Dear PoPville – To Paint or not to Paint Part 2

Basement apt. Leak 020

“Dear PoPville,

Back in August there was a good discussion on whether or not to paint brick houses.

My recently (and expensively) learned advice is – if your house is painted, you really have to check the paint. Even if it looks alright, it only takes a minor flaw to cause trouble – in this case, water seepage through the brick resulting in a damp basement.

My house was painted before I bought it, probably about 10 years ago. The paint still looked good – no flaking, crumbling etc. There was no indication of dampness in the basement apt. No damp feel, no smell, no mold, no damp or warped floor or baseboards etc. But when the tenants moved and took down a large mirror we found a faint discoloration on the wall – 2 vertical stripes the width of the insulation.

Basement apt. Leak 007

I tore out the wall and found the insulation slightly damp and 4 studs showing water stains on the side that touches the exterior brick wall. After 2 contractors spent a good hour examining every possibility, we climbed out on the roof and saw that there were just enough wear in the paint high up by the roof line that a heavy rain was causing water to “slip” in between the paint and the brick wall. Then the paint at the bottom of the wall had been acting like an envelope, trapping the water and letting it seep through the mortar.

Lucky we found it in time to avoid real damage – but big lesson learned about painted brick! Again – the flaws in the paint at the top of the wall were only visible from the roof and even then seemed very insignificant.”

13 Comment

  • Can’t this happen whether the house is painted or not? Water is insidious.

    • No. Water on unpainted brick and exposed to open air ventilation will evaoporate before it gets absorbed by the masonry. It would have to rain for weeks straight for absorption to outpace evaporation. And even then it will stop raining and evaporation will catch up with any absorbed water before it penetrates all the way to the interior. As long as ventilation is not interfered with by paint. Paint prevents adequate ventiliation and water behind the paint will get absorbed into the wall.

      A brick wall with holes in the mortar due to age will leak just like a wood wall with a hole in it. You can’t use paint to plug holes, whether the wall is brick or wood. You need to fix the holes and for brick that means repoint. Paint is much more likely to just multiply the problems of a wall that needs repointing.

      • Crin – I was hoping you would reply! I printed out all your advice from a 2011 posting, but would love to talk to you in real life. This is my house. I expect to re-point it – and have an estimator coming tomorrow but don’t know if all the paint needs to be stripped – which would be a huge task – or if it could be done on just the bad bits. Thanks! vicmck at gmail.

  • justinbc

    We’ve been debating what color to paint ours for quite a while. It’s already painted some gray color that I hate, so I can’t imagine painting over it will make any difference with regards to stuff like this happening. I also really like the whitewashed look, which lasts much longer and I would think eliminates some of the problems with the brick not being able to “breathe”.

  • The paint may have been preventing the issue before but your real problem is that you need to repair/redo the brick pointing on the house. People generally paint over brick as a cheaper alternative to doing the proper maintenance on a brick wall. It is only a short term fix as you have discovered and will require painting at least twice a decade until the problem becomes severe enough that you have no choice but to repoint the wall.

    Don’t paint; do it right.

  • The biggest problem with painting brick is it is used mostly to avoid having to do the point work. Point work cost big money and needs to be done about every 100 yrs. Which means for most houses in DC it should be getting done now. If you can avoid painting you should, do the point work it will be worth it in the end

  • Does anyone have any names of people who can fix mortar? I recently took the siding off the back of my house and was told the mortar should be re-done and this conversation has me thinking I should get it taken care or.

    • austindc

      If you have really old soft mortar, you need one of the companies that knows how to do that. We used the posts on PoPville to narrow the companies down to Renaissance and Edgar’s Masonry. We went with Renaissance because they were able to do more work for us for the same price that Edgar’s quoted, but both companies were very professional. Renaissance did the entire back side of our 100 year old row house in Columbia Heights plus a substantial amount of work on the interior of our basement, and they added a new terra cotta thing to our chimney with a new cap on it. The whole job cost about $6000 and was done in 8 days. All the work was done by hand so as not to damage our soft old bricks.

      • Those are definitely two solid choices for doing this work. I would also recommend Pointing Plus – I knew I’d made a good choice with those guys when I went to get my historical permit and. I told the woman at the desk that I was using Pointing Plus and she said “oh, you’re fine then” and approved the project without hesitation. They did really, really great work on our place in ledroit Park.

      • Edgar’s repointed our house. We’re an end rowhouse, so it was three sides, a big job. They did a beautiful job, did the work on time, and cleaned up. The price you quote for Renaissance surprises me. Their quote was higher than Edgar’s for our house, which cost a whole lot more than $6k.

        • the price quoted sounds really cheap to me too, must have been done in the off season or something. I think our place was about $11k from Pointing Plus. You don’t want this done cheaply.

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