Matthew Steger WIN Elizabethtown

Foundation Cracks

As concrete shrinks when it dries, most homes have some amount of cracking in concrete slabs and in foundation walls. In just about every home you’ve ever been in, you’ve probably seen hairline cracks in garage floors, basement slabs, and patios. These are most often related to settlement indicating normal expansion and contraction of the concrete and, in most cases, are not an area of major concern. In most cases, however, I still recommend the home owner periodically check the length and width of any visible cracks as a preventive measure to determine if a more serious hidden issue may exist. Since a home inspector is typically only in a home once, and for 2 to 3 hours at that, it is often difficult to know if a crack was gradual over a number of years or has happened in the past few months due to a possible more serious issue.

Taking photos of any visible cracks is a great way of comparing what a crack looks like now to what it may look like in a few months or 5 years. Most non-serious cracks (normally hairline in nature) happen gradually over time as a home settles or the exterior grade absorbs and drains ground water. Even large changes in the weight distribution within the home may lead to small wall or ceiling cracks or nail pops.

The foundation cracks in these two homes exceeded 1/2" in width at their widest points and indicated more than normal movement of the foundation.

There are easy things that every home owner can do to help prevent most foundation and concrete slab cracks. Ensuring that the exterior grading around a home’s perimeter is pitched away from the home and that this grading is compacted will help minimize the amount of water accumulating along the foundation. Large amounts of water draining towards the home’s perimeter can lead to wet basements as well as freeze/thaw damage. Loose uncompacted soil can absorb large amounts of water. Since water is the most common culprit for damage within the home, controlling it as quickly as possible once it touches the house (and the ground around the home) is important. This includes properly sized and installed gutters that are clear of debris and leaves, downspouts that drain at least 4’ away from the home, as well as properly pitched and compacted exterior soil. During home inspections, I routinely find downspouts that drain too close to the foundation. Low spots under a deck are also quite common but often hidden from view. Water accumulated under a deck may also attract insects or rodents to the home at a place that provides a good nesting location.

One easy way of inspecting the home’s foundation is to look along the length of the foundation walls. If you see bulges or leaning along the length, this likely indicates that movement has occurred. Small hairline cracks that emanate through exterior parging are common and most often do not indicate a serious issue. The parging may also flake off over time. If a foundation crack is wider than ¼”, this often points to movement greater than normal settlement. Also, a crack that is much wider at one end than the other end is another indication of settlement beyond normal since one area is pulling away from another. A proper foundation inspection will entail inspection of the home’s interior and exterior. In most cases, there are clues to be found that indicate foundation issues. A cluttered or finished basement, of course, greatly limits the inspector's ability to see potential issues in the interior foundation walls.

This foundation crack was approx. 1/8" wide and ran the full length of the
foundation's height. The crack also caused the outer parging to flake off.

Floor joists that no longer rest properly on metal or wooden beams or that have fallen out of beam pockets, windows or doors that stick or do not open altogether, support columns or piers that are no longer plumb, floors or interior walls that are no longer level are common clues to look for inside the home. Many older homes (from the early 1900s and before) that I inspect have floors that pitch towards one side or may lean towards the center of the home. Keep in mind that building standards probably didn’t exist in older homes in our area, whereas modern standards require floors or walls to be flat over a certain distance. A proper foundation inspection would entail looking at the home’s structure wherever it is visible such as in the basement and attic. Cracked or otherwise damaged roof trusses or rafters that are pulling away may indicate issues far down below in the foundation.

Excessive cracks forming in vinyl or ceramic tiles may indicate foundation issues, but may also simply indicate a faulty tile installation. Homes on concrete slabs may have excessive cracking if the slab has been affected from below due to freezing. However, if the entire floor surface is covered with carpet and vinyl, finding these issues can be more difficult.

Many masonry clad houses, especially older homes, may show varying amounts of step cracking especially around openings such as windows or doors. Cracks that exist inside and outside the same areas may be clues to more than normal settlement. Hairline cracks in masonry should be sealed with a proper exterior sealant to help prevent water or insect entry as well as being closely inspected on a regular basis for changes over time. Loose mortar should be tuck pointed by a qualified professional. Masonry that is allowed to further deteriorate can lead to extensive issues within the home, such as water damage and mold within walls, an attraction for insects, as well as rotted structural components.

This crack in the above 1920s home measured 1" in places on the interior side of this foundation wall.
The crack ran from grade up to the roof and even penetrated interior plaster walls. It was
apparent that the crack had been sealed multiple times, yet it cracked again after the latest repair attempt.

Cracks in a home’s foundation can occur typically in 3 ways: (1.) movement of the soil under part of the home (such as due to expansive soils), (2.) the ground can push laterally into a foundation wall from the home’s exterior, or (3.) the weight of the home above the foundation can cause issues if there are flaws with the home or the foundation. Each situation has its own visual characteristics that a properly trained home inspector will be able to identify in most cases.

Since the vast majority of home inspectors are not licensed structural engineers, when a home inspector sees evidence of settlement that exceeds what appears to be normal settlement, he should recommend consulting a licensed structural engineer or qualified foundation expert for further evaluation. The evidence of movement or settlement may be visible, however home inspectors are not qualified or trained to determine the adequacy of structural components since this requires load and span calculations, for example. These are both far outside the scope of a home inspection. If a home inspector makes statements about the adequacy of structural components without proper engineering credentials, training, and insurance, he is likely opening himself up for considerable liability. The ASHI Code of Ethics specifically has verbiage stating that home inspectors should not overstate their qualifications or express opinions that extend beyond their qualifications:

"Inspectors shall perform services and express opinions based on genuine conviction and only within their areas of education, training, or experience." AND

"Advertising, marketing, and promotion of inspectors' services or qualifications shall not be fraudulent, false, deceptive, or misleading."

Both statements are taken directly from the American Society of Home Inspector's (ASHI) Code of Ethics.

A full evaluation including load calculations, photos, etc. will most often be needed before a repair plan can be provided by the structural engineer. Again, as with most of the home’s systems, preventive maintenance is key to preventing further more serious and more costly repairs to the home’s foundation.

As part of a home inspector, the home inspector should perform a cursory visual evaluation of the visible portions of the foundation. Cracks, improper perimeter grading, etc. should be reported as these issues can potentially lead to damage to the structure. Of course, the parts of the exterior foundation below grade can't be viewed and even the interior foundation may have limited access if portions of which are covered by insulation, wall coverings, or even if blocked by shelving, stored items, furniture, etc.

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© 2014 Matthew Steger

Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), and an electrical engineer. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or msteger@wini.com.

WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.