A Handy Guide to Roofing For People Who Aren’t Roofers

roof repair

Anyone Can​​​​ Learn the Basics of Roofing

Know what's the worst?

Looking up at the ceiling and seeing that little brown ring that says:

The roof is leaking.

First, you have to figure out why.

Then, you have figure out where.

Then the big question: "How do you fix it?"

First, you'll need to learn some basics

We get it. Roofing is scary. It's way up there.

Very few people know much about roofing.

The first thing you need to know is that a properly installed roof is essential to the health and well-being of your home.

Understanding your roof has a lot to do with where you live.

Let me break that down for you:

If you live in a warm, southern climate, you're more likely to have heavy clay tiles that help shield your house from the sun and withstand high winds.

If you live in a northern climate, your roof is most likely metal panels or shingles with a steeper pitch so snow and ice slide off.

No matter where you live, the basics of roofing still apply.

Things you should know about your roof:

How old is your house?

How old is the roof itself?

What kind of roof do you have?

Is it still under warranty?

Has it ever been fixed before?

Now that you know a little bit more about roofing basics, let's take a closer and get more specific.

The bulk of houses will have some kind of shingled roof.

But wait...

Before you say, "yes, I have a shingled roof," it's important to know what kind of shingles.

A shingle isn't just a shingle anymore

Common roofing shingles are anything but common these days.

The times of deciding between three-tab and those fancy "dimensional" shingles have been replaced with catalogs full of alternatives.

Which is okay...

Even with all of the shapes styles and patterns, shingles still only come in three basic materials:

The 4 Types of Shingles


The most common, least expensive shingles are made of the same oil-based product as your driveway and last from 10 to 30 years.


They look like asphalt and last even longer. They are typically comparably priced and aren't affected as much by the price of oil.


Many companies offer a synthetic, plastic, or rubber product in the same styles as traditional asphalt. Composite shingles are expensive, but they come with warranties up to and including lifetime.


As old school as it gets, cedar shakes are still widely used in coastal communities where high winds and rain are common. They are traditional, beautiful, and can last up to 50 years with regular maintenance.

My roof has those fancy Spanish tiles

If you live in the south, there's a good chance you have a tile roof.

Tiles come in traditional clay, less expensive concrete and other poured materials, and composites.

What's the difference?

Tile roofs will help keep your house cooler in direct sunlight.

Their weight helps keep them in place in strong winds, making them perfect for hurricane-prone environments.

Metal roofs matter too

Metal roofs are becoming more and more common.

A properly installed metal roof of quality materials can last as long as 100 years.

What does that mean?

It means you'll pay more, but your roof will be maintenance free and last a long, long time.


They're not for everyone.

Fun Fact:

While the idea of natural building materials still holds strong sentimental appeal, some insurance companies charge more to cover a home with a wood-shake roof because of the potential for fire, and others won’t insure it at all.

Things that will make you hate your metal roof:

Rain and hail

if you have cathedral ceilings or you live on the top floor directly under the roof, it will get loud

Woodland creatures

Those squirrels you never knew you had running all over your roof are all of a sudden your worst enemy


Live under oak trees? An acorn dropped about 20 feet onto a metal roof spline sounds like a bomb going off

Hot days

They are guaranteed to be hotter -- or at least cost extra in air conditioning

A sheet of rubber is about as waterproof as it gets

Some roofs are too flat for traditional shingles, tiles, or even metal.

Those roofs require rubber roofing systems.

Rubber roofing comes in several varieties, but they all provide the same thing:

A continuous, waterproof solution to the problem of a flat roof.

You may be asking:

Why not use rubber on every roof?

Not only is rubber roofing expensive, but it's also extremely heavy.

Flat roofs are engineered to be strong enough; pitched roofs are not.

Yes, there are more kinds of roofs

But...you won't see them often.

Slate Roofs Stand the Test of Time


Slate isn't manufactured, it's carved from stone.


Slate weighs up to 22 pounds per square foot.


Slate is one of the most expensive roofing systems.


Very few roofing companies offer slate installation.


Slate is found most often on churches.

Tar roofs have been replaced with rubber. While tar was a great product in 1930, it's messy and breaks down in direct sunlight

Thatch roofs and woven leaves are nice on Survivor and at Tiki bars, but they have little practical use on residential homes.

All the other materials you see on makeshift sheds and treehouses are just that - makeshift.

Now That You Understand The Materials, Understand how they work together

How Roofing Systems Work

The roof deck itself will be either solid planks, plywood, or oriented strand board (OSB) depending on where you live and the age of your house.

The underlayment between the roof deck and the roofing materials will depend on where you live and the slope of your roof and can include felt paper, engineered synthetics, and rubber water and ice shields.

The roofing materials themselves are those shingles, tiles, metal, or rubber

Shingles -- asphalt, composite or cedar -- typically sit on a breathable underlayment like felt or a synthetic sheeting designed for roofing.

Tile and metal roofs either sit on top of an existing shingle system or a roof covered completely in a waterproof underlayment.

Rubber roofs have specialized pitch systems, adhesives, and flashings and typically require professional installation.

So Now You're a Roofer

No -- no you're not.

But you do know some basics.

By now you may even know what kind of roof you have.

And that's important.

Now it's time to dig in.

Find the Source of the Leak

Sometimes that can be more obvious than others.

In most cases, you won't be able to tell by simply looking up.

But you will have clues.

Don't be fooled by the spot on the ceiling.

Water isn't as simple as some people think.

It's actually much simpler.

Water takes the path of least resistance.

What does that mean?

It means that water doesn't always travel "down."

Otherwise, you'd never be able to fill a glass.

Water will occupy the easiest available space

So that spot on the ceiling? The leak may not be directly above it.

The only way to truly find a leak from inside is to find the wet spot on the roof deck itself.

Things you may have to do first

The best way to find a leak is to inspect the deck from inside, if possible.

If you have an attic or crawlspace you'll need to go up there.

If your house was built after 1970, there should be a light. Bring a replacement bulb just in case.


Look at the floor or insulation underneath you and see if you can find a wet spot.

Look up.

Once again, it may not be directly up.

Look to the sides a bit until you're fairly certain you've found the source of your leak.

When your roof is part of the 2nd floor

Many houses have no attic or crawlspace. The roof is either part of a cathedral system or forms slanted walls in a living space such as an upstairs bedroom.

Attics converted to living spaces have these "slanted" walls.

Often these rooms have flat spots where half-walls or flat ceilings for fans or fixtures become part of the room with some framing and drywall.

Here's the issue:

Finding leaks may be easier, as water will hit drywall and create a stain close to the problem.

Now your problem is access. At this point, you don't really need to open the drywall to find that leak.

You'll have a good idea where it is.

Fun Fact:

 Metal roofing materials are often lighter in weight than wood shingles

Now figure out where you are

You'll need to transfer the location of the leak from where you've determined its origins on the inside to where that is on the outside.

That means you'll need to know which side of the house, where the room is located, and approximately how far up the roof the leak is most likely to be.

Now, go outside and have a peek.

A peek at what?

  • Look in the approximate area of the leak and see if there's any visible damage.
  • Is there a tree branch or other debris sitting the roof?
  • Does anything look obviously damaged or out of place?

What to Do Next

If you can see obvious damage, it's time to make a decision.

Are you ready to delve into the world of roof repair?


It might be easy

it might be fun.

But what's far more likely is...

it will be a lot of hard work that will end with you calling a professional.

Which is okay.

There are good reasons to NOT do your own roof repairs:

Respectable reasons to call a professional roofer:

  • There's no way I'm going up there. Period.
  • I can see the damage but it doesn't look like something I can fix.
  • I've learned that some things are best left to the pros.
  • Seriously, it's the roof. I'm not going up there.

Sometimes You Just Want to Fix It

Maybe you've been on your roof before.

Maybe you've helped fix a roof or two.

Maybe you're just handy and want to give it a shot.

Here's the thing:

Depending on the type of roof you have, repairs may not be possible

Don't mess with your metal roof.

Leave your slate alone.

Those tiles will break if you don't know how to walk on them.

But shingles and rubber?

Those you can try to fix yourself without causing too much more damage if it goes wrong.

Basic Roofing Shingle Repair

Roofing shingles can be an easy repair.

If you can see damage clearly from falling debris or high winds, there's a good chance you can fix -- or at least temporarily repair -- the problem.

Visible damage means you can see it.


Find where the shingle begins and ends, and then remove it.

This is where things often go horribly wrong.


Because the nails that hold a shingle in place are underneath the shingles above it.

There's a right way -- and a very wrong way -- to remove and replace a damaged shingle.

This video is a perfect example of both, in just under 2 1/2 minutes:

It isn't rocket science

But as you can see, even the "real" contractor who came before this obvious roofing master made simple mistakes that can cost serious money.

Here's why:

A roof is designed to protect your home from the top down -- which starts from the bottom up.

Installation starts at the bottom with a drip edge, covered by a layer of rubberized water and ice shield. In northern climates, the rubberized shield covers at least the unheated overhangs to protect against ice buildup.

From there, the roof will be covered in a breathable underlayment that protects the roof's deck and prolongs the life of the shingles.

The shingles go on top of that.

Each component forms a layer, and each overlaps the one below. The barrier created makes it impossible for water to penetrate under most circumstances, even some that are extreme.

That Little Bit of Roofing Basics Works For Almost Every System

Bottom-up technology forms the very base philosophy of roofing.

Even for that woven thatch roof on Survivor.

It works for those pretty cedar shakes.

Clay tiles have starters like every other system for a sloped roof.

Even metal roofs, which use panels from the bottom to the top, sit over a system of underlayments, drip edges, and ice barriers -- laid from the bottom up.

Fun Fact:

Even though asphalt shingles are a newer product (invented circa 1900), they are by far the most popular roofing product in America.

But then there were flat roofs

A flat roof isn't typically flat -- at least not in the literal sense.

Modern flat roofs have pitch systems engineered for their specific needs.

The top component, which is typically rubber, comes in different grades for different uses.

Even a flat roof covered in rubber starts at the edge and work their way to the top, no matter how low the pitch:

Here's a great example of how a flat roof might not be exactly flat with a unique commercial application:

So Those are the Basics of Roofing

Now let's have some fun.

A roof has been important to human beings since...forever.

Cavemen were people, and those people who lived in caves lived there because they had a roof.

But then we got smarter.

"Roofer" may be the ACTUAL oldest profession

Think about it. The first people to leave those caves left for a reason.

They had someplace better to go.

It only makes sense that where they went had a roof.

At first, they covered their crude shelters in dirt and moss, which wasn't much better than a cave...

and even worse when it rained.

Tiles came first

The first use of a real roofing system in recorded history goes back 5,000 years to ancient China. Architecture through the years has evolved around the ability to build an effective roof.

From the Ancient Greeks:

A model of the Temple of Olympian Zeus at the museum at Agrigento.

To the Romans:

Ancient Roman imbrex and tegula.

The roof is what allows architecture to happen:

The Famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel sits under one of the most well-known roofs in history.

Now You Know the Basics of Roofing

Hopefully, what started as a simple question has been interesting enough to make you care about your roof enough to make good decisions.

It's the only thing that keeps rain from ruining your things.

It keeps the sun from frying you alive while you sleep in on a Sunday.

It's...pretty important.

So make sure before you dive onto yours that you've thought it through.

Make sure you stay safe.

Do you have a story about the first time you tried to fix a roof?

Tell us in the comments below.


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