This Old House general contractor Tom Silva on re-entering a damaged house

Once you've safely navigated your yard, you face damage to your house's interior. Here's how Tom would organize himself.

TOH.com: You've walked up to a severely damaged—but still standing—house. Which tools are you carrying with you?

Tom Silva: A flashlight. I'd bring a generator—but use it only outside (to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning). Probably some hand tools: a pry bar, hack saw, hand saw, gloves, hammer, screwdriver, and tape measure.

TOH.com: What are the signs of catastrophic damage you'd be looking for?

TS: Sagging. Leaning walls. Doors that are jammed shut or won't close. Windows that you can't open. Now, you have to figure out what caused it. The wind could move the house (out of square). Maybe a tree's fallen on the roof. Or water can make houses slide.

If the house has been undermined at all—if the main section of house has a hole underneath it or is sagging, don't mess with it. Get out and call an expert. A lot of assessing a damaged house is commonsense, but most people don't know what to look for. If you see any of these signs, back out.

TOH.com: What else would you watch for? Nails? Loose floorboards? Snakes?

TS: That's a long list. Be alert for the smell of gas. You definitely don't want to turn a light on if you smell gas. You could blow the place up. And I'd think about alligators. I mean, I wouldn't go into any pitch-black rooms. I'd want a stick and a flashlight. If nothing else, I wouldn't want to slip and fall in the filthy water.

Look carefully at floors (other than those resting on the foundation). Code allows for a deflection (or dip) of a half-inch. But if you think you see two inches of deflection, or the floor bounces, something's wrong. Walk off the floor or even out of the house because that floor could collapse.

Stairs are one of those things in a damaged house that will probably only go if you step on them. They can look fine until you walk up them. If they're sufficiently damaged, they will go with almost no warning. Step close to the wall and hold on to railing. Stairs have more support near walls.

I once fell four-and-a-half feet through broken stairs, and fractured a heel in half. There was no indication beforehand, and it happened in a matter of a second. Other people had been up and down them regularly. It's been almost two-and-a-half years, and I still get slight pain in my heel.

TOH.com: What about roof leaks?

TS: Yes. Leaking roofs. Look for the obvious signs. Use tarps to stop leaks if you can. Next, worry about mold and mildew. Sometimes you have to remove cellulose (wall) products and wallboard. You can't just cover it up. That'll cause all kinds of materials and health problems down the line.

TOH.com: Do you start pitching debris into the yard?

TS: Yes. Get it out. Organize it outside by separating food garbage from materials. Put the food in a barrel you can seal. Inside, neaten up. Organize things. Stack salvageable furniture in a corner, for example. Get the rugs out. They hold lots of water. Move as quickly as possible to save the bones of the building. You want to get it tight, sealed, and secured.
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