San Antonio - Are foundation issues that common?

22 Replies

Hi Everybody!

I am moving to SA in a few months and as I do more and more research I have noticed that many of the wholesale deals and some of the properties listed on the MLS mention foundation issues.

Is this very common?  Perhaps in a percentage of total properties?  

Are specific areas more common to have these issues than others?  

I am sure the bowing walls and cracked corners are some of the signs but what would be some other less common visual cues to a foundation issue?  

How much does it cost to repair a middle of the road foundation issue in SA?  

What is "static testing" and how does it work?  How do you fix issues the test exposes since it seems most of the houses are on slab or pier foundations?

Thanks for the input in advance :)

@Dannielle Hoffman I've always walked when I found out there were foundation problems. I had one a long time ago that was relatively easy to fix, but by fixing the foundation, the floors were then sloped. The walls were then cracked and the roof developed a leak. A water pipe in the wall broke and flooded the bathroom, a couple of windows cracked and a myriad of other smaller problems. Other than that, ah . . . there is no other than that. I stopped doing them.

You could call a local foundation company in SA, ask them their typical range of charges, how many they do a year, how long to get it fixed if you had them start, does it affect the water or sewer lines, how long does permitting take, and get a pretty good idea how common of a problem it is and about how much to expect to pay. They will need to know if it is a slab foundation or if it is on posts.

By the way, I have an Owner Financing place available in Kyle, just up the road ready to be moved into. If you have further interest send me a Colleague notice and I can email you some info.

Yes, foundation issues are pretty common in SA and surrounding areas. If the home has a brick exterior, you may see a crack line that runs up the exterior wall. Or cracks in the side of the foundation itself if it's a concrete slab. 

Agreed tha thet best way to determine pricing is to call a few local foundation repair companies. Many of them provide some type of warranty. Be sure to ask about that and what the terms and conditions are. Having a warranty on the work can be beneficial when you want to sell the house. 

@Danielle Hoffman 

It will be difficult to tell foundation issues by %, it is like everywhere else, poor quality construction leads to issues including poor compaction of base/soil where the foundation was built, which causes foundation problems. Houses here in San Antonio are mainly constructed on slab on grade foundations.

Houses in San Antonio topically do not have basements, so you will likely see any bowing walls (due to hydrostatic soil pressure against walls). Cracks and floors not level are some of the best indication of foundation issues. Cracks will developed particularly from openings, such as windows and doors. Open and close every single door inside the house, is any door not closing correctly and stuck in the floor/carpet? Look for recently repaired brick mortar, especially diagonally from the corners of the openings. Cracks are obvious, but also look for large openings on wooden floors or tiles; however, unfortunately is hard to know/feel cracks under carpet. Recently patch walls with fresh paint to cover repair of cracks. If you are unsure if the floor is level, buy a construction level with a laser from the big dollar store, and place on the floor and measure from one corner to the other on a room. Some of this may not be related to foundation issues but just poor quality construction and other, but I recommend using your judgment the best you can.

I’ve seen and inspected static testing. Basically, is a test to tell you how much settlement an existing pier foundation have with time when applying a static load (this loads are usually huge, 60 to 32 Tons of concrete blocks or a hydraulic actuator set-up to provide these loads). The settlement is measured by some gauges. The designer of records should have made the calculations for this piers to settle some, and the test will confirm the engineer calculations for the design before continuing construction of the structure (bridges, high rise buildings, etc, definitely not a single house or small apartment complex). That said, these tests are expensive and more for multi-million construction projects. I’m not sure how you can apply this on an existing home, especially if it’s likely to be built on slab foundation. There may be other simpler tests that could be done on existing houses and that could be affordable, none that I know yet.

If I were buying a house with foundation issues, I would likely call a structural engineer or geotechnical engineer and pay him to take a look and quick advice of what he thinks. Also I would call at least two companies that focus mainly in foundation repair and have them take a look for an estimate. 


If you are looking for a fixer-upper, the seller is probably not taking care of the house. These sellers will neglect most things including watering the yard. Yes we have very hot and dry summers. This is really bad with expansive soil that we have in most parts of the city. The ground dries out and can push the slab, sometimes cracking it. It also happens with the concrete or cedar post piers. The piers move up/down or lean which causes issues.

I have had foundations that cost 3k to fix, but some have been 12k. Depends how bad, 1story vs 2story, etc. As mentioned above, fixing the foundation can cause some plumbing issues. Drain lines can crack spilling sewage under the house which will in turn cause more foundation issues. Tests should be done to check for these issues as soon as the foundation work is done.

Foundation issues are just like any other issues. They have to be factored into the price that you are willing to pay. I always over estimate. The is a great bargaining tool to use with the seller. They know it will cost 1000s. They know sheetrock, painting, etc will have to be done also causing more 1000s to be spent. Dont let it scare you away, just account for the repairs.

Howdy @Dannielle Hoffman as a Real Estate Inspector here in San Antonio I can tell you we see "indications of previous structural movement" in more homes than we don't.  Cracks in the foundation, stone/brick facades, stucco, drywall, tile, out of adjustement doors and windows are all evidence of this and believe me they are all very common.  

That said, there is a major difference between previous structural movement and foundation problems and while they do come along every now and again true slab on grade foundation problems that need to be repaired are not common in the homes I inspect.  As mentioned we have very expansive soils in the greater SA area and as a result we expect homes to move.  Ensuring consistent soil moisture content is key in this area.  We want the homes to move up and down together, not deferentially, or one corner at a time if that makes sense.  Pay close attention to the drainage around the home.  Depressed and eroded areas near the foundation lead to ponding water, inconsistent soil moisture content and differential settlement of the home.

I recently inspected a home that had previous foundation repairs and for the life of me I couldn't tell why.  Cracked and loose foundation corners and cracks along the brick lug were the only thing I noted at the time of inspection.  The first picture shows two areas of repair, the second is a "cracked and loose foundation corner" which is just an indication of previous structural movement and not a major concern.

Cliff notes: Yes we have foundation problems in the area; however few actually require major repairs.  Some areas, such as Alamo Heights and Windcrest, are worse than others.

PS- static testing you are likely refering to is a sewer drain test.  It's very simple, plug the sewer at the clean out, fill the pipes with water and wait to see if the water level goes down at all.  If it does then you likely have a leak in the drains in the foundation.

@Mitchell Patterson Yes, that is the static test I am referring to (maybe the person who mentioned it to me is calling it be the wrong name). So how does one go about fixing a drain that is leaking after foundation repair on a slab on grade? What about water lines into the house? Are there any home warranty companies down there that cover foundation issues? Can you cover with home insurance?

Hydrostatic test. 

Hopefully they do the testing before they fill in the holes under the house. They can trace the lines that are broken and repair.

Sorry, dont know the insurance part or home warranty.

@Mitchell Patterson , @Dannielle Hoffman , @Rick Pozos

Did any of you read my post?  I'm sure there are static load testing for foundations, and yes, there are also pressurized static testing on water pipe lines or other pressurized lines; they are very different from each other.  There are also static loads (pressure) drain test.  These are likely done on sanitary manholes and pipe sewers before construction for storm water and sanitary systems of greater sizes (pipes ranging from 15" diameter or above, manholes or sections of 36" or above), not a 4" or at most, 6" drainage pipes coming from a house.  No need to do a water pressure testing, it will likely be obvious if there are any leaks in the house from broken pipes due to foundation problems, but be careful and always check the attic if you have access (also ask for water bills if available).   

All depends on who give you that advice of foundation testing... someone that is a professional engineer or someone that heard it before and somehow thought that all this is applicable for all types of foundation?

@Mitchell Patterson , @Dannielle Hoffman , @Rick Pozos

Interesting the photos, I would not be concern of the plaster hairline cracks.  Anything above 1/4", I would if its on the structural side of things, not plaster. The cracks on the garage seems to be very normal, perhaps they were wider before the foundation repair. If this is the case, super really good job for the contractor!! Please let me know which one work on these! 

I would agree with Mitchell that expansive soil is a huge problem, and the best way to deal with it is replacing it or some sort of great drainage on the surface. Unfortunately, once the house is built and the topography or drainage can't be improve without extensive work or costs, there is little room. i.e. The soil expands, you repair the foundation, only to see it moving again because of the drought season, then the wet season (also cold and hot seasons, which are likely related here in San Antonio). Cracks will likely open and close depending on the season and moisture content on the soil and all that. For example, you repaired a foundation with a contractor, and you didn't take care of the major drainage problem, cracks will likely appear again, and you will complain about the "poor job" the subcontractor did on your house. Hopefully these cracks are minor and you can say that the house was repaired properly.

Loving this discussion, hope some geotechnical engineers can provide some advice.  

@Josue Vargas Thank you so much for the explanation on why the foundation issues occur! That really helps me understand and have a better idea on how to stop it on my rentals, personal residence, etc. So why hasn't any come up with a building option that deals with these issues? Hydraulic pylons, wider triangular footings or something like that?

@Dannielle Hoffman

There is no solution for expansive soils once the house/foundation is built other than control the runoff water or underground water once foundation is repaired. 

The best solution, if there is for sure expansive soils, is to design the foundations to support that.  Examples  are, testing the soil before construction, and excavating the material and replacing with good compacted aggregate base course or other plataforms, then design the slab thicker enough to "bridge" any soil movements under the slab. 

Remediation of settlement or differential settlement issues usually works just fine for houses that have no expansion soils and have already settle for a long time (20+ year houses).  

Keep in mind that all houses settle some, specially new houses, but that doesn't necessarily means an issue to the foundation.  These settlements are uniform and small enough not causing issues to the structural integrity of the house.  The problem is large settlements and specially differential  settlements.  Like someone explained above, some areas of the house settle more or quicker than others, causing cracks on  slabs, structure issues, and the worst, water issues! 

@Dannielle Hoffman  Welcome to Texas. Having lived in Northern Illinois and Texas I can tell you from direct experience there are definite differences in construction methods and the problems created by the environment. It will save you a lot of trouble and $$$ to familiarize yourself with what the normal methods are in your new area.  Most of them were arrived at over many years thru trial and error.

Ah yes, cracks in drywall, a sign of disaster taking place in Illinois, in Texas the next question is; "Is it getting bigger?" If not don't worry about it.

A good relationship with an experienced foundation contractor and experienced plumber who have worked in the area for many years would be invaluable. They will know from experience the areas of town that have problems, sometimes because of the soil and sometimes because of the builder that built the subdivision.  A good foundation contractor will not rush to sell you foundation repair if he sees that what you are experiencing is normal seasonal

Most of the houses investors deal with in DFW area that are less than 40 yrs old are concrete slab with reinforcing beams. Stop by a new house being built and study what they are doing (or You-Tube it).  These present the greatest repair problems because getting to the water and drain lines under the slab is labor intensive ($$$) and sometimes you have to tear up things to make the repairs.

The "static test" being discussed is shorthand for a hydrostatic test of the water lines and the drain lines. I am always surprised that someone will spend 50 to 500k on a house and not spend $300 on a static test. You absolutely want to test any house you would ever invest in. It can be a deal killer or it can be a point of negotiation.  We have walked away from many houses we had under contract because they failed the H&S test and the sellers would not negotiate, and we have re-negotiated the price on some. 

 You especially want to test a house that is over 30 years old and has cast-iron drain lines because they can rust thru and leak under the slab and will cause long term damage to the foundation. People can live in a house for a long time, and if the drains don't stop up they may not realize the damage that leaking drains can cause.

 Any good foundation company will have you test the house after they lift it to see if anything has been disturbed by the lift, and any warranty they have is voided if repairs aren't made. Many times a foundation company will tell the owner that their measurements indicate a possibility of a plumbing issue based on how the house is heaving or settling and recommend that you have a plumber do a H&S test.

Once you own property in Texas, the best way to deal with the "gumbo" soil is to keep the soil damp and therefore in its expanded condition by faithfully using soaker hoses around the perimeter of the home.  We furnish hoses and timers to all of our rentals and send them reminders during the hot dry summer months.

The answer to your latest question about solutions is cost. The more expensive homes $1 Mil and up often use deep concrete pilings with a crawl space. Referred to as "pier and beam" construction, but the additional labor and material adds so much to the cost that you don't see many investor homes unless they are older (40+ years)

Best of luck in your relocation and profitable investing.

@Dannielle Hoffman

I would not even bother to see any "you tube" foundation construction methods, unless you want to DIY for a fence or something small, not for a house. And if you do, good luck. No hard feelings, but unless you are building some of the "very tiny houses like you seen in TV (real estate pornography)", you are asking for trouble in the long run. Not to mention permits and reviews of plans, etc....

Be careful with "experienced" contractors. Remember, they want your business, they will likely tell you that you have to contract them because of maybe some minor, or major issues. Major issues are the exception to look to contractors, but please let them know you are looking for competitive bids and you are contacting others.

Foundation damages are not likely cause from plumbing issues, this is related to old plumbing issues like old materials and such, not a foundation issue unless the leakage is causing soft pockets of soil underneath the slab. And that should be a leakage form years affecting not a spot bot a big area of the house to reflect any foundation issues.

@Mark Trantham thanks for the post and welcome to BP! 

So if keeping the soil moist is the solution to not having foundation issues, is xeriscape or that grass like stuff you have the better ground cover solution? How long and how often do you water around the perimeter of your house to precent contraction of soil?

For San Antonio I'd say yes it's pretty common with the type of soil we have. I look at about 15 wholesale deals a week and a little over half of them have some type of foundation trouble.  It's not a huge issue if you have a reliable foundation company that doesn't charge you crazy numbers and you can trust. 

for all these reasons Texas is the last place I would buy out of state rental property :)  I have funded maybe 20 deals there for flippers maybe a few more.. and each and everyone had foundation issues.. so they can be fixed but the poor owner who had to sell for discount they get hosed.

@Danielle Hoffman @Josue Vargas @Jay Hinrichs

The reference to YouTube or visiting houses under construction was to see the construction methods that are common in a geographical area.  I find many people without a costruction background don't have any idea how piping and drains are run under slab type foundation and can learn a lot by seeing a slab foundation after the piping is in place before the concrete is poured.

A good, experienced, contractor won't try to sell you services that aren't needed, but getting multiple bids is always wise, until you get more experience.

We see problems in DFW area all the time that are caused or exacerbated by plumbing leaks.

Xeriscape is great to cut your water bills and maintenance time. You are still going to need to water the perimeter of the home. If you have a landscape irrigation system, you can be sure that the zones around the house water enough, or you can use soaker hoses.  The amount depends on the temperature, Texas summers can be brutal.  Good neighbors can be very helpful.

@Jay Hinrichs ... we have to play with the hand we are delt, I wish we could buy houses with acres of trees to harvest! Enjoyed your BP podcast, especially your honesty about the hard times in the RE business. Thanks for taking the time to tell your story.

Hey, all my San Antonio Friends :)  Does anyone know a reasonably priced structural engineer who knows residential and would do a consult for a set fee?  I have a roofer telling me this house wasn't built right and the roof is sloping and he has to install a big Perlin beam to fix it.  I also need to remove a post and want to see what the best way to move the load to the next support is (sister joist, whole new beam, etc.).  Thanks for any input!

@Dannielle Hoffman After dealing with several PE's that couldn't give me a correctly engineered design, A-1 engineering in both Austin and San Antonio was able to take care of some foundation engineering and multiple wall removals at a reasonable price.

Never, not ever underestimate the significance of a foundation problem. Of all the problems one can find with residential or even commercial real estate the subject of foundations is frequently up there with the subject of nightmares, as in one being synonimous with other. 

Most expeienced investors would just walk and keep on walking but if you are up for a challenge perhaps a visit to a few local structural engineers and foundation contractors in the area would be in order. 

When you look at a foundaton and can identify one problem with the foundation typically there can be from 30 to 50 other problems associated with that foundaton defect, and non of them cheap or quick to fix. 

as @Mike Castellow mentioned above it may just be a matter of finding the right person to work with in dealing with foundation problems. You may just need to do a bit of research if you want to work in that area.

Let me begin by prefacing my experience or lack there of.  I have been a Construction Superintendent/Project Manager for 16+ years and have been in and around the construction industry my whole life. I am not a Structural Engineer, Achitect or any other kind of Design Profesional. 

Expansive soils do seem to be common in and around San Antonio. I myself just finished a 200 unit complex on the west side where the soils had a Plasticity Index(PI) of 34. This very high.  From my experience a none expansive soil would have a PI of 17 or less. As a reference sand would have a PI of 0 or slightly more depending on the loom of the soil.  Not all areas of San Antonio have soils with these conditions. There are areas where the soil is thin and mostly stone. In Amarillo where I was building previously they called this type of soil “Fat Clay” which was just a way to describe how the soil reacted when it got wet. Which is to say it expands when wet and shrinks when it gets dry.  Ever see pictures of soil when it is very dry that looks Ike there are cracks through out, that is because the clay has shrunk.  

The effects of expansive soils on a foundation are:

When the soil gets wet from periods of extensive rainfall, the soil will expand and push up (heave) on the outer edge of the foundation. This will cause doors that were previously operating correctly to suddenly stick shut or the doorknob strikes to not latch any longer with big gaps at the top corner of the door. You may see cracks above the doors and windows inside on the drywall and outside of the house in the facade. Depending on the type of roofing system you may see the drywall on the walls separating from the ceiling in the interior walls. If you pull the carpet/pad back or have a bare slab you may see cracks in the slab. Sometimes you can look outside at the ridge line of the roof and see a sway in the middle of the roof.  

There are ways to minimize the effects of this, but I have never seen nore heard of the problem being completely cured. One way to minimize this is by over excavation of the affected soils and replace it with a low PI soil (calichi, sand, limstone) and compact to the required psi as designed by a structural engineer.  When designing the foundation for expansive soils, structural engineers typically will require a post tension (PT) slab (you can look this up on YouTube or just google it). In addition SE will design a “honeycomb footing” this just means there are footings running the width and length of the slab criss crossing perpendicular to each other the entire area of the foundation. Additionally, they will sometimes drape PT cables in the middle of the footings to pull up the middle of the slab and push down the outer portions of the slab. After the fact you should slope the soils around the perimeter of the foundation to allow water drain away from the house. You may also employ soaker hose around the perimeter of the foundation to keep the soils at constant moisture conditions. 

In my opinion I would not be too concerned with soil expansion, but settling is another story entirely. One way to tell the difference is to get a laser level from your local hardware store as someone else mentioned. Place it in the middle of the room, measure the height of the beam up close to the laser and then at the outer edges of the room being measured. If the measurements at the outer edge is less than at the level this would indicate that the soils are expanding (heaving). If the measurements at the outer edge is greater then this could indicate settling in the foundation. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. You should always consult with a credible contractor. As to how to tell if they are a credible contractor or not is much tuffer. I have been doing this along time and I still get fooled from time to time.  My advise would be to get and CALL references. 

Sorry for the long post, hope this helps.