This is ugly, awkward, dirty work, but if you do it right, you won’t have to think about it again for a long, long time.
I can’t promise you a swift, clean repair when it comes to soffits, but I guarantee you’ll become intimate (perhaps a lot more than you’d like!) with an often ignored part of your home.
Step by step Soffit Repair instructions
- Rent a rolling scaffold for soffit repair work. The jacks adjust to the slope of your yard, and the plywood pads keep the wheels from sinking.
- Pull the nails with a pry bar to release the gutter straps and lower the gutter. This job is easier if you have a helper.
- Pry the fascia board off the rafter tails if it shows not. You may have to cut badly rusted nails with a hacksaw.
- Pry the soffit boards off the lookouts and remove the trim strip (sometimes called a “frieze board”). Wear a dust mask; this can be dirty work.
- Probe the rotted areas with a screwdriver to find the extent of the damage. Let moist areas dry out before proceeding.
- Screw a new section of rafter to the old one to reinforce the tail. Make the new section twice as long as the rafter tail.
- Install new 2x4 lookouts to replace rotted ones or screw a new one to the old one if it’s mostly sound. Install a new fascia board.
- Insert a strip vent (or other vents) in the new soffit to ventilate the attic and roof. Use galvanized finish nails to fasten the soffit boards.
- Cut the last soffit board to fit, then cover the sawn edge with the trim strip. Paint to finish up.
Soffits are the narrow band of a ceiling that covers the bottom side of the roof overhang. To the casual eye, they appear decorative. because they come in so many sizes and styles,
But they usually play a bigger role. too. They shade the siding and protect it from bad weather; they help keep rainwater away from the foundation; and, perhaps most important, they provide ventilation to your roof and attic to flush away unwanted moisture and keep the root cooler.
When soffits start going bad, you usually get some clear signs. Watch for badly peeling paint or brown stains. Both signal water problems. Wet wood will shed its paint, warp and begin to rot. By the time holes appear, the rot has already advanced pretty far, and you’ll want to get to your repairs right away before things get worse.
Oops, bee attack! Check for critters like bees and wasps, which often hang their homes from your soffits. Soffits, being well-protected from bad weather, make a great home for various critters, especially bees and wasps (including yellow jackets and hornets).
Most are beneficial, the bees pollinating flowers and wasps hunting down other insects until you start hammering near their homes. You sure don’t want them buzzing around your head when you’re atop a ladder or scaffold.
If you’re allergic to stings, take special care here. Check your soffits in advance for nests or signs of bee or wasp activity. You can simply knock smaller nests down with a pole, but wait for nighttime when the insects are less active. For safety, work from the ground and use a flashlight or no light at all so they can’t see you. A spray insecticide that’s formulated for bees works, too.
Even better, do your soffit work during cooler weather, like the fall, when the insects become inactive or die. If the nest is softball size or larger, you’re getting into a big colony and might want to contact a pest control service to remove them.
But that repair doesn’t begin with the soffits. Soffit problems are almost always caused by leaky roots or leaky gutters that ruin the roof edge. Once water seeps through worn shingles or under loose flashings, it‘ll run down rafters or roof boards and puddle on the top side of the soffit boards.
Your first step should be to fix your roof right away, which is not the goal of today’s article. Working on a roof is always dangerous, so you’d better hire a professional roofer to remedy the problem, especially if your roof slope is steep, if you don’t feel comfortable working at heights even after taking safety precautions, or if your roof is higher than one story. The roof boards under worn shingles might well have rotted, too. This is the time to replace them as well.
What you will see is how to open up and repair the soffit portion of this job. In this example, a roof leak around a plumbing vent allowed water to run down onto the soffit boards, causing them to warp and rot along with the fascia board. (These parts are labeled on the opening photo.)
First, the leak was stopped, and the necessary roof boards and shingles were replaced. Now we have to remove the rotten soffit boards, check for rot in the structure inside, and patch the soffit back together.
This soffit is just about as bad off as you can find. The soffit boards that have warped and rotted are common on homes built about in the 1940s or 1950s. In this case, it’s tough to do a patch job with new boards and make the new blend with the old. So we replaced all the old soffit boards with new 1x4 tongue-and-groove beaded ceiling boards, which you can usually find at a lumberyard for reasonable prices.
The material costs for this project are relatively low compared to the labor cost if you decide to hire a carpenter. If you decide to do it yourself, expect the job to take several days, and expect the work to be dirty and awkward. Though most homeowners are fully capable of the work involved, this isn’t a good project for a beginner.
In newer homes where builders used plywood or hardboard for the soffits, the job should go much faster and easier. You can simply remove the damaged panel, carry out the repairs shown, and replace the panel with an identical new one.
Many homeowners choose to cover up soffit problems with maintenance-free aluminum. The paint on aluminum soffits doesn’t peel and the metal won’t corrode or rot, so it’s a sensible choice. While aluminum soffits might not be as attractive as the original wood, once they’re in place you won‘t have to work on those high, awkward and often dangerous roof edges to fix problems and paint.
On the downside, you’ll have to keep a sharper eye on the condition of your roof, because the aluminum soffits won’t show signs of roof leaks as readily, possibly allowing damage to get much worse and costly before you discover the problem.
Before you get started
Though you can work from ladders, there‘s a slick device that can make your soffit work a whole lot easier and safer — the rolling scaffold (opening photo and Photo 1).
One 6-ft. high section puts you up at a comfortable working height for most first-floor roofs, so you don‘t have to bend, stretch and reach as you would from a ladder. The wheels allow you to push the scaffold back and forth along the house and soffit. Just make sure to shove two 3⁄4-in. plywood pads (12 x 12 in. min.) under each of the four wheels and lock the wheels before climbing up.
Of course, working even a few feet off the ground can be dangerous. Make sure you follow all safety precautions, including fastening a railing on the outside of the scaffold. When you rent the scaffold, ask for full assembly and safety instructions. I suggest you work no higher than the first story, leaving higher work for professionals.
Caution: Don’t ever touch the power lines that come to your home They can be deadly.
Repairing the soffit
Photos 1-9 illustrate a major repair job.
You never know how much work you’ll have on your hands until you remove enough boards to see inside the soffit. Only then will you know whether you need to rent the scaffolding for a day or as long as a week. If you see a lot of rot and broken or severely damaged rafters, you might need some expert carpentry advice, too.
If you‘re lucky, the fascia board will be in good shape. If so, your job is easier. You won’t have to remove either the fascia board or the gutter, and so you can skip Photos 2 and 3.
But if the soffits were in bad shape, chances are that you’ll find rot in the ratter tails and lookouts, too (Photo 5). Both are important parts of your house. The rafter tails support the edge of the roof, and the lookouts support the soffit boards, so they have to be sound.
Our 2x6 rafter tail had rotted enough to weaken it, so we screwed another 2x6 to it (Photo 6). There’s no hard and fast rule about when to strengthen a rafter tail. Generally, I do so whenever there’s rot because it’s an easy operation while you have the soffits open. You don’t even have to remove the rotted pan; rot won’t spread as long as the rafters remain dry.
Notice in Photo 6 that the new section extends as far above the wall as the rafter tail length. You might have to climb into your attic to fasten it securely, using three screws at the upper end and three others every 16 in.
Replace rotted lookouts so you have a good nailing surface for your new soffit boards (Photo 7).
Fixing this soffit gave us a perfect opportunity to upgrade our attic ventilation (Photos 8 and 9). When originally built, this attic had poor ventilation. The added strip vent allows plenty of air to flow into the attic and out through other vents located near the peak of the roof. Use cardboard or plastic baffles (opening photo) to keep your insulation from blocking the airflow.