Karla News

Is Your House Settling?


As an engineer I get many calls from homeowners who are worried about their houses. One of the most common worries is whether or not the house is settling. A house is said to be settling when all or part of the house is sinking into the ground due to a problem with the foundation or the soil that the foundation is sitting on. In this article I’m going to run through a few of the most common signs that a house is settling and give tips on how homeowners can tell whether the problem is serious enough to call in a professional for help.

Warning Sign 1 – Sloping Floors

Sloping or uneven floors are common in many houses, both old and new. A sloping floor can definitely be a sign of settlement, but that is just one of many possible causes. One of the most important details to look for when trying to find out why a floor is sloping is to find the low spot. If you’re having trouble you can let a golf ball or another small ball roll on the uneven floor to find the low spot for you. (This works better on hard floors than on carpet.) If the low spot is on the outside perimeter of the house where the basement foundation walls are, or if it is over one of the columns in the basement, there is a much greater chance that settlement is the source of the problem.

So what if the low spot is somewhere else, such as out in the middle of a room or under the tub? In that case it is unlikely that the problem is settlement. Uneven floors can be caused by many different things, some dangerous, some harmless. It is good news to find that your house isn’t settling, but please don’t just ignore it. Find out what the real problem is and make sure it is addressed.

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Warning Sign 2 – Basement Cracks

One of the most important things that I look at to determine if a house is settling is whether or not there are cracks in the basement walls and what those cracks look like. In most cases cracks caused by settlement will be diagonal cracks (if the basement walls are poured concrete) or step cracks (if the basement walls are masonry). Hairline cracks are commonly caused by initial minor settlement shortly after construction and are not usually a concern. Larger cracks and cracks that are getting larger over time should definitely be evaluated by a qualified expert.

Warning Sign 3 – Water Problems

One of the primary causes of foundation settlement is water. Water saturating the supporting soils can cause them to become loose and unstable. Water flowing through the ground around foundations can remove soil. In order to prevent settlement and other foundation problems it is critical to direct the flow of water away from the house.

For most houses rain from the roof is directed through gutters to downspouts. The best way to handle water at the base of downspouts is to have a downspout extension or pipe divert the water away from the house, and to discharge it on the surface of the ground. Many homes have underground pipes that downspouts flow into. I do not recommend this. In the future, if that underground pipe leaks, clogs, or breaks, you will be directing water right into the soil around your foundations. That is asking for trouble.

Surface water on the ground must also be directed away from the house. The best way to accomplish this is to slope the ground around the house down so that water flows freely away across the surface. I have seen many foundations damaged by lawn “improvements” that actually directed water toward the house where it can become trapped in the soil around the foundations. Always let the water flow away from the house – not toward it.

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If you see these warning signs of settlement in your house it is critical that you get the help of an expert as soon as possible. Often simple repairs can be implemented if the problem is found early, but the longer the problem continues the more costly and difficult the solution will be. Call your local engineer or contractor who specializes in foundations to have a full evaluation.