"We'll never be able sell this house!" This is a statement I've heard countless times during my three decade inspection career. It's a harrowing statement agonized by way too many homeowners and often sympathized by their ill-informed Realtors. Based on my personal experience, ninety-plus percent of the time this statement is ridiculous. Why is it often spoken? It's always because of silly little cracks that form in a home's drywall, brick veneer and/or foundation walls. It seems that most folks believe that any crack is a telltale sign of structural failure, and so some type of major (expensive) repair must be performed in order to give a prospective buyer confidence that the cause of the crack(s) has been taken care of via some form of foundation underpinning or structural repair. The saddest thing is that way too many times, expensive structural repairs are implemented without the proper studies to determine if they are really needed. It's usually a complete waste of money-money the homeowners probably did not have to spend.
Let's take a look at why this statement is so ridiculous:
This type of cracking can sometimes be associated with foundation settlement; however, foundation settlement is by no means the only cause. Other causes include dimension changes associated with moisture content changes and/or warping, shrinking, or dimension changes in the wood frame building structure due to the same reason. Moisture changes will occur frequently if the interior of a home is exposed to outside air (opening windows/doors), which has varying degrees of humidity throughout the year. One very common cause of cracking is associated with moisture changes that occur following construction and remodeling efforts due to drying conditions that develop naturally inside a home especially once the central heating and air conditioning systems are utilized. These systems lower the humidity and moisture conditions inside a home. Most construction materials, including wood and gypsum sheetrock, experience post-installation drying.
Brick veneer is a very brittle material that cannot take much stress without cracking. Brick veneer is simply a protective exterior siding (weather barrier) and does not provide any structural benefit to the home.
Brick Veneer Cracking
Clay-fired brick are baked in a kiln (large oven) to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit and when the brick leave the oven they have absolute zero moisture content. The brick then spend the rest of their life taking on moisture, which causes an irreversible dimension increase or expansion. In commercial buildings, architects always employ the use of expansion joints alongside windows and doors and at periodic distances in long walls to accommodate this long-term growth. In residential construction, this is never done because it is considered unsightly. Whenever you have long walls of brick veneer with multiple windows within the wall, the continuous panel of brick below the windows experiences more growth (expansion) than the upper intermittent panels of brick broken in between the windows. This differential expansion can lead to stair-step cracking below the windows. Many foundation repair contractors (and some engineers!!) will tell you that these cracks represent foundation failure and recommend foundation underpinning as a method of repair. This is completely untrue.
There are a host of other causes of brick veneer cracking including steel lintel expansion, steel lintel rust-jacking, shrinkage of cement-based brick, expansion of clay brick resisted by shrinkage of concrete or concrete masonry, shrink-swell of underlying expansive clay soils, and compression of brick veneer by shrinkage of the wood frame building structure.
Most foundation walls in Alabama are constructed of concrete block masonry or solid concrete. Some walls are not reinforced and others are sometimes lightly reinforced. Seldom do walls contain horizontal reinforcement in the form of rebar in concrete or joint steel in masonry. All concrete materials shrink in volume soon after construction due to loss of water upon drying/curing. As the concrete materials shrink, there is a corresponding dimension change that takes place. The foundation wall is typically bonded to the buried concrete footing so the shrinkage is well restrained along the bottom. At the top, the fairly light wood frame superstructure doesn't provide much restraint. As such, vertical or stair-step cracks will often form near the centers of long walls which are widest at the top and which narrow to hairline size at the base. These are called shrinkage cracks and they are usually structurally unimportant. Home inspectors are notorious for interpreting these cracks as settlement cracks and this often prompts a visit from a foundation repair contractor who nearly always recommends expensive repairs.
So what's the bottom line? I say give us a call the next time you're inclined to invite a foundation repair contractor to evaluate cracks in drywall, brick veneer or foundation walls. Like I said, 90+ percent of the time, we've found the above scenarios to explain what's actually going on!!!