Foundation Problems 101 -- Buying a Place With a Foundation Problem

31 Replies

I want to hear your most basic thoughts about buying properties with visible foundation problems. I understand there can be a huge spectrum of problems with consequences varying from "can't play a fair game of marbles" to "oh $hit the house is falling down the hill." I also know reasons for foundation issues can vary throughout the country; I live in a hilly city with clay-heavy soil and that affects how things work here.

Generally, do you consider purchasing a home with foundation problems? If you are doing buy-and-hold and you buy with the assumption that you can watch the foundation and perhaps install a French drain or push piers later, how do you strategize for future repairs? How do you figure out what will address the problem?

I want to hear all your thoughts about buying properties with foundation problems!

We are buy-and-hold and see foundation issues like any other repair. They need to be accounted for in the price. I just bought a grouping with obvious foundation issues and included a structural engineer in the due diligence process. Relative to the value of the properties, he wasn't terribly expensive ($500 for 5 buildings) and I then knew what was serious and what was cosmetic, what would wait and what wouldn't. I strongly recommend that you not make any assumptions about what the repairs will be. It's worth a couple of bucks to have a pro look at it.

@Deborah Burian -- do the professionals ever have a good idea of what is wrong without observing the foundation movement over a period of time? How do you find a good professional? Seems that there's a lot of snake oil when it comes to foundation repair.

My most basic thoughts:

- If you suspect foundation problems, have an engineer look at it prior to purchase and make recommendations

- Take those recommendations to several foundation companies and get bids for the work

- Account for the cost in your offer/purchase price

- Do the repairs upon purchase so you don't have to worry about additional movement and more costly repairs later

you should consult with a foundation expert in such circumstances and account for the costs in your offer. Yes, an expert can have a very good idea of what the problem is and what caused it. At times, a soils engineer may be necessary, but don't go there unless foundation expert requires it. Ask for referrals, but like anything else, they can be found on internet and phone book.

I am a rehabber, foundation issues can scare others away so I often find opportunities in these issues, depending on the situation.

It's a great question. I live in Indiana, so not too far from Ohio. I just bought my first house will a bad foundation wall. Other properties have had some dampness or slight cracks but nothing like this. I'm still working through it. I guess I factored it into the repairs and have been crossing my fingers that it doesn't fall over!!

Good luck!

As another Cincinnatian, I have the same concerns and look forward to responses. My experience has shown that you often get very ambiguous opinions from these "experts."

I have had inspectors tell me the best course is to monitor over time. Unfortunately, as a buyer we don't have that luxury. I have a really bad taste right now, as I brought a P.E. in to inspect my current home as I noticed some signs of a shifting foundation. His response was that it was "all tied up" and causing the house to crack as the house was constructed in a way it couldn't move. Furthermore, I should monitor it over time. Well, he couldn't have been more wrong... I kick myself as I knew better then him, but took his advice and I am now looking at a pretty hefty bill.

The next Cincy REIA is having a guy from the firm which inspected my home speaking. I'll be interested in what he says. I haven't decided whether to bite my tongue yet or not.

I just paid RamJack to "jack" up a fix and flip property, they were able to raise the foundation 1 1/2" in this corner. It was really cool to see how they drilled down 25-feet in 2 of the areas and raised the building. They warranty the work and provide the new owner with the warranty as well. Unless you knew there was an issue, you would never have known. I had a great experience.

Originally posted by Brad S.:
As another Cincinnatian, I have the same concerns and look forward to responses. My experience has shown that you often get very ambiguous opinions from these "experts."

I have had inspectors tell me the best course is to monitor over time. Unfortunately, as a buyer we don't have that luxury. I have a really bad taste right now, as I brought a P.E. in to inspect my current home as I noticed some signs of a shifting foundation. His response was that it was "all tied up" and causing the house to crack as the house was constructed in a way it couldn't move. Furthermore, I should monitor it over time. Well, he couldn't have been more wrong... I kick myself as I knew better then him, but took his advice and I am now looking at a pretty hefty bill.

The next Cincy REIA is having a guy from the firm which inspected my home speaking. I'll be interested in what he says. I haven't decided whether to bite my tongue yet or not.

So what was the right answer?

Originally posted by James H.:

So what was the right answer?

Caveat Emptor? I'm really not sure what the right answer is outside of that I should have relied on my own experience and intuition. Had I done so however, and looked for concessions, I'm not sure that the homeowner would have budged given the P.E.'s diagnosis and recommendation.

I'm really looking forward to hearing how others have addressed more ambiguous situations.

@Brad S. I'm also very interested in ambiguous situations. Also, if you have any recommendations for engineers or foundation companies that aren't full of hot air in Cincinnati, I am more than happy to hear about it. We are really just getting started in buying rental properties, although I have been a landlord for my old duplex for 10 years, and I think there's some opportunity in Cincinnati if you know how to deal with foundation problems.

@Brook W. Unfortunately I haven't found the right solution yet and I'm still looking. I have been disappointed with the P.E. who did my home inspection. I won't name names at this point, as I'm not sure he is a primary guy at the company I used. I had two of the larger foundation guys in town come in to give me some estimates and bids to repair my home foundation which resulted in two similar but slightly different recommendations.

What frosts me is that these guys are judging based on their eyeballs with no empirical data. In my opinion, measurements of the foundation would have shown the extent of shifting and where. I ended up doing this myself with a water level I made with about $10 worth of vinyl tubing. We're getting ready to rehab our primary home which will include foundation repair. Hopefully I can find someone with a bit more knowledge.

I agree that one should be prepared to deal with foundation issues in our market and could be a good opportunity. I expect this is becoming a worsening problem as we experience greater weather swings from climate change (longer dry / wet spells).

@Brook W. Personally, I like houses with foundation issues since it scares many people away. We did a house in Springdale this past winter that turned out well. We had to remove the previous wrong "repair" that did not work, excavated around the perimeter and totally rebuilt two of the walls.

@Brad S. Matt Klein, who is speaking at the REIA Sept 19, consulted with us on the structural engineering side of the project. He may be using some of the pics from the project. Unfortunately, I cannot attend the meeting this time.

BTW, if the foundation companies are recommending rods, steel plates, and pilasters, that is the repair that had failed on our property.

@Brad S. ,

I was curious what the solution to the foundation distress turned out to be. From my experience, if an engineer is going to put his seal (his career and liability) on the line, the engineer will want to see how the foundation behaves over time given different conditions (i.e. after wet and dry spells). Also, you may or may not need to measure the differential movement. Certainly, if you were to monitor over time, you would need to establish a benchmark. But if want someone to look at it once, snap fingers and give an answer, what do you think the measurements would tell you at that point? What if the differential movement was 3 inches instead of 2.5 inches, for example? Would that somehow change the diagnosis? When you pay and engineer a couple hundred bucks to come out and look at your structure, how much time do you expect that engineer to dedicate to the analysis?

I raise these questions because so many times people just say "get an engineer", but often times, getting an engineer is not the magic pill that is expected. If you want a full survey of the distress that is related to expansion and contraction of clay soils, you need to mobilize a drill rig and take samples. Then you need to do lab tests on those samples. You also need to do a floor slab survey AND monitor over several wet and dry periods. This procedure is done on commercial structures but I have never seen a home owner or residential investor have the kind of money needed to do it right.

But the solution for expansive clays will usually be the same. You can do some warranty foundation repair that will generally require multiple warranty calls over the next several years to keep shimming the remedial piers, or you will need to do chemical injection which is also not guaranteed to work the first time no matter what the contractor tells you. If you rely on the warranty, make sure look for the foundation company that has been around for 30 years and will be around for another 30 years rather than some nobody with a jack on Craigslist.

If you monitor with time, you might be able to identify surface drainage issues that weren't readily apparent on your first peak. Here you might find a solution that doesn't require as extensive of a repair. Or, at a minimum, you will find something that needs to be addressed along with the repair so that the repair remains effective over time.

Bottom line is; you should know what you are doing with foundations or have a trusted and experienced foundation guy (either engineer or foundation repair contractor) that can help you decide what the risks of a given situation are. But don't think its like calling a plumber who has total control over his working media.

Although I am a new investor, I am also a geotechnical engineer and have been searching for a place on bigger pockets to give back and help others with my knowledge. This seems like a good place to do that.

Foundation problems are serious and if not fixed correctly you could be spending a lot of money trying to fix the same problem over and over. You really should get an opinion from a professional engineer before you make any decisions on how to fix the problem with your foundation. They will do a site exploration and put together a report with recommendations on how to fix the problem.

The site exploration could be as simple as a few hand augers or it could be multiple deep SPT borings using a drill rig depending on the size of the structure, the expected soil conditions, and how bad the foundation problem is.

Take the recommendations from the geotechnical engineer and get prices from multiple foundation contractors to fix the problem. Some of the bigger foundation contractors have engineers on staff and can give recommendations and do the work.

Just a little free advice: water is what causes most foundation issues. Obviously, if the foundation was built on muck, very soft soils, or a sinkhole then this would be a major issue but usually it's water that causes the cracking or shifting. Especially if the foundation is bearing on clay or clayey soils. Clays shrink and swell depending on their moisture content/plasticity and you don't want your foundations to do the same. Make sure the water coming off the roof is property drained away from the house and not right by the foundation. Even if the foundation is not on clays, storm water runoff overtime can wash away the soils on the side of your foundations making them weaker and more vulnerable to issues down the road.

Also, if your are going to hire a geotechnical engineer make sure it's one from that specific area where the foundation problem exists. Soil conditions are very different across each state and a local expert would be your best bet. If you have a specific question about a foundation problem feel free to ask me and I will try to help.

Thanks

Originally posted by Elizabeth S.:
It's a great question. I live in Indiana, so not too far from Ohio. I just bought my first house will a bad foundation wall. Other properties have had some dampness or slight cracks but nothing like this. I'm still working through it. I guess I factored it into the repairs and have been crossing my fingers that it doesn't fall over!!

Good luck!

Hi Elizabeth,

Just curious, how bad was your foundation issue & how much did it end up costing you?

I have very little experience with homes that aren't built on solid slab foundation. A lot of the houses in my price range are on raised foundations. While I have no problem with this, I'm not sure if any properties I looked at so far were completely level like the solid slab foundations I'm used to. Do all raised foundations settle a bit or have I just had the luck of finding a lot of homes with foundation problems?

Originally posted by J Scott:
My most basic thoughts:
- If you suspect foundation problems, have an engineer look at it prior to purchase and make recommendations

- Take those recommendations to several foundation companies and get bids for the work

- Account for the cost in your offer/purchase price

- Do the repairs upon purchase so you don't have to worry about additional movement and more costly repairs later

@J Scott, what does this process typically cost?

I'm assuming you would only contact an engineer/foundation companies if you were confident you could close on the deal? Or maybe depending on how much you're dishing out for the inspection(s)?

I've never experienced a rehab that had structural damage

Originally posted by Taylor Shapiro:

@J Scott, what does this process typically cost?

I'm assuming you would only contact an engineer/foundation companies if you were confident you could close on the deal? Or maybe depending on how much you're dishing out for the inspection(s)?

I've never experienced a rehab that had structural damage

I've purchased a lot of properties with foundation problems -- in certain parts of the country, it's very common and not as much of a big deal. Generally, I'll discount my offer price by about $10K to account for repairs (though that's just a number I've picked out of thin air -- see below) and ensure there is an inspection period where I can get some professional opinions.

During the inspection period, I'll either bring in my structural engineer at $125/hour (typical rates are $100-200/hour), and he will evaluate the issue, and write up his recommendations. These written recommendations can be used for three things:

1. To get bids from contractors

2. To get approval from the city/county on permit sign off when the work is done (many inspectors would rather an engineer recommend a solution even if they don't require it)

3. To prove to future buyers that the work was evaluated by a licensed engineer and repaired per his recommendations

Generally, it takes between 2-4 hours of the engineer's time, so between $250-500. If it's a simple issue or something where we don't require a formal write-up, it could be $125-200.

Then I'll bring in the specialists to get bids.

If the problem is solved by putting up beams (bowing walls, typically), I'll bring in my foundation company who specializes in putting up beams and installing drain tile (the bowing issue is generally related to too much ground water pressing against the foundation, and the long term fix is to keep the water out). They have fixed per-beam pricing and per-foot pricing for drain tile, so I can generally estimate those costs -- we're generally looking at between $2000-10,000, depending on the number of linear feet of basement that's affected.

If the problem is something else -- sinking foundation/underpinning, failed structural components, etc. -- then I'll use the engineer's recommendations to determine what type of contractors to bring in. It may be carpenters, concrete guys, a turn-key foundation company or a GC who can do it all. I've seen issues that cost less than $5K and I've seen a couple houses where the repairs would have been $70K+ and it wasn't even worth it to consider the project, as the ARV was less than the foundation repairs would cost.

As long as you have an inspection period, you can always renegotiate once you get some bids.

Cracking!!!

Majority of the time that is the sign your foundation is having problems. Settlement, shifting, bending, etc. of your foundation are what cause the cracking.

Usually there are only two main issues with foundation problems:

1. The actual foundation wasn't designed/built correctly. This can happen for a number of reasons but mainly either the contractor didn't build it according to the plans or the engineer didn't design it correctly based on the applied loads (Dead, live, snow, wind, soil, hydrostatic, etc).

2. The soils the foundation is bearing on are compressing and/or shrinking/swelling (clay). This can also happen for many reasons but usually on a new SFH a soil exploration was not conducted.

If you want to find out the condition of a foundation just do a test pit besides the foundation (if you have access). Take a shovel and dig right next to the foundation and dig until you reach the bottom of the footing. With a one or even two story house they should only be a few feet down maximum but could be deeper depending on other factors. Do these test pits at a few locations around the house and if you see any cracks or if the foundation is only a few inches thick then you might have an issue or issues down the road. If you are not sure as to what you are seeing then you need to hire a professional. I am not sure if home inspectors actually do this but cracking is the big marker for structural problems with concrete.

Originally posted by Kevin Martin:
Cracking!!!

Majority of the time that is the sign your foundation is having problems. Settlement, shifting, bending, etc. of your foundation are what cause the cracking.


Good post...nice to get advice directly from an engineer!

When you say "cracking," I assume you mean all types of cracking -- drywall, around windows/doorways, foundation cracking, etc.. Also, doors and windows that don't close properly is another good indication.

If it's an older house then usually the foundation has already settled as far as it's going to settle. If the house has some moisture damage from a damaged roof or whatever and you can kick through the floor usually it will just be a damaged subfloor but sometimes you will want to scab the joists as well. If the flooring is at a seriously bad tilt, you can build a floor on top of the subfloor rather than jack up the house by cutting 2x4 or 2x6 at 16" or 24" centers along the path of the incline so that the floor is level along this path. This could also give you a chance to easily put in some more insulation without crawling under the house. You would of course want to remove base moulding first and remove the doors in that area.

Is it easy to see if work has been done to fix foundation issues? house I'm I'm looking at is from 1948. I see cracking on one wall in the house and there's probably probably about a 1-2" dip in another bedroom.

Create Lasting Wealth Through Real Estate

Join the millions of people achieving financial freedom through the power of real estate investing

Start here