Identifying Major Structural Problems

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For many of you, the thought of having a home inspector evaluate one of your listings during a purchase offer can send chills down your spine.  Today’s inspectors are extremely worried about their liability and so many will qualify their inspections/reports with statements like, “The cracks in the brick veneer…or the cracks in the foundation wall…or the cracks in the floor slab…or the cracks in the drywall…need to be further evaluated by a structural specialist.”  Many of you have grown accustomed to inviting foundation and structural repair contractors to perform this evaluation which many times lead to the recommendation of some type of expensive repair.  Well I’m here to tell you that it has been my experience that the number of major structural problems I’ve looked at for home buyers at the urging of a home inspector were of no structural concern.  And I can assure you this: if a serious problem existed then you and the homeowner would know about it (unless of course it’s discovered during a crawl space or attic inspection-an area usually not visited by you or the homeowner.)

Today I am going to go over how to recognize major structural problems and help you be better prepared.

Identifying Your Major Structural Problems

Based on my 31 years of inspection experience, major structural problems are usually obvious to the naked eye.  There will be readily noticeable tell-tale clues inside or outside the home.  Examples include noticeable roof, floor or ceiling sag; significantly sloping floors; wracked door and window frames; and large interior drywall cracks.  In spite of what you may have been told, unsightly cracks in exterior brick veneer that are not complemented by large drywall cracks inside the home, are not signs of major structural problems.  The same holds true for unsightly cracks in concrete slabs or tile-covered slabs.  If the slab does not exhibit slope and there are no drywall cracks nearby, then there is no major problem.

Everyone must understand that brick veneer is not a structural component of the home.  In other words, it serves no structural purpose or function.  It supports nothing.  The brick could be torn off the home with no adverse structural consequence.  Unfortunately, brick veneer, the material, is very brittle so it cannot withstand much stress without cracking to relieve stress.  Hence, very minor amounts of foundation settlement or minor amounts of sag in a garage door steel lintel beam can lead to unsightly cracking in brick veneer.  The next time you see cracks in brick veneer, consider this: if the home had vinyl siding or wood/cement board siding instead, then
no one would have expressed concern because these other siding materials don’t crack or noticeably distort with minor amounts of settlement or sag.  As a structural engineer I can assure you (perhaps most importantly) that the home (the wood frame structure and foundation behind the brick) does not care about minor amounts of sag or settlement.  Similarly, concrete slabs are a lot like brick veneer in that they crack easily due to tensile stresses which develop mainly from volume shrinkage.  It is nearly impossible to construct a concrete slab the foot-print size of a home and not get several, widely-spaced, shrinkage cracks.  Whenever the floor is covered with carpet or some other non-adhered material, these cracks are never noticed.  But adhere ceramic tile or glued down hardwood to the slab and you will surely see cracks that concern most buyers and home inspectors cracked foundation.  But like brick veneer cracks, unless there are sloping floors and wracked doors near the slab cracks, then the cracks are most likely shrinkage cracks and of no structural concern.

So you might wonder, “How can I spot major structural problems early on during the listing process?”  Well, let’s first define what constitutes a major structural problem.  I think a blanket statement might be: Something that creates an unsafe condition or has the potential to develop into an unsafe condition.  And I use the term “unsafe” loosely.  In other words, unsafe does not only mean a danger to people.  It can also mean a condition whereby the building structure distorts to an unacceptable level, either through floor/roof/ceiling sag or differential foundation settlement.  Ongoing excessive distortion can eventually lead to excessive stress in structural members which in turn can lead to failure (breakage) so structural repairs may be needed to prevent this type of problem from developing. Major structural problems can be divided into two broad categories: foundation and superstructure. Foundation problems consist of either excessive differential settlement or lateral movement. The former creates stair-step cracks in concrete block or diagonal cracks in solid concrete. The later causes lean which can be hard to notice or inward bulging which always creates a horizontal crack in either concrete block or concrete. Superstructure problems can be readily identified by sloping floors/ceilings/roof; sagging floors/ceilings and wracked window and door frames. All of these usually cause large drywall cracks to develop.

In closing, the next time you hear a home inspector say, “I recommend that you get a structural specialist to evaluate these cracks” think about what will happen if you invite a foundation repair contractor to evaluate the cracks.  Will they recommend a foundation repair-even if there are no major drywall cracks, wracked doors or windows, or sloping floors? You must understand that foundation repair contractors are in the business of repairing foundations.  The salesmen working for these companies typically work on commission.  Hence, every sale leads to more food on their table.  Instead of hiring a foundation repair contractor, consider hiring an independent structural engineer or knowledgeable building contractor to evaluate the cracks/problems and make sure they can explain why something is or is not a serious problem requiring repair.  And if you hire an engineer and he recommends a repair, insist that he/she develop a repair plan that you can give to three or more contractors so they all can bid on the same scope of repair.  This is very important.

For more information about major structural problems concerning brick veneer and concrete slab cracks,  or have any questions about one of our other inspection services, please contact us today!

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