A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Do I have a foundation problem?

This is the most common question asked of an inspector. The second being about the roof. Probably because these two parts of our home can give us the most grief. In the state of Texas, an inspector is required to render his opinion on the performance of the foundation. Note that the inspector is not required to inform you of what actually is happening with the foundation, but his opinion. The reason for this is the fact that no one can determine what is going on underneath your home without extensive testing, which does not happen during an inspection. Inspectors look for clues to the foundation’s performance. Here are some things to look out for when considering if you need some one to look at your foundation:

  1. Trees- a trees roots will extend to where ever the canopy of leaves reaches. That is where water is available. If the canopy is over your roof, then the roots are under your house, having fun with your foundation. Generally, a tree should be as far away as it is tall, but this poses the problem of your lot size. Most lots are not large enough for forty foot high trees.

  2. Soil- the type of soil around your home effects how water travels around your property. Much of Houston, for example, has a heavy clay soil referred to as gumbo by locals. This soil retains water, so it expands. During drier conditions it contracts. This causes the foundation to move around, which in turn can lead to a failure of the foundation. If you see cracks in the soil during dry conditions, and a solid mass during wet conditions, you should be concerned about foundation movement.

  3. Plumbing- if the water is taking some time to drain from the sink or tub, you may have a problem underneath the home. If water from the plumbing is leaking there, it could lead an issue with your foundation. If you have this symptom, consider having a hydrostatic test done to determine if a repair is needed. Foundation companies will do this kind of test. However, make sure your drains are clean first. You do not want to pay for a test, for the hair down the drain.

  4. Design- look to see if water can flow away from the base of your home. Standing water is always an issue. Just look to see if the foundation looks right. If something is nagging at you, there may be a reason to be concerned, so call some one for advice. Many foundation firms will do a free inspection for you.

  5. Age- if you have an older home, your foundation will not have the better technologies to ensure a lasting foundation. Look for cracks through bricks, on tile floors, or on walls around windows and doors. Not all cracks mean that you should be concerned, since some result from a natural settling process.

To determine if there is a problem, an inspector looks for signs around the base of your home, on the walls (inside and out), on the floors, and in the attic. Offset cracks on the floor, cracks larger than 1/8” on walls, rafters moving apart in the attic are other signs to look for, but some problems are not about the foundation. If the driveway or sidewalk have become slabs moving up and down, rarely have anything to do with foundation movement, since they are made differently. The one time that they may be linked to a concern is when you have a fault line running through your property. In this case, you will see the ground at two different levels throughout the property. Believe it or not, we do have fault lines in Houston, so do not assume that because earthquakes are not an issue, you do not have to worry about a fault. One other thing to look out for is on a post tension cable slab. These are foundations which have high tension cables running through them. You can determine if you have this type of foundation by looking at your base. When you see small dabs of cement protruding from the slab, you are looking at the ends of the cables. If the cable end is exposed, you can have problems with the foundation when these ends rust through. If the end is exposed, patch with some cement before it rusts. If it did rust, you will need to use some type of rust remover/transformer before patching it.

If you notice some of these conditions, you may want to know who to call. If the house is under warranty, and the company providing the warranty is giving you a hard time, call an inspector to produce a report, so you will have a document to back up your concerns. When your home has no warranty situation, call a foundation company which offers you a free quote, so then you know what needs to be done. If your concerns are about the foundation and other problems that you have observed, call in a structural engineer to make a plan of how to have everything fixed. A typical home repair for a foundation is done with pylons placed under the home to lift it back into position. An average house requires around thirty-two pylons for the entire home, but a normal job should only be around 12 to 16 pylons. If the foundation company is quoting a job for 32 pylons, you should obtain a second quote without delay. It is always wise to have at least three quotes for a major job like this one. If you have any questions, you can e-mail at frank@fschulte-ladbeck.com.

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