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Do I really need gutters on my house? My neighbor took his down and laughs at me every time I go to clean mine out. My brother says I need them.

I grew up in the 1960s with strong feelings about the metal gutters on my folks’ house. It seemed like my mom was always hollering at me to get out there and work on those gutters. Cleaning them out was a standing chore. Then almost every other summer it was scraping peeling paint, priming with zinc-chromate, and painting. Pink paint! I hated pink paint and I hated those gutters. In 1974 I was buying my first house and I made sure to pick one that had NO gutters!

Since then I have learned a few things about buildings and gutters.

Just like every other old-house issue, you have to understand what gutters do and then figure out if you need them. Gutters catch the water close to the source (the roof) where it is easy to control, then downspouts and ground leaders or underground drainage lines dispose of the water away from the building. It’s important to get rid of that water because it can damage your house.

For example, A New England Victorian may have a complex roof with many valleys that concentrate roof runoff, so gutters are needed, especially to prevent water buildup in the ground just outside the foundation. In the winter that water will freeze and heave against the foundation. Here in Portland , Maine , I was call in to assess the situation when the previous owner had removed gutter two years before (to save the $80. yearly cost of cleaning out the gutters). The first winter frost heaving had displaced a couple of foundation stones 4″ to the interior of the basement. The second winter those two stones fell into the cellar and a dozen more were displaced a few to several inches inward and a vertical crack appeared in the wall, right down to the basement floor. In just two years the lack of gutters caused $5,000 worth of foundation damage. Now, would you rather pay a contractor $5,000, or would you rather have that $5,000 in the bank where it would give you $150. in interest at a modest 3% which is enough to pay for cleaning the gutters plus a little more for the occasional gutter repair. THAT is why you need gutters. Gutters give you similar benefits over the long-term as they protect exterior walls from deterioration. They will help slow down deterioration of exterior paint, woodwork and windows–saving dollars and saving historic character.

Maybe you don’t need gutters. A Craftsman-style house in southern California where it doesn’t freeze in the winter, is designed with wide over-hanging roof eaves that protect the walls from water and it doesn’t need gutters. So, you see? You need gutters because your HOUSE needs them. Or, maybe it doesn’t.

When I bought my second house in 1995, a Victorian, I made sure to pick one that had gutters. Now, I don’t love these gutters, but I have gotten friendly with them, and I take care of them. In return, they help me take care of my fine old house.

John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail:; or log onto his website at:

© John Leeke

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