How to Repair Problems That Lurk Behind Your Walls

Learn what to do and how to prevent problems like termites, critters and mold.

©Janet Allinger

©Janet Allinger

©Janet Allinger

©Janet Allinger

©Robert Felker

©Robert Felker

Critters in the Attic or Walls

The telltale scratching and scurrying overhead or in the walls means you've got a furry tenant. First, you need to try to identify where they're getting in and how they're getting out. Look for signs such as chew and claw marks, droppings or debris that seems out of place. A musky odor can also provide a clue. Try flushing them out by putting some sort of bait at one entry point, then closing up another and creating a ruckus that would drive them to the baited area. Once they're out, permanently seal up their access points. If you can't drive them out, get some traps appropriate for the animal and appropriate for how humane you care to be.


A little bit of mold (a small section of wall) can be handled by you, while a lot of mold (entire rooms) should be tackled by a mold remediation specialist. Some mold is worse than others, but a test done by a pro or via a kit from a home center is the only way to truly verify what mold you have. Do not immediately try removing the mold or you run the risk of releasing the spores, which are what cause health problems. Do your best to seal off the area and keep kids or people with respiratory problems away. Mix up a light bleach solution, don a dust mask and start wiping the mold down with the bleach solution. It will kill the mold. If it's drywall, cut out the affected area and trash it. Track down the source of the moisture and fix it. A leak or moisture retention (not enough ventilation) are primary causes. Make sure the area is dry and repair the drywall. Raw wood can be washed with bleach, then treated with a boric acid powder solution to keep the mold from returning.


The saying goes that there are three types of homes: those that have had termites, those that have termites and those that will have termites. When you discover them, you don't need to panic, but you do need to act. You are generally required to have a termite bond to sell a home, and hopefully you have a yearly inspection contract with a pest control company. Call them immediately and tell them you have discovered termites. Your contract most likely has a “retreat” clause, which means they will reapply termiticide to the affected area. Don't try to clean up the termite-infested area until this professional has come — he or she will need to thoroughly inspect the area to determine from where the termites are coming and where treatment is needed. Your action is to eliminate the things that caused the termites to start feasting on your home, such as a leak or crack near your foundation, wood piles next to the house, or wood or vinyl siding that touches the ground.

Fireplace and Chimney Problems

That fire is cozy and romantic, and provides a bit of warmth, but when smoke backs up into the room you've got a big problem. The biggest mistake homeowners make is not opening the flue. The second is a clogged chimney, which is caused either by nesting animals or a buildup of creosote. Another is negative draft, which could be caused by a whole-house fan, a bathroom fan or a couple of open windows. If the flue is open and there is nothing causing a negative draft, you've got a clogged chimney. Extinguish the fire as soon as possible. If you're not experienced in cleaning out the chimney, then you'll need to call in a pro. Burning specially designed cleaning logs is good maintenance to reduce creosote buildup, but cannot be used to unclog a chimney.

Leaky Roof

Roof leaks are one of the hardest things to diagnose and track down in home repair, as water can enter in one point, follow the path of least resistance, and exit many feet beyond its entry point. If you can access behind the ceiling where you hear or see the leak, place a bucket, pot or pan to catch the water until the rain subsides. Be sure to check on the container and empty it periodically. While you're in there, look for where the water may be coming in (not where it's dripping; track the source) and use a pencil to mark the area. This is so you can identify where a repair will be needed later. If you can't reach to place a bucket, and it's a significant leak, you can drill a small hole (1/4 inch or so) where the leak occurs and place a bucket under this area. This will prevent the water from building up in your ceiling and causing a collapse. You may be tempted to try to get on the roof and place a tarp over where you think the leak is occurring during the rain, but this is highly dangerous, especially if there are high winds and lightning, not to mention slippery surfaces.

Hole in Drywall

Drywall, gypsum board, wallboard — whatever you call it, it's nearly ubiquitous in homes, and while it creates great-looking walls, it's relatively easy to knock a hole in it. A small ding that doesn't go completely through the drywall can be filled with spackle or wall compound, sanded and repainted. But big holes need bigger repairs. Use a wallboard saw to cut an evenly sized square slightly larger than the broken hole. Measure the thickness of the drywall, head to a home center, and pick up a repair section of drywall — typically a 2' x 2' square. You'll also need some wall compound, drywall tape and drywall screws. Cut a matching section of drywall for the hole. Cut a piece of scrap wood longer than the hole is wide, but narrower than the hole is high. Attach the drywall patch section to the scrap wood with drywall screws. Tie a couple of pieces of string to the wood at the ends of the patch. Using a helper, insert the wood-patch assembly into the hole at an angle, holding on to the strings, and pull the strings until the drywall patch is flush with the outside of the hole. Pull the strings taut and drive drywall screws through the wall and into the scrap board until the assembly is firmly attached (you may need to drill pilot holes first). Use tape and drywall compound to cover the edges of the patch and screw holes. Sand smooth and repaint.