When to Worry About When Your House Is Settling

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one example of problematic ground settling.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one example of problematic ground settling. (Image: Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

An amount of settling is natural and expected, but even a solidly constructed home may not endure for long if the ground beneath it is too unstable. A poorly prepared foundation base could lead to uneven soil settling and, in turn, unbalanced structural trouble for your home. When a house begins to shift excessively, cost, sales potential and safety become legitimate concerns. However, less worrisome, typical issues could be the cause of some “unsettling” yet easier-remedied cosmetic issues.

Establish Cause

Before you begin to worry too much, first determine whether your house is actually settling. Shrinkage of building materials causes gaps between floorboards, "pulling-away" at corners and seams and other cosmetically unattractive, yet structurally harmless blemishes. Rectify some of these lesser problems with appropriate fillers, such as plaster, grout or caulking, sanding and repainting. Unfortunately, your house may indeed be settling beyond what its joints were built to handle if you find that walking through your home slightly resembles riding a roller coaster; you discover earthquake-fissure-like cracks in your basement walls or you have to force open unlocked doors.

Cost

Begin to worry and take action immediately if you suspect that your contractor is planning to build your new home on unstable ground. Hire a soil testing company (of your choice) to determine if the contractor intends to build the home on fill dirt that is too loose, sandy or clay-like. Depending on the lot, builders occasionally fill a building site with hauled-in soil to construct a base. Although this is normally a permissible practice, contractors must adhere to strict codes for the groundwork to pass as stable. The cost of hiring a soils engineer now will be less than a legal battle latter if your future home sustains serious settling damages.

Settling problems of an older home will require a structural engineer’s expert opinion. For example, adding piers to stop further cracks in your foundation, without skilled advice, could cause the pressure to shift elsewhere creating a worsened situation. Costs will vary greatly depending on the problems and solutions recommended, but hiring an expert could save you money on hasty, unnecessary and expensive mistakes.

Saleability

Unless you’re willing to take a loss and sell your structurally unsound home as-is, “settle” your home’s settling issues before listing with a real-estate agent. Without letting your home’s structural issue turn you into a puddle on the floor, tackle issues such as a leaky foundation. Regardless of whether you want to sell your home now or later, water leaks caused by shifting can become a mould-infested health problem.

Talk to a qualified engineer, hydrologist, soil scientist or building inspector to solve leaks from settling that has disturbed your home's drainage. He may offer exterior suggestions such as replacing the drain tile, creating swales or adding water injector pipes. When the house is sound and leak-free, fill the ugly cracks and take pride listing a solid home.

Safety

A home with any leaning, bowing or bulging whether differential or consistent becomes an urgent worry, placing your safety at risk. Movement of foundation walls could ultimately lead to a collapse of the house. There are also concerns of stress on gas pipes, water or sewer lines and electrical wiring from a badly shifting structure resulting in toxic fumes, mold or even fire. If your home’s settling is causing safety doubts, seek immediate qualified advice from a certified building engineer, electrician, foundation repair service, the Gas Company or local fire department.

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