A brick foundation in disrepair

Basement Faults

The collapse of the Miami condo building earlier this year shocked everyone, except the owners. They knew the fix would cost them $15,000,000. A swimming pool had been leaking into the garage below, causing structural rebar to rust. Groundwater infiltrated as a result of construction next door as well. Delay or unwillingness to fix the issue killed 98 people. Dozens of lawsuits totaling hundreds of millions of dollars have been filed.

The foundation of a single-family home in the northeast won’t have as dramatic a result as in Miami, but basement and foundation issues can still be catastrophic. Water in a basement is a common problem. But, structural faults, such as punky sills, cracks, and high water tables, if neglected, can cause a plethora of costly repairs.

What seems benign might turn out to be a sign of a serious problem. Interior sheetrock cracks that zig-zag up to the full height of a wall, or wallpaper separating from the wall, and cracks where the wall and ceiling meet, are all clear indications of a settling problem. Accompanying foundation flaws would ratify an issue that needs immediate attention. Vertical foundation cracks are typically non-structural, but horizontal ones are nightmares and should be addressed immediately.

Other worrisome signs include doors or windows which are out of square, uneven or bouncing floors, and long cracks from windows in the basement. The causes range from settling from age, new construction fill, poor drainage, or loose soils. Even when the foundation is sound, water can encroach into the basement from the perimeter of the house via clogged gutters and downspouts. Earth sloping towards the house should be sloping away. If water during a heavy rain infiltrates your basement, another solution could be a perimeter drain, either interior or exterior. This will direct stormwater around or out of the house.

Another more difficult problem is a high water table, which can actually enter from below the basement floor, finding a hairline crack created by hydrostatic pressure. Wicking away the water from around the house will mitigate hydrostatic intrusions. But, such forces of nature may need to be simply tolerated.

In winter, drainage issues from concentrated from melting snow or runoff near the foundation, or snow build-up at exterior doors, are typical causes of wood rot at the base of door frames, and can also affect the sills separating the foundation from the house. If left unattended, a “punky” sill, that is, one that is partially rotted can cause many of the above settling problems even with a solid foundation. To test your sills, which may show deceptive dried watermarks, drive a large nail into different locations. If the nail goes in too easily in several locations over a couple of feet, the punky area will continue to expand and will have to be fixed. Don’t assume the watermarks assure a punky sill. The nail test is the best way to know for sure.

Of all the major things that could fail in your house, like the roof and the septic system, the foundation is by far the most serious, and potentially the most expensive to repair. If you have suspicions that your foundation may have a problem, call a pro to inspect it so you will know what, if anything, you are up against.  

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