How Quickly Water Damage Can Ruin Your Home and What To Do

Lawrence Bonk
Written by Lawrence Bonk
Updated January 9, 2023
Water leaking onto hardwood floor
Photo: Sompetch Khanakornpratip / Shutterstock

To minimize water damage caused by a major leak or flood in your home, ideally, the restoration process should begin within 24 hours

Get quotes from up to 3 pros!
Enter a zip below and get matched to top-rated pros near you.

Whether you’re dealing with a leaky pipe or a flooded basement, identifying the source and stopping any further water escaping is the top priority. In fact, water damage can ruin your home faster than you might think. Within the first 24 hours of a leak or flood, mold development, damage to floors, walls, and electrics, and even structural issues can occur. This is why it’s always best to quickly hire a water cleanup pro near you for a consultation and repair.

How Bad Is Water Damage?

There’s no easy way around this. Water damage is bad and leads to all kinds of related consequences. First of all, there’s the water damage itself, which damages building materials, appliances, fixtures, and furniture as it sits and pools, with electronics being especially susceptible to damage. Also, mold thrives with water damage, and is a particular concern when the moisture hides behind walls and in other difficult-to-reach areas. Even scarier? Depending on where the water came from, water damage leads to health concerns, as sitting water often features all manner of germs and bacteria. 

How Quickly Does Water Damage Progress?

Even a seemingly harmless small leak can be problematic. Water spreads rapidly and absorbs into floors, walls, soft furnishings, and more. If you leave water damage too long, your insurance may not cover it, and the cost of water damage to your home could be hefty.

Within the First 24 Hours

As a leak or flood spreads, it will soak everything in its vicinity. This means that personal belongings, such as books and photographs, can immediately bulge and warp beyond repair. Soft furnishings and upholstery will soak through, and walls and floors will begin to absorb the water. Drywall, furniture, wooden doors, and window frames can swell. Plus, paint or wallpaper can peel or blister, and it can impact electrical systems. 

If the leak is in your roof, the water could come through ceilings and cause damage to insulation and wooden beams. Most worryingly, though, mold can begin to develop within this timeframe.

Within the First Week

After that initial day, the water damage will develop further. Mold can spread rapidly and the site can become a biohazard. The damage to wood surfaces and walls intensifies, and metal surfaces can start corroding.

More Than a Week

If you leave water damage for more than a week, the timescales, costs, and effort involved in any restoration work will increase significantly. The spread of mold increases dramatically, and the risks associated with structural damage are greater.

How Much Water Does It Take to Cause Damage?

Water is an essential component of life, but not of the various materials in your home. In other words, you don’t need a whole lot of water to cause damage, though this depends largely on the impacted areas. Hardwood floors, for instance, damage with any amount of pooling water left to sit for a day or so, leading to buckling planks and other repair issues. Drywall fares a bit better, as there are processes to dry it out, but if the components retain more than one percent of moisture, replacement is necessary. As for mold, it starts growing within 24 hours after moisture is introduced into the air even with minimal water damage. 

What Causes Water Damage?

There are a whole lot of issues that cause water damage, some sudden and some over time. Here is a list.

  • Flooding of any kind. 

  • Inclement weather, especially if you have small cracks in the roof or if severe winds blow out a window or a related fixture. 

  • Leaks of any kind. These are especially dangerous as the leaks often occur behind the walls, leading to copious damage before it is noticed. Common leak sources include rusty and corroded pipes, high water pressure, extreme temperatures, broken water connectors, and more. 

  • Sewage back up coming from your pipes and pouring out through your water fixtures.

  • Clogged gutters clog up the drains over time, leading to water damage. 

  • Faulty or malfunctioning appliances like washing machines, dishwasher, and air conditioners.  

What to do When There Is Water Damage

When there’s a flood or major leak, there are some immediate practical and safety considerations. Here are the first things to do. 

  • Remove pets and children from the house, especially if the damage is severe. 

  • If possible, gather up any accessible valuables and work to contain the leak by addressing the initial cause. 

  • Turn off the breaker box, but only if the box is located in a dry part of the home. Do not access the breaker box if it is anywhere near water damage to avoid electric shock. If it is wet or near water, call the utility company and ask them to turn it off from their end. If that’s not possible, ask for them to send someone out. 

  • Contact your insurance company as soon as you can and be honest regarding the extent of water damage and the original cause. 

  • If the water damage comes from a backed-up sewer, or if the water is grey or black, wait for professionals before touching or dealing with the water in any way, as it is a serious biohazard risk. 

Hiring a Pro for Water Damage

Once you establish it’s safe to reenter the home, the quicker any cleanup and water damage restoration takes place, the better. To minimize the spread of mold and the risk of serious structural damage, contact a water damage restoration pro within 24 to 48 hours.

The extent of the problem is often more significant than it appears, as water damage hides behind walls and under floorboards. In other words, it’s best to seek the help of a reputable restoration service. They will assess the level of water damage and assess the amount of work needed to make your home safely habitable once again. There is plenty of work involved with water damage restoration, such as drying, and replacing flooring, drywall, and insulation.  

Additionally, not all of your water-damaged belongings are salvageable, and pros will assess this damage as well. Depending on the level of water damage, count on spending anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to dry out the home and make the required repairs.

Tips to Dry Out the Home 

Before any structural repairs take place, you will need to dry out your home. This is particularly challenging if the electricity is still off and you live in a humid region. For minor bouts of water damage, dry out the home on your home, but professionals are required for larger incidents of damage. 

Here are some tips to dry the impacted areas of your home quickly, though it takes at least a two days for your home to fully dry out, with some jobs requiring weeks of active drying.

  • Start quickly, so as to minimize the chances of mold forming. Remember, mold appears within 24 hours of water damage and the spores easily spread to parts of your home not impacted by water damage. 

  • Floor fans, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, and wet/dry vacs are all your friends during this process and all help to prevent mold on carpet after water damage. Start with these tools as needed. Place floor fans in bathrooms and near impacted drywall. Use a wet/dry vac on flooring and place dehumidifiers wherever they are needed.

  • Open windows and doors to get air circulating. 

  • Remove any drenched objects from the home, such as items of furniture. This prevents them leaking onto fixtures, flooring, and near walls. 

  • Fan dry books and papers, wet page by wet page. If you don’t have time for this lengthy process, bag up the books in plastic bags and place them in the freeze. Retrieve them later when you have time.

Replace Damaged Wood, Drywall, and Porous Materials

If you've experienced a flood, burst pipe, or some other type of severe water damage that has soaked or submerged your home's wooden structures, drywall, or other porous material, it's best to replace them. Porous material like drywall will absorb water, making it difficult to dry out and leading to potential mold growth. Wood that has been damaged from being wet for a long period of time is susceptible to rot and possible collapse. If these materials have been seriously damaged by water, you should opt to fully replace them instead of attempting any kind of repair.

Can You DIY Water Damage Restoration Work?

If you’ve only experienced a small leak under your sink, for example, it is easy enough to remove all the items affected by water damage to assess for salvageability. Then, drying out the space is just a matter of using the proper tools and time. 

However, if the water damage is near the breaker box, appliances, or electrical outlets, call in an experienced pro to ensure safety. The same goes for major water damage, no matter the location. Restoration contractors can easily assess if there is any hidden damage that require repairs.

How to Prevent Water Damage Around Your Home

You can take a few preventative measures to avoid water damage to your house. Follow these essential steps to keep water from invading your home.

Clean Your Gutters

Your gutters protect your home from water damage by removing rainwater from your roof and away from your home’s foundation. If gutters become clogged, they’ll overflow, which can lead to leaks that cause water damage. Clean your gutters twice a year, or after a big storm with lots of debris, to keep the system working properly. 

Check Your Chimney

A chimney sweep should inspect your chimney at least once yearly to look for loose mortar and bricks. Any cracks in our chimney could lead to troublesome leaks. If the pro spots damage, make repairs ASAP to avoid water leaking into your home.

Waterproof Your Basement or Crawl Space

For added peace of mind, consider waterproofing your basement or crawl spaces. An obvious benefit to waterproofing these areas is that it will protect them from water damage if there is a flood or burst pipe and will lower the chances of foundation damage and mold growth. Another appeal to waterproofing basements and crawl spaces is the return on investment (ROI). Basement waterproofing has an ROI of about 30%. You can call a local basement waterproofing company to help seal up your lower level. 

Get a Sump Pump

Your basement or crawl space should have a sump pump to defend your home against flooding that could do major damage to your home. A sump pump is particularly important if you live in a flood zone, or an area that gets a lot of rainfall. 

Get a Roof Inspection

A roofer should inspect your roof once a year to check for missing or broken shingles or cracks that could let water into your home. If the pro finds any damage to your roof, be sure to have them repair it immediately to protect against interior water damage. 

Caulk Any and All Cracks

Whether it’s outside or inside, cracks are an almost guaranteed entry point for unwelcome water. Focus on windows and door wells, and fill every crack you see with caulk. Proper caulking will seal off your home to prevent water damage—and a dry home is a happy home!

Frequently Asked Questions

There are several problems that can happen if you don’t treat water damage. One of the most severe issues that can occur is the weakening of your home's structural integrity. Once the wood in your home absorbs water, it can rot and possibly collapse. Untreated water damage can also ruin your electrical systems, corrode plumbing, destroy your ceilings and walls, and cause mold growth. A less serious but unpleasant consequence is floor warping.

Need professional help with your project?
Get quotes from top-rated pros.