Keeping Water Out Of Your Basement

As I took a walk through my neighborhood last weekend, I noticed that a lot of houses in my neighborhood have sump pumps, because they kept discharging water.  We've had a rapid snow melt here in Minnesota, and that means saturated soils… which leads to water in basements.

Sump Pump Discharge

While installing drain tile, a sump basket, and a sump pump is usually a guaranteed way to prevent basement water intrusion, it wouldn't be my first choice at controlling water in the basement.  

The most important part of controlling basement water intrusion is to control water at the exterior of the home.  There are two very basic things that will prevent basement water intrusion in at least 90% of houses – and grading and gutters.  By the way, I say 90% conservatively.  The number is probably closer to 99%.


Grading is the first thing to look at if there are water problems at a house.  I know this sounds very basic, and it is, but I inspect an unbelievable amount of houses that have poor grading at the exterior.  This means that the ground slopes in toward the house, rather than away from the house.  The fix for improper grading is to change the landscaping.

Changing the landscaping to get water flowing away from the house is sometimes as easy as bringing in some dirt next to the house, laying down plastic on top of the dirt, then laying down rocks, wood chips, or some similar material as a ballast for the plastic.  The slope of the dirt away from the house doesn't need to be anything dramatic – it just needs to be enough to prevent water from sitting next to the house.

Suggested grading

In cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul, houses will often be too close to each other to allow for proper grading.  In these cases, one option is to create a swale in the yard, which will allow for water to go around the house in a type of trench.

Swales Swale Photo

When a swale isn't practical, an underground drain system can be installed in the yard.  This system consists of large plastic tubing installed underground that directs surface water to a more desirable location, such as the street.  I did this at my own house about four years ago, and I haven't had any water in my basement ever since.  I rented a trenching machine and ending up burying about seventy-five feet of corrugated plastic drain tubing in my yard, and terminated the tubing at the street.  A lot of people in my neighborhood have done this, and it works very well.

Drain Tile Installation

Gutters and Downspouts

The other basic thing to look at when a house has basement water problems is the gutters and downspouts.  Without gutters, rainwater can often be concentrated from many different areas on a roof to one single location next to the house, like what's happening in the photo below.  All the highlighted areas dump water in to one single spot next to the house.  That's bad news, and in my opinion, bad design.  Gutters would really help to keep water away from the house here.

Bad Design 

Downspout are just as important as gutters.  I've told many clients that it's better to have NO gutters at all than gutters with improper downspouts.  Why?  A house with no gutters will typically disperse water along all of the roof lines.  A house with an improper downspout extension will end up concentrating all of the water to one spot next to the house.  Again, this is bad news.  Proper downspout extensions bring water well away from the house – ideally six to ten feet. 

Short Downspout 

If you have water in your basement, take a look at the obvious stuff before calling a wet basement specialist.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - Email - Minnesota Home Inspector

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Written By

Reuben is a second-generation home inspector with a passion for his work. He grew up remodeling homes and learning about carpentry since he was old enough to hold a hammer. Reuben grew up thinking he was going to be a school teacher because he enjoyed teaching others so much. In a sense, that’s a lot of what home inspections are about, so Reuben truly does what he loves. Sharlene has worked with Structure Tech since 2000 and Reuben has been contributing to her blog since 2008.

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