Signs of a Problem
Foundation problems are every homeowner’s worst nightmare. Luckily, settlement issues rarely occur overnight. Signs of foundation problems are often subtle in their early stages, so it’s important to periodically take time to thoroughly inspect your home, both inside and outside, and note areas of concern. Keep in mind that cracks and other issues on a home’s first and second floors should not be ignored. When a basement or foundation shifts, the rest of the house moves in response, so even if you’re unable to find visible evidence of a problem at the foundation, other parts of the house may betray the root cause.
Take note of any cracked or bowing walls as well as sticking windows and doors that open and shut by themselves. Foundations that are visibly sinking should also be inspected. Cracks will differ based on the type of foundation; for example, a crack in concrete will look and progress differently than a crack in a brick or stonemasonry foundation.
Causes of Settlement
In most cases, foundation settlement is caused by extremely wet weather or extremely dry weather. Expansive clay soil is a known cause of foundation problems. The specific mineral content of clay soil varies throughout the US, which means that some varieties expand and contract more dramatically than others.
Expansive soil is problematic because the clay’s expansion during rainy weather puts pressure on a home’s walls, increasing the likelihood of foundation damage. Conversely, during periods of drought, some clay soils can shrink as much as two to three inches from the wall. Because the soil normally helps support the wall, this contraction can also lead to foundation cracks.
An improperly prepared soil base can also cause foundation problems, especially in homes with slab foundations. In order for a slab foundation to be adequately supported, the soil beneath it must be firmly compacted before the slab of concrete is poured. If this crucial step is neglected or poorly done, the soil may settle and damage the home’s foundation. Foundations built on land with varying soil types may also suffer cracks and other settlement problems. Rocky soil, for example, behaves differently than expansive clay soil, so a foundation that spans these two soil types is at risk for damage when the clay soil expands during wet weather conditions and the rocky soil does not.
Before Seeking Help
If you suspect that your home’s foundation is compromised, contact several reputable foundation repair contractors for an inspection and estimate. When you call, the inspector will need a few pieces of information from you.
Know the age of your house and, if possible, any relevant history. For instance, if you know that the previous owners added a room or a porch or made any other significant changes to the house or property, tell the inspector. If you’re dealing with a foundation or wall crack, let the inspector know approximately when you noticed the crack and whether or not it has gotten larger. If you have dealt with any water issues in your home or on your property, relay that important information to the inspector, too. Keep in mind that the inspector should always come to your home to complete the inspection and estimate. Foundation problems cannot be diagnosed over the phone.
Most inspections take approximately an hour to an hour and a half. Some contractors offer free inspections, so be sure to ask about the cost up front. Some foundation repair companies employ structural engineers to consult on individual projects and help design repair methods, but other companies consider that relationship to be a conflict of interest. For an unbiased structural report, hire an independent structural engineer or ask your foundation repair contractor for a referral.
Foundation repair methods vary widely depending on climate, soil type, building materials, and the preference and expertise of the contractor, so we do not recommend one method over another. Speak to several foundation repair contractors to get a thorough assessment of the issues your home is facing and the repair methods that might work best.
The causes of some foundation problems are beyond your control, but there are a few things you can do to minimize the risk of settlement problems. Water that flows where it shouldn’t is your home’s enemy. Overflowing, clogged gutters dump gallons of water directly on your home’s foundation during a rainstorm, so be sure to keep your gutters and downspouts in good shape and free of debris. If necessary, install downspout extenders to ensure that any rainwater or melted snow is released far from the house.
Be mindful of landscaping and changes in the grade of your property. Trees, shrubs, and other plants can alter the grade of the soil as they grow, which can then route water too close to the foundation. If your yard begins to slope toward the house rather than away from it, you’ll need to regrade the soil.
If you do notice cracks or any other signs of foundation problems, monitor the issue closely, and call a foundation repair contractor. If necessary, take notes to help you keep track of when the problem appeared and whether or not it seems to worsen. Foundation problems become more serious and more expensive to repair with time, so avoid a wait-and-see approach.
After the Repair
Bringing a foundation or wall back to its original, pre-damaged state is virtually impossible—some level of movement will happen. Rarely, foundation problems can recur, particularly if the house was built using inferior materials. It is difficult for contractors to know exactly how the house was originally built, so the repair may involve trying different methods to see which one works best.
Occasionally, fixing one problem will create problems in another area. Your foundation repair contractor will be able to advise you on what to look for and how to proceed if a separate issue arises. Cracks may reappear after the foundation repair is completed, but in most cases, they are minor and not cause for concern.
Almost every foundation issue is caused by moisture problems. If it hasn’t already been done, installing a drainage system is the final step once the repair work is finished. Some foundation repair contractors offer drainage system installation, or you can consult an independent drainage system specialist. Regardless of your choice, don’t skip this important step. Ensuring that water is properly routed around your yard and away from your home’s foundation will protect your investment and reduce the likelihood of recurring issues.