Q&A / 

Repair Concrete Foundation

DEAR TIM: I'm thinking of buying a home that has significant cracks in the concrete foundation. Family members are urging me to run away from this house. I'm thinking it's a deal and the cracks can be repaired. How would you assess the situation and what are some of my repair options? Are there any unintended consequences that will come up later should I decide to purchase this home? I need some clarity to help me make the right choice. Peggy P., Rochester, NY

DEAR PEGGY: Cracks in a concrete foundation can be signs of serious structural issues. It's paramount that you take your time and call in as many experts as needed to help you assess the situation.

Some foundation repair jobs require one to start over. It's absolutely possible a completely new foundation wall has to be poured. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

I grew up in the Midwest in Cincinnati, Ohio. You might think that's in the middle of the heartland and that foundations problems would be few and far between. Truth be told, I've seen concrete foundation failures that would have you shaking your head in disbelief.

The local geology created conditions that kept many a foundation repair company with quite a backlog of work. Unstable clay soils on hillsides and very plastic glacial lake clays wreaked havoc with builders, remodelers and homeowners that had no clue that danger lurked just beneath the grass.

I tell you this because it's very possible the cracks in this house you're looking at could be a flashing beacon that serious soil problems could negate the feeble attempts you make at repairing the cracks you see.

On the flip side, I've been inside hundreds of basements that have hairline cracks that radiate from the corners of basement windows that are just harmless concrete shrinkage cracks.

You need to bring in at least one expert and possibly two before you purchase this home. The first person I would hire would be a residential structural engineer that specializes in foundation work. Be sure to screen these individuals asking them to provide you with at least five past homeowners they have consulted with. Not all structural engineers inspect residential homes and some don't focus that much on concrete foundations.

When the structural engineer visits the house and looks at all the visible evidence, he may suggest that you bring in a soils engineer or a local geologist that knows the area and is well aware of cantankerous soils that don't play well with houses.

The fees you pay these individuals for an assessment will be a small percentage of what you might spend to remedy serious foundation problems. The two-hour charge you pay the structural engineer could be the best money you spend in your life.

If you’re interested in learning more about the cost of foundation repair I have an article here.

If the engineer tells you that he's not overly concerned with the cracks and what caused them, he may discuss with you repair methods that he's had great success. Ask him about epoxy injections in foundation cracks. Some concrete epoxies mimic welding steel. The actual epoxy is stronger than the concrete, and if you get it to bond correctly it can often make a permanent repair.

Some concrete foundation repairs can be a matter of installing piers under the existing footings and foundations. These piers are often just concrete legs that extend through bad soil down to strong soil or bedrock.

There are all sorts of other foundation repair methods that employ steel plates and rods that straighten bowed foundation walls. Cables, interior vertical steel i-beams, and a host of other time-tested repair methods may also be suggested by the structural engineer.

Foundation cracks, especially serious ones, that are repaired are often hard to disguise. They're like a facial scar that telegraphs a message to a future buyer of the house that something bad happened. It's a stigma that could make it harder to sell your home as a buyer may not believe the foundation is stable.

A secondary issue is what does the foundation cracking tell you about the original builder? I can think of a boatload of questions like:

  • Did the builder take a shortcut and not use enough steel in the foundation?
  • Was the builder aware of poor soil and didn't care?
  • Did the builder take other shortcuts in other parts of the house?

You can watch numerous foundation videos that show foundations, footers, and how to avoid cracks in them. Just type "foundation and footer video" into the AsktheBuilder.com search engine.

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