Buyer Beware: Understanding Potential Foundation Issues

Sunday, March 31st, 2013 by Thrasher

We purchased our first home this past summer and like most first time home buyers we were clueless when it came to identifying problems. We were forced to trust the owners disclosure and our home inspector's opinions before we signed our paper work. We have been lucky, however looking back I wish we knew more about potential problems and warning signs, especially since we were moving across country to Omaha.

Do not let your dream home become a nightmare. There are several warning signs a home owner and buyer should be aware of, especially when it comes to your foundation. Here's what to look for.

Cracks in your Foundation

One of the most obvious things to look for are cracks in a home.

Stair-step cracks may be seen in a basement built from concrete blocks. While in a basement constructed of pored foundation walls, vertical cracks are more common. Other indicators include cracks in drywall throughout the house and drywall tape buckling, pulling or ripping.

Understanding Vertical Movement: When the soil under a home shrinks or shifts, the foundation or parts of it will settle. If the whole foundation settles evenly, you don't notice anything. But usually one part of the home settles more than the other and causes cracks in the foundation.

BUYER BEWARE: Be careful not to assume that a crack in foundation is merely a shrinkage crack. Shrinkage cracks tend to be very small, 'hairline' cracks (usually 1/16" wide or less). They generally occur near the center of a span and maintain a consistent width for the length of the crack.

Bowing or Leaning Walls

Depending on if a homes walls are built from concrete blocks or poured concrete, the signs of wall failure will look different. Horizontal cracking near the middle of the wall is one of the first symptoms in the case of a bowing wall, especially in a block foundation. While poured foundation walls start to lean-in at the top of the wall. Diagonal cracking at the corners of a poured wall is also a very common sign of wall failure.

Understanding Horizontal Movement: When the soil outside of foundation walls expands, it can cause horizontal movement of the existing foundation. Because foundation walls are not supposed to move inward- they crack, bow, lean in, push in and sometimes slide in.

Doors and Windows

Whenever an opening is cut or created in a wall, such as a door or window, it becomes the weakest point of the wall. Because of this, doors and windows often display the first signs of settlement.

Three of the most common observations include:

  1. Doors and Windows out of square
  2. Cracks extending from the corners of doors or windows
  3. Separation of door or a window from the framing or exterior finish

BUYER BEWARE: Did you notice newer caulking around exterior doors or windows? This is a common homeowner fix to damages caused by foundation settlement.

Cracks in a Floor Slab

Cracks in a floor slab can also indicate foundation settlement. Signs include cracks which oftentimes create trip hazards, and floors dropping which creates a gap between the floor and the wall. Other signs include:

  1. Walls pulling away from other, adjacent walls
  2. Interior Walls pulling down and separating from the ceiling
  3. Interior wall cracks, commonly off the corners of interior doors

BUYER BEWARE: Often times home owners will assume the problem can be fixed by replacing the concrete slab, mud-jacking or re-leveling the grout on top. These options may work for a short period of time however they do not resolve the internal problem and will come back sometimes even worse than before.

Sagging Floors over a Crawl Space

One of the last potential problems we will talk about today are sagging floors over a crawl space. Sagging floors are not only a nuisance but can also leave you wondering how long the floor will be able to support the weight of everything on it! What created the problem in the first place?

  1. Existing Block or Brick columns are spaced too far apart
  2. Weakened floor joists and girders due to moisture and wood rot
  3. Existing columns settle due to weak soil

Signs this is a problem include sloping floors, cracks in the interior walls and doors, gaps between existing columns and girders, shimming between existing columns and girders, evidence of moisture, wood rot, and compression of the floor joists.

BUYER BEWARE: If you are about to purchase a home with concrete columns or additional shimming be sure to have a professional inspect the property. More often then less these are temporary fixes to a larger problem.

When buying your next home DO NOT let yourself fall victim of a dishonest homeowner. Instead, thoroughly evaluate the foundation and seek advice from professionals in the area.