9 Gutter Fails Slowly Killing Your House

9 gutter fails
I’m an industry expert and in my experience, nothing ages or devalues a home faster than the gutter fails listed in this article.  These examples are found at nearly every home and although these defects look harmless to the untrained eye they cause catastrophic cumulative damages over the years.  These gutter fails are especially tragic for homeowners because they can cause enormous financial pain and yet they could have been prevented for cents on the dollar.  The photos in this article were taken during my home inspections and in some cases, the seller had to concede 10s of thousands of dollars to the buyer based on my findings.
This article is intended to help people everywhere who are buying, selling, or maintaining a home.  If you are located within 40 miles of Asheville NC please contact us for a home inspection or an Annual Maintenance inspection to help prevent catastrophic damages to your home.  Schedule here.

In this Article:

Which Gutter type is best?
Gutter Inspections in Asheville and WNC

FAIL #9: Splash blocks, perforated drain pipes, and other Fails:  

Run-off should be directed at least 6 feet away from the house, and splash blocks are inadequate for this purpose- an exception might be at concrete or asphalt patios/driveways that are well-sloped away from the house.  Downspout drain pipes should slope downhill and away from the house to prevent possible water damage to the foundation.  The downspout drain pipes should not have any holes in them.  The perforated types are for French drains only.

Wrong type of extension drain.  In this case it is perforated or has holes.  Perforated drains should be used for French drains and not downspout extensions.
Downspout extension drains should not have holes because they should direct water away from the foundation. Sometimes perforated drains are used, which are meant for French Drains.
Splash blocks should be used for hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt (not for dirt)
Splash blocks should only be used for hard surfaces like asphalt or concrete that slope away from the home. Splash blocks on dirt do not direct water far enough away from the foundation.
Extension drains should be buried to prevent damage from the sun, tripping, or weed trimmers. Extension drains should exit 6′ or more from the house. Extension drains should not be installed along the foundation wall because if they become damaged, they will leak in the foundation area.

FAIL #8: Leaking seams: 

Gutter seams, corners, and end caps must be re-sealed every 3-5 years (unfortunately, this is rarely done in practice). Rubber spray or roof/gutter caulk/sealants can be used. Leaking gutters can cause siding, trim, and framing damage over the long term and even contribute to water damage to the foundation.

leak at gutter seam
Leaking gutter seams – seams should be re-sealed every 3-5 years
Leaking corner seams – corner seams should be resealed every 3-5 years
Leaking end caps – end caps should be resealed every 3-5 years

FAIL # 7: Downspout issues:

Loose, un-secured, or misaligned: Downspouts should be adequately secured to the house with straps to prevent the connections from becoming misaligned. Two straps are generally recommended for a typical length- straps should be installed near the seams or ends of pipes to prevent them from moving. A minimum of 2 screws or fasteners should be used per connection.

Improperly Installed: With gutters and downspouts, the lower piece should always be larger than the upper piece to ensure drainage does not leak.   Check for corroded sections- especially with older copper or steel downspouts.  Clogged gutters and downspouts make these leaks worse.

This downspout was leaking from above, and water was entering behind the brick veneer – see the next photo.
Expensive framing damage was caused by downspout leaks that made their way behind the siding.
Each downspout should have a minimum of 2 straps per length. The upper piece should be installed into the lower piece.

FAIL # 6: Sub-surface drain problems:

Damaged sub-surface drains

Damaged sub-surface drains can cause hidden water damage to the foundation. Sub-surface drains should not be run parallel to the foundation wall because if they become damaged or leak, they will cause water damage to the foundation area. Tree roots love black corrugated drains because they are a constant water source; black corrugated is easy for the roots to penetrate.

What causes Damaged sub-surface drains, and how can I fix them?

Black corrugated drains are vulnerable to sun and weed trimmer damage (See below)- for this reason, sub-surface drains should be buried. Mulch installed around the downspout drain connection can help prevent grass and weed trimmer damage. PVC connectors between the downspout and sub-surface drains can also help prevent sun and weed trimmer damage.

Clogged sub-surface drains

Clogged sub-surface drains will cause backing up, gutter overflow, leaks, erosion, and water damage. Black corrugated drains are easily compressed or clogged (unlike PVC). 

What causes Clogged sub-surface drains, and how can I fix them?

Clogged sub-surface drains are usually caused when the gutters aren’t cleaned or maintained correctly, and too much tree debris enters the downspout drains. Due to settling or heavy vehicles/machinery, compressed sub-surface drains can become clogged and cause overflow. Erosion near the downspout drain may indicate a clogged sub-surface drain backing up. Clogged or compressed black corrugated drains generally can’t be fixed when the problem is underground. PVC drains, on the other hand, can be ‘snake-cleaned.’

How Can I Test My Downspout Drains?

Homeowners can check the downspouts for overflowing during heavy rains or test their downspout drains during a sunny day by slipping a garden hose into them at full pressure for up to 5 minutes and looking for the drain exits.

Which is better? Black Corrugated drains or PVC?

PVC is far superior to black corrugated drains because of its resistance to damage from the sun, weed trimmers, clogging, root damage, and compression. Unfortunately, the black corrugated drain pipe is the most common sub-surface drain.

Black Corrugated Drain pipe:

Black corrugated drain pipe is prone to sun and weed trimmer damage and is easily compressed or clogged. Clogged black corrugated drains cannot be ‘snake-cleaned’ like PVC can, and damaged black corrugated pipe must usually be replaced. In my experience, black corrugated drains have only an 8 to 15-year life expectancy.  Considering that most of the expense of installing sub-surface drains is trenching (labor), it is highly recommended to upgrade to PVC drains when possible.

PVC Drain Pipe:

PVC pipes that do not easily break, clog or compress and can be snaked– PVC sub-surface drains resist sun and weed trimmer damage and are generally lifetime products and well worth the extra material cost.

Why is Black Corrugated Drain Pipe so standard?

Why do installers prefer black corrugated drain over PVC? Black corrugated pipe is cheaper and slightly easier to install. Digging straight lines or glue connections is unnecessary when installing black corrugated drains. Although installing black corrugated drains is better for the installer, they are more inconvenient and expensive for the homeowner over the long term. Small-diameter drains (4 or 6″) PVC sub-surface drains are far superior to black corrugated drains. Large diameter black corrugated drain is a much more durable product and is a good option for commercial drainage installs.

Erosion near the downspout is a good indicator that the extension drain may be clogged – see the next photo.
The finished basement of this home had active water penetration issues, including decay of the finishes and air quality concerns because of clogged extension drains
damaged downspout drain
Commonly, sub-surface drains are clogged, damaged, or leaking without the homeowner knowing.

FAIL # 5: Missing or incorrect Flashing

Water damage is commonly caused by missing or improperly installed flashing issues:

No gutter sidewall clearance or flashing

When gutters are installed right up against the siding, the gutter will inevitably leak or overflow and will cause water damage to the home.

No drip edge flashing

Adequately installed drip edge flashing helps prevents decay by preventing water from wicking up the sheathing or leaking behind the gutters. See illustrations for the best practice installation.

No gutter splash guards at valleys

During heavy rain events, water collects at roof valleys with high volume and speed and can quickly shoot passed the gutter system.  Splashguards help to prevent overflow and direct the water back into the gutters.  Overflow at the valley can cause expensive water damage over time- especially to decks, siding and trim, and the foundation area.

The Best Way to Flash Gutters

The best practice is to space the gutter 1″ from the wall and install kick-out flashing (see diagrams) to prevent water damage to side walls. Drip edge flashing should be installed at eaves and gable ends (rakes and fascias) to prevent water from wicking back up to the framing. Drip edge flashing should be installed over gutters to prevent leaks and water damage behind gutters. When the gutters are lower than the drip edge flashing, roll flashing can be installed under the drip edge and over the gutters (see diagram). Gutter splash guards can be installed at valleys to prevent overflow. Flashing may be needed at the upper side of the chimneys to direct water back toward the roofing and away from the chimney and the gable end (where water will overflow).

Valleys like this one tend to overflow during heavy rain events – see the next photo.
splash guard
Gutter splash guards like this one can help prevent overflow at valleys. In all cases, valleys should be regularly cleaned to prevent clogging and overflow.
gutter spacing
Gutters should be spaced 1″ from the sidewalls. Kick-out flashing helps direct drainage into the gutters and away from siding/trim.
gutter problems
See the water stains on the fiber cement siding? This will cause decay over the long term. See flashing recommendations.
drip edge gutter detail
Drip edge is not required by code, but it is highly recommended. The drip edge helps prevent water from leaking behind gutters.
flashing between drip edge and gutter
Sometimes the gutters must be installed lower than the drip edge. Roll flashing installed under the drip edge and over the gutters helps prevent water damage.

FAIL # 4: Downspout connection defects

These examples are the most common gutter system defects and, when left unrepaired, can cause catastrophic damage to the home. A little prevention goes a long way with roof drainage.  Sometimes these fails can be subtle or hidden by shrubs– scrutinize these connections.

Damaged (weed trimmer, sun, etc.)
Missing or disconnected drains. The best practice is to vertically install downspout/drain connections to prevent leaking in the foundation area.

FAIL # 3: Gutter neglect and installation mistakes

Most gutter fails are generally caused by the following:

Maintenance Neglect

Clogged gutters overflow or fill with standing water, causing the gutters and downspouts to loosen and misalign. Loose and leaking gutter systems will cause decay at the siding and trim.

Trees: Mature trees over or near a house can fall on a home or drop dead or dying limbs on a home. Mature trees near the home also clog gutters more with leaf and needle debris. Arborists should be hired every 3-5 years to prune trees near the house.  

Aging asphalt roofs: Old asphalt roofs shed granules that clog gutters.

How should Gutters be maintained?

Regular maintenance will prevent expensive issues over the long term. Gutters should be cleaned in the Spring and Fall, sometimes more than once a season, depending on the conditions, and the gutters/downspouts should be evaluated and re-secured once a year. Gutter seams should be re-sealed every 3-5 years.

Incorrectly Installed Gutters

Gutters should slope downward about 1/4″ for every 10′. Gutters with too much or too little slope will clog and overflow.

How should Gutters be installed?

Gutters should be installed with proper flashing (see above) so that the upper piece always overlaps the bottom piece. Gutters hangers should be installed at rafter spacings (24″ or less) and more frequently in regions with high rainfall or snow. Professionals should design and install gutters and downspouts to ensure the proper sizing and number of downspouts.

Improperly Installed or Maintained Gutter Guards

Closed or covered gutter guards are lower maintenance, but they are known to overflow (especially at valleys) during heavy rain events. Improperly installed or maintained gutter guards can trap leaf debris and worsen matters.

Are Gutter Guards worth it?

Unbiased professionals argue that having gutters professionally cleaned regularly is more cost-effective than installing expensive gutter guards. We have seen during our inspections that cheap or poorly installed gutter guards are not a good option because they often fail and worsen matters. High-quality gutter guards can be a great option if they are correctly installed, but they will be expensive (it could take many years to recover the initial investment). The homeowner should never forget that even gutters with gutter guards still need to be maintained- we prefer the gutter guards that allow easy access to the gutters as the seams still need to be sealed, and leaf debris can still make its way behind them. Closed gutter guards like Gutter Helmet are low maintenance; however, they often overflow during heavy rain events, defeating a gutter system’s purpose. Thick gauge perforated gutter guards may be a good option when predominantly deciduous trees surround the house. Stainless steel micro-mesh gutter guards perform better when predominantly evergreens or trees with needles surround a house – these guards are costly, however. We do not recommend plastic gutter mesh, brush, or foam gutter guards – we have seen too many of these fail in just a few years.

Plants are growing in this gutter.  Staining at the gutter indicates overflowing.
Plants are growing in this gutter.
Staining at the gutter indicates overflowing.
Mature trees near the home mean more
frequent gutter cleaning and maintenance
Older roofs will shed granules and can clog the gutter systems or weigh down and loosen gutters
Evidence of gutter overflow
This gutter was sloped in the wrong direction and
was overflowing on the opposite side of the downspout
Loose gutter nails
Loose or damaged gutters are caused by
clogging and standing water

FAIL # 2: Rain catchment system disasters

These days, many well-meaning folks are installing rain catchment systems (or rain barrels). Rainwater can be used for gardening and irrigation (with un-chlorinated water). A well-designed rain catchment system should have an overflow drain that is the same size as the downspout (which is usually 4″) – unfortunately, we almost NEVER see rain catchment systems with proper overflow drains (that exit away from the foundation). It is more common to see a 1″ or less pipe or faucet acting as the overflow and an undersized overflow drain will inevitably back up (usually too close to the foundation).

Are Rain barrels worth it?

In my inspection career, I would estimate that over 95% of these DIY rain catchment systems are creating significant issues for their homeowners over the long term (see photo). If a rain catchment system is to be installed, I recommend a professional installation with an appropriately sized 4″ or larger overflow drain, and ideally, the barrel is 6′ or more away from the foundation wall in case of leaks or overflow.

This rain barrel system caused catastrophic water damage behind the EIFS stucco wall (over wood framing) – the finished basement needed to be gutted. Note the 4″ drain pipe and the 1/2″ overflow drain – where else will the water go?

FAIL # 1: Missing gutter systems

Gutter systems protect homes from premature depreciation and catastrophic damages. Gutters direct water away from the foundation and prevent water damage from wind-blown rain to the siding, trim, and windows/doors. Even small sections of roofs without gutters can cause oversized damage to the home. Gutters and downspouts are relatively inexpensive compared to the damage that their absence creates. Exceptions can occasionally be made for houses with deep overhangs and hard surfaces, but nearly all houses need a professionally installed and well-maintained gutter system. Porches and detached buildings also benefit from a gutter system.

A properly designed and installed gutter system will include flashing, properly secured downspouts, and, ideally, PVC sub-surface drains. Professionals should design and install gutters, but some research and know-how on the homeowner’s part can help ensure a better installation.

Even small sections of roofs need gutters, especially when they intersect with other sections like this one.
Gutter systems are critical on the uphill side of the house or the windward side – see the next photo.
Active water penetration and standing water were observed at the front side of the house, where gutters were missing. Structural issues and air quality concerns were also observed.

Which Gutter Type is best?

Aluminum: Based on my experience as a builder and home inspector, a high-quality aluminum 5″ or 6″ seamless K-style gutter is best for most homeowners (these are the most common). Seamless gutters are extruded on-site with gutter machines and are worth the extra expense because fewer seams mean fewer leaks- Aluminum gutters should never be installed with off-the-shelf sections from big box stores. Aluminum gutters are corrosion-resistant and lightweight but are more prone to bending and damage than steel, zinc, and stainless steel.

Copper/Zinc/Stainless Steel: Sometimes Copper and Zinc coated galvanized gutters are used at higher-end homes because of the look and strength- unfortunately, galvanized and Copper gutters tend to corrode after only 15-25 years. When a fancier or stronger gutter is desired, we recommend stainless steel.

PVC: PVC gutter systems are not recommended – they are only sold in short sections (not seamless) and can sag or fail under the weight of water and tree debris.

Gutter Inspections in Asheville and WNC

Our Company, Builder Buddy Inspections & Testing, provides thorough roof and gutter inspections as part of our Home Inspections, Pre-sale Inspections, Commercial Inspections, and Annual Maintenance Inspections.  We carefully inspect gutters, gutter flashing, downspouts, connections, and extension drains. We search all accessible foundation areas for evidence of gutter-related water damage.  If you are within 40 miles of Asheville, call us today to schedule an appointment or schedule here.

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