How to fix a ceiling with water damage – so it stays high and dry

Wondering how to fix a ceiling with water damage? Here’s what the experts suggest

How to fix a water damaged ceiling
(Image credit: Getty Images / Catherine Falls Commercial)

Knowing how to fix a ceiling with water damage properly – and quickly – is vital. It may not look bad now, but leaving it will only result in costly repairs further down the line, plus you’ll have to put up with musty odors, unsightly stains and potential health and safety risks such as mold growth and rotting beams in the meantime. 

Firstly, it's important to fix a ceiling leak as soon as possible – and not just for aesthetic reasons. In most cases, fixing a ceiling with water damage is a job best left to the professionals. However, small repairs are generally pretty manageable.

‘Worst case scenario, the whole ceiling will need to be torn out and replaced by a professional, however, assuming the water damage is minor and hasn’t compromised the structural integrity of your ceiling, it can usually be dried out and repainted’, says water damage restoration expert, Diana Rodriguez-Zaba of ServiceMaster Restoration.

Whether you opt for professionals or attempt the job yourself or even remove a popcorn ceiling with water damage, time is of the essence. We’ve put together an expert guide to help you establish the best course of action. 

How to fix a ceiling with water damage

Before you go about how to fix a ceiling with water damage, you’ll first need to address what caused the damage in the first place. Water can be the answer to the question why is my ceiling cracking, but unless it’s an extreme plumbing problem such as a burst pipe, water damage isn’t always obvious, hence why in some cases it goes unnoticed for so long. Only once you’ve established the issue – and resolved it – are you in a position to fix your water-damaged ceiling. 

More often than not, it's a good idea to replace the damaged or affected piece of drywall to maintain the integrity of your ceiling. You can do this by learning how to patch a drywall ceiling or hang drywall ceiling.

If you have replaced drywall, you may also need to know how to plaster a ceiling, and how to wallpaper a ceiling or perhaps how to texture a ceiling instead. 

Track down the source of the water damage 

The first thing you’ll need to do is to work out the source of the water damage. This will establish the level of immediate repair work needed, as well as any necessary long-term fixes to prevent it from happening again. Causes can range from something as simple as a child’s overenthusiastic bath to serious plumbing issues, such as a burst pipe.  

Water can travel a surprisingly long distance from the initial leak, which can make it tricky to locate. Before you start cutting holes in the ceiling, Ray Brosnan, contracting expert and co-founder of Brosnan Property Solution, recommends a few easy ways to narrow down the scope of your search. 

‘If there’s no other rooms above the water damage, you’re likely dealing with a leaky roof, or something as simple as a clogged gutter. If the room above where the leak is located is a bathroom you may have a more serious problem on your hands such as a burst pipe, which will require considerably more work to resolve’.  

Dry the affected area

Before you start any repairs, make sure the affected area is completely dry. Not doing so could result in mold growth and further damage. The quickest way is to rent high-powered fans (regular house fans will work but can take days or even weeks) and dehumidifiers. With the right equipment, the ceiling should be dry within a day. Use a moisture meter to check, don’t rely on touch and feel. 


Assess the damage – and repair accordingly

How to fix a water damaged ceiling will ultimately depend on the severity of the damage and how long it was before it was discovered, as well as the initial cause of it. Repair work may involve simply touching up with a bit of spackle and paint, or it might be as drastic as replacing the entire ceiling. 

‘For example, if one of your kids is playing in the tub a little too enthusiastically and spills water on the floor, it could seep through to the ceiling below. In this situation, the cause is immediate and hopefully a one off, so you can simply scrape the blistered paint, spackle the damaged surface and repaint’, says Melanie Musson, home repair expert at Clearsurance.

Extensive water damage is obvious to see. ‘Look out for large holes, leaks or sagging in the ceiling, says Adam Graham, construction analyst at Fixr. In this case, the ceiling would need to be fully replaced, including structural elements such as beams’. If the water damage is the result of a recently discovered long-term issue, look out for mold and discoloration; these are also indicators that it will need to be replaced.

Does a ceiling need to be replaced after water damage? 

Not always, it depends on the level of damage. It’s always best to get professional advice, but there are a few tell-tale signs you can look out for.  ‘In the case of an immediate plumbing issue, look out for wet and sagging drywall’, says Luke Lee, real estate professional at Ever Wallpaper. ‘Rotting plasterboard, discolouration and the presence of mold are all signs of a long-term issue and will also warrant this extreme solution’. 

‘It’s always worth getting a professional opinion first to see if there are any less costly solutions, such as only removing a section of the ceiling, for example’, adds Gian-Carlo Grossi, managing director at Roofing Megastore.

Can you paint over a water damaged ceiling? 

Yes, but only once you’ve repaired the initial leak and removed any subsequent mold and mildew. Ensure the area is completely dry before you paint (the paint won’t catch otherwise) and use a base coat of stain-blocking primer to avoid marks showing through. 

Do the repairs need to be done professionally? 

It depends on the severity of the damage. ‘Extensive water damage needs to be dealt with by professionals to ensure the ceiling is repaired to recommended safety standards’, says Adam. While they’re easy enough to do yourself, Adam recommends hiring a professional for smaller fixes, too. ‘You want to be 100% sure no more water damage is likely to occur’, he says. 

Contributing Editor

For 10 years, Tara King worked as a Content Editor in the magazine industry, before leaving to become freelance, covering interior design, wellbeing, craft and homemaking. As well as writing for Ideal Home, Style at Home, Country Homes & Interiors, Tara’s keen eye for styling combined with a passion for creating a happy – and functional – family home has led to a series of organization and cleaning features for H&G.