Winter: A Great Time to Inspect Your Home’s Foundation

Now is an ideal time to inspect your home’s foundation since the summer soil shrinkage has passed and soil expansion from spring showers has not yet occurred. You can check your home’s structural integrity yourself or hire a professional to do it for you.

To perform the maintenance check yourself, you will need a laser level, graph or plain paper and a pencil.Draw Your Home’s Footprint. Make a basic sketch of the outline of your home using a computer drawing program, graph paper or plain paper. Be sure to indicate doors and windows.

Inspect Your Doors and Windows. Whenever an opening is cut or created in a wall, such as a door or window, it becomes the weakest point in the wall. Because of this, doors and windows often display the first signs of settlement. Three common observations to look for include: 1) gaps between the frame and door or window, 2) cracks extending from the corners of doors or windows, and 3) the separation of a door or window from the framing or exterior finish. You can also check for misalignment by opening and shutting doors and windows to see that they are operating properly and that they lock or latch properly too. Note any of these signs on your sketch.

Check Your Floor. Walk through your home and note any abrupt changes in the floor such as cracks, sudden drop offs or rises. You may even notice the floors dropping and separating from walls, forming a gap between the floor and the wall.

Another way to check if your floors are sloping is to take a gas or laser level and set it on the floor of the main level pointing toward the walls. Measure the difference between the laser line and the floor on one side of the room and compare it to the distance between the laser line and the floor on the opposite side of the room. Make a note of any differences on your sketch.

Check Your Walls and Ceilings for Cracks. Cracks in drywall throughout the house are a good indicator of settlement and may be more obvious in the uppermost levels of your house. Look for these common signs and note them on your drawing: 1) drywall cracks extending from the corners of doors and windows 2) cracks that follow drywall seams 3) drywall tape buckling, pulling or ripping. Note on your sketch the direction, width and severity of the cracks.

Check Your Interior Foundation Walls. In this step, look for cracks on the interior of your crawlspace foundation walls or basement walls. On basement and foundation walls built of concrete block, horizontal cracks and cracks that form stair-step like patterns along the mortar lines are common and a sign of settlement; however, for basement walls constructed of poured concrete, vertical cracks are more common.

Inspect the Exterior of Your Home. Finally, walk around the outside of your home and visually look for any shifting, sinking or other movement, especially around chimneys and patios. Since most chimneys are built on a foundation not connected to the house, they are at a greater risk for settlement and will separate away from the home.

In brick homes, stair step cracking along the mortar lines is a common sign of foundation settlement. As the home settles further, vertical cracks may widen, indicating that the wall is rotating outward.

If after your inspection you notice any of the following: 1) cracks that grow and shrink in size over time, 2) foundation walls that are visibly bowed, or 3) leaning or sloping floors, then it is probably time to contact a professional contractor that specializes in structural repairs. Jesse Waltz, Professional Engineer and President of JES, a local company that specializes in foundation repair and has worked on thousands of homes, cautions against ignoring these signs. “Foundation settlement problems do not go away on their own, and in many cases, they actually get worse,” says Waltz.

Fortunately, a home experiencing foundation settlement issues can be permanently stabilized. According to Waltz, “JES uses engineered solutions that transfer the weight of the home from the unstable soils to competent load-bearing soil. When left untreated, not only does the structure become more and more unstable and unsafe, but the value of the home declines too.”