You’ve all but forgotten that checklist you compiled when searching for your first house. Back then you were so diligent that you could spot possible foundation compromise a mile away. Because the very last thing you wanted in a dream home was sketchy footing, you did your research and followed suit.
Thankfully it all worked out because this house truly is a dream. After living in it for close to two decades now, it’s safe to say that you know its every nuance — which is why, when you first noticed hairline cracks starting to form above the built-in bookshelves, you took cautionary note. Then, when that east-facing window in your bedroom started giving you trouble, you picked up a can of WD-40 in a slight panic.
What, exactly, does it look like when a house settles normally? And how is that different from foundation deterioration?
As with any indication of progressive structural damage, it’s best to identify foundation compromise proactively. The earlier you note a significant issue, the less complicated it will be to repair.
Begin your evaluation with a sight-line check of exterior walls. You should note each wall running perfectly straight from right to left and top to bottom. If there is slight curvature or a bulge in the middle, chances are high that your house is doing more than just settling.
Next, glance up at your chimney. Does it stand straight with no discernible lean? If you do notice marked tilt, is the angle towards or away from your house?
Finally, grab a sturdy-handled tool and walk slowly around the perimeter of your home. Look for signs of flaking or cracks in the baseline foundation. Probe areas of concern to test for strength. If you can break a chunk off easily, the material is damaged.
Is your basement or crawl space supported by vertical posts? Check to make sure they stand at a strict 90-degree angle. Run a marble along floors to see if they sag and note whether or not adjacent walls bow. Repeat the marble test on ancillary structures such as your front porch and stoop.
Examine ceramic floor tiles. Among the hardest flooring options available, glazed tiles are manufactured with an eye towards optimal durability. If yours are damaged, check to see if the cracks are spider-veined, stair-stepped, L-shaped or run a horizontal line across an extended area.
You were right — your sticky bedroom window may also be a further indication of foundation compromise, especially if it’s only been acting up lately. Check all other windows for new catches and test doors to see if they firmly latch with a gently close.
Study door and window inset seams for signs of water stain. Similar to flaky foundation, if woodwork and plaster are soft enough to peel and break off, it has been weakened.
Who to Call
Do yourself, your home and your bank account a favor and go straight to an engineer who is familiar with structural and geotechnical — soil related — repair. Home inspectors, Angie’s List, and even your local land use office should be able to provide you with referrals.
Course of Action
Remedial efforts will vary in scope depending on the cause and extent of damage, but in all cases, you should act as quickly as possible. If your structure appears sound after a blow from a singular event such as earth tremor or flood, repair may center around sealing cracks and reinforcing isolated points of stress.
Digging out and re-pouring foundation either under a portion of the house or its entirely is a much larger undertaking — but one which should be viewed from the perspective of safety assurance and future structural integrity.
Options to safeguard your home against habitual compromise include re-grading the yard so that it slopes downwards at an angle of six inches for every ten horizontal feet, removal of deep-rooted trees and shrubs less than five feet from exterior walls and upgrading your water drainage system.
It’s a good thing your research and recourse instincts are still strong, because thanks to proactive foundation restoration, all you have to do now is settle in and watch your dream home settle — normally!