Foundation Cracks? Hire an Expert

This page from your foundation repair guide is not about patching foundation cracks- a separate topic. This page is about getting to the underlying cause (or causes) of foundation cracks (and related defects) which otherwise would remain the subject of speculation and ongoing concern. You want answers so what do you do? Unless you are one, it is time to hire a qualified foundation expert. My goal here is to give you some insights into the process so that you will be better prepared to evaluate, ask questions and make decisions.

How do I define a qualified foundation expert? Look for a professional consultant having broad experience in foundation repair with a working knowledge of the foundation design process. The ideal candidate will hold state licenses in both civil engineering and general engineering construction. Alternatively, look for a foundation contractor who works closely with foundation engineers or a foundation engineer who works closely with foundation contractors. Most importantly- be sure that your expert has a solid track record of diagnosing and solving foundation and structural problems.

Get a Written Report

Your expert should be prepared to conduct a thorough foundation and structural inspection and issue a written report. The report, often called a “distress analysis”, should itemize all structural defects observed on the property to include foundation cracks. The report should also include observations about the property which may include comments about the geology, soils, drainage, slopes, retaining walls, foundation walls, subfloor, floor slab, general construction methods, and construction materials.

The report should also provide and interpret the results of a floor-level survey, also called a “manometer survey”, for each building on the property. If the floor level is off, the manometer survey will illustrate the configuration of the floor and can be used, along with all other data (such as foundation cracks), to draw conclusions. Your expert should be prepared to determine, within the limits of the inspection, what has caused foundation cracks and other distress. If the cause of the foundation cracks and other distress can be attributed to common construction errors, isolated forces or normal structural adjustments which have been resolved, then the report should so state. Cosmetic repairs, such as patching of foundation cracks or concrete resurfacing, may be recommended.

The report should state whether any foundation movement is “active” or has the potential to become active in the future. Knowing how to read foundation cracks is important in this regard. Should active movement be detected, the problem is more serious and appropriate foundation repairs should be recommended. These recommendations might include one or some combination of the following: soil stabilization, soil re-compaction, slope stabilization, soil replacement, drainage correction, foundation underpinning, foundation replacement, and/or substructure repairs.

Ask for a Proposal

Finally, your consultant should provide you with an estimate of foundation repair costs. This may come in the form of a lump sum number, an itemized list or a detailed design-build proposal. Be aware that a contractor is much more likely to give you an estimate or bid while an engineer report will often include the suggestion that you go elsewhere for an estimate. The ideal situation would be that the report is accompanied by a design-build proposal for your review and acceptance.

Most of the time, foundation cracks do not suggest the need for expensive foundation repair work. Concrete cracks or cracks in masonry, brickwork, stucco, plaster or drywall are not uncommon in structures and often are often tolerated by property owners without consequence. Such defects will usually prove to be the result of minor errors in design, construction methods, or the result of normal expansion and contraction of materials. A property owner is not concerned with an isolated foundation crack which has not changed since the property was purchased 20 years ago.

So why do so many property owners need to consult a foundation repair expert? Because you need the experienced expert to distinguish between what is minor and what is a significant problem. Nobody else wants the liability of perhaps making the wrong call about a foundation crack.

Red Flags and Full Disclosure

Consider the following commonplace event:

One day the property owner decides to list the property with a real estate broker. An offer is accepted and people start swarming around the property- the buyer’s agent, bank appraisers, termite inspectors, and property inspectors. Unless the owner has piled a heavy stack of bricks in front of the foundation cracks (this happens), the various professionals observe the foundation cracks and note them in their reports.

A termite report might say something like this: “Vertical foundation cracks in the concrete foundation wall were observed just south of the crawl space access- consult a qualified foundation specialist.” It is usually the real estate broker who will convince the buyer (or seller) to bring in the foundation repair expert. Here’s a bit of background on the subject:

California and other states now have “full disclosure” laws which arose after sellers and Realtors started getting sued over undisclosed defects. The courts ruled that the real estate broker has the responsibility to point out any “red flags”. To be clear, foundation cracks are considered to be red flags. The legislatures took the concept of “buyer beware” and threw it out the window. The brokers are now protected because of laws requiring the seller to “tell all” in a multi-page disclosure which is built into the sales agreement. Further protection is afforded when the buyer hires a professional to inspect the property and issue a written report, itemizing all the problems which are discovered.

But even the professional home inspector is not usually willing to go out on a limb concerning foundation cracks and other foundation problems. That is unless that inspector is also an experienced foundation repair contractor.

A “Foundation Expert” is Born!

When I was growing my foundation repair business in San Diego, California during the mid 1980’s, I fashioned myself into one of a handful of property inspectors offering their services to the homebuyer. At that time, there was no licensing requirement and most home inspectors were contractors of one stripe or another. There were no hand-held computers with on-site CD burners like they have today. I had to create my inspection forms from scratch.

It was at that time that I invented my version of the “foundation and structural Inspection”. My brother James, a mechanical engineer, built for me a custom manometer- really just an assembly consisting of clear surgical tubing, a bucket, and a calibrated rod. The tubing was plugged into the base of the bucket which is kept stationary and filled with water. Keeping the end of the tubing above the water level, you can move the tubing about and view the reference waterline at any particular point. By attaching the tubing along the rod, you can hold the rod in a plumb position with the bottom end on the floor and read the floor level variations from place to place. The readings are plotted on a drawing of the floor plan. Lines of equal elevation are imposed on the drawing to create a sort-of mini topographic map of the floor.

Today when I want a floor-level survey, I use a high-tech device which uses a small computer and a special fluid to transmit tiny variations in barometric pressure which are then digitized and displayed to the user. This is a very handy device, good also for one-man layouts, which no self-respecting foundation contractor should be without.

As a former engineering geologist, I felt comfortable doing the analytical part of the inspection, calling upon my contracting experience to develop and present the scope and cost of any foundation repairs which I would recommend. On site I would supplement the manometer survey with a detailed visual inspection of the property including drawings and notes to identify and locate all foundation cracks and other defects.

Crawling and Digging

If there was a crawl space under the floor, I would put on a breathing filter, a head lamp, knee pads, and elbow pads. Then, with clipboard in hand, I would snake myself around the entire space and make a scaled drawing of the substructure- including measurements and my notes about any problems I would find. All foundation cracks were carefully measured for width and length and then located on the drawing.

To check the foundation underground, I would dig a pit next to the building perimeter to observe and record the type of soil along with the depth and configuration of the footing. Often I would dig to follow foundation cracks to see if they extended from the foundation wall down to the footing. I always carried a pointed steel probe which I would pound into the soil to measure penetration resistance.

Doing the Research

For each foundation and structural inspection, I would research my geology library to find out if the property was near an active fault or a known landslide. From my geology maps, I would identify the type of rock formations and soils which were known to exist in the subsurface. I would go to the local building department and pull the topographic maps and any grading plans for the site and I would get into the permit records to see if there were any soils investigations or permitted repairs which had been previously done on the property. After all the data was collected, I would sit down and try to figure out the cause of the foundation cracks and any other distress features I had identified.

An Example- Cut and Fill

To further explain the process, let’s use the example of a building with a slab-on-grade foundation which was constructed on a graded cut-and-fill pad. Cut-and-fill means that sloping ground was leveled out by excavating and removing earth from the high side while placing earth and building up on the low side.

The as-built grading plan, which I copied from records at the building department, generally shows a cut-fill line, also called a daylight line, running between cut material and fill material. In our example, I note that my floor-level survey plot reveals that the area of slab which is over the fill area is lower and slopes down and away from the daylight line. I also observe that the slab area over the cut side is relatively flat. I have made an interesting correlation between two sets of data which helps me form my conclusions and recommendations.

Foundation Cracks Under the Carpet

Before I finalize my report in the theoretical example above, I would go back out to the property and pull back the carpet to expose the bare concrete slab, perhaps discovering a series of foundation cracks running parallel along the general trend of the daylight line from the grading plan. I would check outside to see if the foundation cracks extended out to the exterior face of the slab. In my report I would say something like this:

“The subject building was constructed on a cut-fill pad. That portion of the floor slab supported by compacted fill appears to have moved downward relative to the slab portion which is supported by undisturbed soil. The stress of this differential movement has caused foundation cracks to form along the trend of the daylight line between cut and fill”.

Recommendations and Proposal

In the report for our example, I would also make recommendations which might include the following: “One repair option would be to use screw anchor piers to underpin and level the section of slab-on-grade foundation which was constructed on fill. The screw anchors should be driven to native material with sufficient capacity to support the building loads as determined by a qualified engineer. The floor slab foundation cracks should be repaired by saw cutting and removing the cracked concrete sections to be replaced with new reinforced concrete.” Either with the report or as a follow-up, I would submit a design-build proposal to complete the work which I had recommended.

Inspection Costs

I would usually charge from $150 to $250 for my Property Inspections and between $450 and $750 for my Foundation and Structural Inspections, depending on the size of the property (and whether or not there was a crawl space). It became a steady source of income and I developed a loyal following of Realtors who would recommend me. Most importantly, I had regular opportunities to land foundation repair jobs which were generally more profitable than the inspection work.

Consumer Watchdog Bites Inspector

It is important to note that I was not without my detractors. Experience had taught me to always mark my inspection reports confidential- for the client only. One day a local San Diego TV news station guy called asking questions with one of my reports in hand. I explained that I could not discuss a confidential report and told him goodbye. A few days later a video monitoring company called- a popular and very attractive lady anchor had run a “consumer watchdog” piece displaying my logo and broadcasting accusations by a local consulting geologist that I had performed work for which I was not qualified. The story was that I was ripping off the consumer. I went and bought a copy and after watching it I began to fume.

Of course the only consumer had been my client and nobody bothered to interview him. To make a long story short I got hold of my other brother, Edward the lawyer, and we filed a lawsuit for slander and defamation of character. Even though the TV station had the big guns (owned by a large publishing company), and after a long drawn-out process, we were able to get a modest settlement.

Killing the Deal

During our discovery on the case, we learned that the pretty local anchor had recently lost the sale of her personal home because the buyer’s inspector reported her house needed a new roof. A home inspector killed her deal. How is that for having an ax to grind? The house I had inspected was up for sale and my client was the buyer. My inspection revealed significant foundation problems and a few foundation cracks as I recall. My report killed that deal. My client was most satisfied to have avoided disaster but the seller was furious and contacted the consulting geologist. When the geologist got a copy of my report, and discovering that I was not a state licensed geologist, he found a way to bash the competition and get some free TV publicity for himself.

What Good is a Geologist?

A background and understanding of geology is a valuable asset for anyone in the foundation repair business. Earth processes are constantly at work and should always be considered when evaluating a construction project. As an engineering geologist in the early 1970’s, I researched and wrote Environmental Impact Reports when few people had even heard of an EIR. Topics in my reports included topography, geology, seismicity, soils, ground water, erosion and flooding, to name a few. I consider this to be valuable experience which I bring to each foundation and structural inspection which I perform.

Does a qualified foundation expert need to be a licensed geologist? I think not. However, to remove any possible confusion, and even though I had earned a college degree in geology, I did subsequently have the word “geologist” removed from my business cards and letterhead. I even went a step further and modified the disclaimer on my inspection reports, specifically stating that while I was a licensed general and engineering contractor, I was not licensed as an engineer or geologist.

For the record, I have a serious concern with hiring a pure geologist (even a registered engineering geologist) to perform a foundation inspection on a building or structure if he lacks complementary experience in construction and foundation repair. The problem is, the geologist will not provide a specific scope of work and may not have a clue as to what his recommendations will cost. If it does not relate directly to the geology and soils of a particular site, he may not even see the problem. To illustrate my point, I share the story of a home I inspected some time after the lawsuit.

The Root of the Problem

A geologist had run a manometer survey and concluded that since there were foundation cracks and a hump in the middle of the floor, the foundation was sitting on expansive soils. His solution was to remove the entire floor slab and the underlying soils followed by backfill with non-expansive material and installation of a structural concrete slab- a common but very expensive recommendation for expansive soils. Called to provide a bid, I reviewed the report and, seeing that the soils were only slightly expansive, searched for an alternate explanation for the hump and foundation cracks.

I noticed a large tree very close to the building and so I dug between the tree and the building, finding a huge surface root which headed directly in line with the hump in the floor. The root was obviously the cause of the hump and foundation cracks. The soil was OK. I recommended the tree be removed and the root be treated. Only a small portion of the slab needed to be replaced. The Client was most happy with my analysis because I saved him a ton of money. And would you like to guess the identity of the geologist? It was none other than Mr. Publicity Hound, the famous licensed geologist who only wanted to protect the consumer from unqualified foundation inspectors!

Foundation Cracks in Court

Brother Edward called our modest settlement with the TV station a “Pyrrhic victory” (we had defeated the Romans and we were devastated). I may add that my early career included a number of courtroom appearances as an expert witness (forensic consultant) where foundation cracks and other construction defects were at issue. While I always received praise for my performances and was paid substantial fees for my testimony, my tolerance for courtrooms (and lawyers in particular) proved to be quite limited. I now charge so much that nobody will hire me and that suits me just fine.

Need a Soils Investigation?

To be complete, I think it is important to make a distinction between a “distress analysis” and a soils investigation. A soils investigation is one phase of a collaborative study which is done primarily for new construction projects. Typically, the architect or developer will hire an engineering firm to perform a soils investigation and make recommendations for foundation design for a proposed structure. A geologist or soils engineer, working as an employee or partner in the firm will conduct the site exploration phase. Often this process will require exploratory pits, machine borings, or both to obtain soil samples which are tested in the laboratory. The regional and site geology (seismicity, slope stability, hydrology) together with the specific characteristics of the foundation soils (density, cohesion, shear strength) are calculated and recorded.

Based upon the site investigation and laboratory results, a foundation engineer will then provide specific foundation design guidelines including grading specifications, concrete footing depth and configuration, and rebar placement. The next step is for a structural engineer to take the plans from the architect and, following all of the foundation engineer recommendations, create a set of structural drawings to match the architect’s design. The architect then takes the soils report and structural drawings and attaches them to the architectural drawings to create a package of documents to be put out for bid. Each bidder reviews the package and submits a bid. The low bid may or may not get the job depending on other factors but eventually a contractor is selected and a contract is signed.

What I have outlined above can be a long drawn-out process and quite expensive as well. When you finally do get the contractor on board, you begin another round of in the design process because most experienced contractors will spot design errors which have been overlooked. In fact the contractor may even propose an alternate and better repair solution and the plans must be completely revised. More money and more time!

Design-Build in Foundation Repair

I have long contended that many medium and small size foundation repair projects can be handled much more efficiently by using the design-build approach. It is my belief that the foundation and structural inspection (distress analysis) should be approached as phase one of a design-build project. A traditional soils investigation with structural drawings can run into the many thousands of dollars and typically does not include the type of detailed analysis of foundation cracks (and other distress) which I advocate. In repair design, borings and laboratory testing may be needed if there is no other way to get the data but such investigative work can often be incorporated into the beginning phase of the foundation repairs, a method which can provide significant overall savings on the project.

Design-Build puts the project in the hands of the contractor from the very beginning. This approach does require that the contractor have enough knowledge and understanding of soils, foundation cracks and foundation engineering so as to script out the basic job and pick up the details as he goes along. Only experience can give him this kind of ability. If the Contractor is also an engineer, design-build becomes even more feasible. Another excellent approach is for the Contractor to hire or partner with an engineer.

The Wet Stamp- Engineers as Partners

To those of my contractor visitors who aspire to become more successful in foundation repair, I would like to offer a few final comments and reflections. In recent years, I have observed that a small subset of professional engineers have started to specialize in conducting a foundation ‘distress analysis” on homes and other buildings with foundation cracks which may be in need of foundation repair. These professionals are generally certified under one or more specialty classifications which include soils engineer, structural engineer, and geotechnical engineer. Some will provide repair estimates and some will not. Get to know these engineers and ask them to send you their clients for the construction phase. These independent engineers are also ideal candidates to become design-build partners with the foundation repair contractor.

In California and elsewhere, when engineering design is required for foundation repair projects, the wet stamp must be provided and signed by a registered civil engineer. I would look for that wet stamp as my first priority in hiring or partnering with an engineer for any foundation or structural project which may require a building permit. The ideal partner may be somebody who is an experienced foundation repair contractor, preferably an engineering contractor, who also has the wet stamp.

I have had good relations with several excellent foundation engineers over the years. I actually had ongoing joint ventures with two of them- Pete and Chester. Pete was the analytical one who worked side-by-side with the sampling rig and pounded out his own lab tests. Pete could play the role of geologist, soils engineer, and structural engineer, and he had the wet stamp to go with it! Pete sometimes worked with me doing the distress analysis where foundation cracks were an issue. Together with a concrete and masonry man named Dennis, Pete helped me to pioneer the use of screw anchors for foundation repair in Southern California.

Chester could do the calculations but his real forte was combining his engineering ability with a take-charge personality. Most engineers are happy to sit in front of a computer wearing a button-down shirt. Not Chester. He wanted to climb all over the property and run the equipment. Chester inspired confidence and got the jobs because he knew the business of foundation repair and how to make it pay. There are very few like Pete and Chester. If you find an engineer who can analyze foundation cracks and has the imagination and capacity to create a workable foundation repair plan, stick with him and you will go far.