible for maintaining habitable living conditions. Your co-op board will probably push back on very high-end repairs so if that's the case, you may have to come to a compromise. If the leak was your fault, the repair costs will typically fall to you.
Schneider points out a flood from rising waters or excessive rainfall is covered only under a separate flood policy, usually issued by FEMA, but purchased through agents. "The water level has to hit the level of your apartment. So if you are on the fourth floor and you have a flood claim, you—and we all—have bigger problems," he says.
Some restoration companies will take care of all the time consuming administrative work as well as the remediation and repairs. Gross suggests you ask for very detailed estimates so the work can be split up or broken out if necessary based on liability. Most of all, he says, don't get pushed around. "It’s your home, you get to decide who fixes it—no one can tell you who to use."
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