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Foundation Settling Or Foundation Problem? How To Tell

Sam Smith Foundation Repair Consultant

broken bricks wall

Are you wondering if your foundation is showing signs of major issues?

If so, you’ve come to the right place!

This Regional Foundation Repair guide explains many foundation issues and will answer common questions like:

  • What Is Foundation Settling?
  • What Are The Common Signs Of Foundation Problems?
  • How Can You Tell That Cracks Are From Normal Settling?
  • What Causes Cracks In Walls?
  • When Should You Contact A Foundation Repair Expert?

And much more!

You’ve probably heard someone dismiss structural defects in their homes as “just the foundation settling.”

Although this is usually the case sometimes it is the fear of confronting the alternative that drives many homeowners to hide behind the hope that their foundation is just “settling”.

What Is Foundation Settling?

Foundation issues can be complicated and hard to explain sometimes.

So let’s take a step back and use an example that most people have experience with: snow!

When you step on snow, it undergoes compaction and shrinks under your weight. This is also what happens to the soil under your foundation, only on a bigger (and much slower) scale.

During the first three years after a home is built, the soil undergoes changes and shifts to accommodate the weight of the new house. In the process, the home’s foundation will also shift slightly in a process known as foundation settling.

Foundation settling is “normal” and even expected. Different homes will have different rates of settling determined by factors such as the type of soil, the concrete used, and the temperature, humidity, and moisture levels. The process should be gradual and cause very little movement. It should also not cause any significant structural changes to the new home.

If, however, you notice your foundation settling rapidly or by a large margin, there is likely a problem.

But, here’s the kicker!

The ability to tell between a settling foundation and a problematic one is something most homeowners won’t be able to do.

Yet, catching these issues early (if it’s not, in fact, just “settling”) can save you thousands in repairs, as it will allow you to get any issues corrected before they escalate.

What Are The Signs Of A Foundation Problem?

Ok great, so now you might be wondering: how exactly can I tell if my foundation actually has an issue?

Below are some of the most common warning signs that your foundation could be undergoing some problems rather than simply settling.

Sticking Doors And Windows

A sticking door is a slight inconvenience that most homeowners choose to live with, not knowing that it could indicate more deep-seated issues within their foundation.

When foundation issues cause walls to shift, the door and window frames will start losing their square or rectangular shapes and will no longer fit snugly. You will therefore need to apply more force when opening or closing them.

For interior doors, the sticking and dragging will mainly occur at the top, whereas exterior doors tend to hang and drag at the bottom.

For french doors, they may refuse to meet in the middle or hang awkwardly from the hinges.

Sure, it seems like a minor problem, right?

Just take the thing off the hinges or go at it with some WD-40!

But it’s often not that simple. A tiny, slight shift in a home’s foundation can actually dramatically impact the “square” of your door and window frames.

However, there are certainly other factors that could also cause your doors and windows to stick.

For instance, during periods of high humidity, like after 2-3 days of heavy rainfall, wooden door frames will absorb moisture and expand, making them refuse to open or close smoothly.

Sticking could also result from poor door and window design or the aging of their structural components.

So how can you tell what’s causing this?

Check your home for these other signs and if you have more than 2 of these, contact a foundation expert to get your foundation examined.

Uneven Or Sagging Floors

A sagging or uneven floor is another sign of foundation damages. One cause of this could be sinking in your foundation.

When the foundation settles naturally, the process will be slow and will occur almost uniformly throughout the house. However, when the foundation sinks, it does so unevenly, taking part of the floor down with it while leaving the rest intact. The result is a floor that slopes to one side.

Issues within the support beams and floor joist are also responsible for sagging floors. When part of the joist or support beam fails, the support to the floor will be compromised, resulting in a floor that dips to a particular point. A bouncy floor is also an indication that a support beam has failed.

At the very least, uneven and sagging floors will create tripping and falling hazards for the kids, but they could also point to serious underlying issues.

The more you and your family exert your weight on such a floor, the more the structural damages will spread and the more expensive and difficult they will be to resolve.

Water In Your Crawl Space Or Basement

Water in your crawl space is not just an indication of foundation problems but could also be what is ailing it in the first place. For most homes, poor drainage is to blame for water problems.

Malfunctioning gutters and downspouts, poorly graded landscapes, and leaking pipes are some of the ways excess water will find its way to your foundation wall.

When the soil around your foundation becomes saturated, hydrostatic pressure will force water through the foundation wall and into your crawl space or basement, developing cracks and lines of weakness in the process.

When water finds its way into your crawlspace or basement, it will cause an array of structural, health, and comfort issues in your home.

First, when water seeps into the wood in your foundation’s support, it will weaken them and make them susceptible to rot and breakage. The moisture will also create an ideal environment for the growth of mold and mildew, which will, in turn, attract other insects such as termites, beetles, and roaches.

water in the crawl space

Moisture will also find its way into your floors and walls and mess up the temperature of your home, making temperature regulation more expensive than necessary.

The dampness and the spores produced by mold will also pose significant health risks to you and your family members. In short, you should get moisture problems resolved as soon as possible if you want to preserve the structural stability and health of your home.

Bowing Basement Walls

If you notice that your basement wall is bowing inwards, you should be concerned about the state of your foundation. It could mean that the soil outside is saturated with water, generating large amounts of hydrostatic pressure. If this is the case, you should find a way to drain the extra water before it brings down your wall or gets into your basement.

Check on your drainage to ensure none of your gutters and downspouts are directing water near your wall, and that the soil around your house is graded properly, with the slope facing away from your wall.

If you live in an area with a naturally high water table or one that is prone to flooding, you could use French Drains and sump pumps to drain the excess water away from the soil near your foundation.

For homes built on plastic soils that expand and contract with changes in their moisture content and temperature, this could be the cause of bowing basement walls.

The continued expansion and contraction of the soil as it gains and loses water will apply immense force on the wall, causing it to give in and bow. Since your foundation is likely experiencing the same amount of pressure, it is only a matter of time before it also gives in.

Cracks On Surfaces

Cracks on surfaces are perhaps the most obvious structural changes a homeowner will notice. You will see them on floors, on tiles, ceilings, and walls, among other areas.

While small cracks caused by foundation settling are harmless, others are signs of damage that you should investigate further. Here are various cracks and what they can tell about the state of your foundation:

  • Cracks on the floors and tiles indicate that part of the foundation has shifted more than is acceptable, transmitting the pressure to the brittle tiles and cement.
  • Horizontal cracks, especially on the exterior side, are indications that part of your foundation is falling away from the rest.
  • A gap between your ceiling is almost always a result of excessive foundation settlement.
  • Stair-step cracks on bricks either result from foundation sinking or could be the result of poor construction where the builders did not anticipate the gradual expansion of the bricks.
  • Vertical cracks that run up the wall and extend to the ceiling indicate foundation damage causing your wall to rotate
  • You should also watch out for cracks extending diagonally from the corners of your windows and doors as they also point to a deteriorating foundation
  •  If foundation cracks appear at a 45-degree angle, severe foundation movement has occurred and requires urgent attention.

Prevention is better and cheaper than cure. Knowing some of the common causes and signs of foundation issues will help you take the necessary measures to prevent them in the first place.

Where prevention has failed, the next best move is to get the problem resolved as soon as possible, as it will only spread and get worse with time.

As soon as you notice the first signs of foundation problems, have a structural engineer check it out. Don’t know where to start? Just give us the details of your problem in the form, and we will send you an estimate of the costs or schedule a free inspection with one of our experts.

vertical crack on the wall

What Do Cracks From Normal House Settling Look Like?

Before you decide to put on your DIY cap and patch up the cracks by yourself, you should first investigate and rule out any underlying issues.

Ok, but how do you do that?

Many homeowners like to fill in gaps and cracks when they notice them. But filling up gaps in walls and brickwork in a home undergoing foundation deterioration is counter-productive as it will make it more difficult to repair the foundation. (Think: band-aid on a bullet wound.)

Cracks caused by normal house settling are safe to repair after the settling is done. This is because they are passive and will not grow with time. So how can you tell if a crack resulted from normal house settling? Here are some pointers to look for:

  • Shrinkage cracks on the concrete surfaces occurred as a result of the uneven drying and curing of the concrete. These do have any impact on the structural integrity of your foundation
  • Thin, spiderweb cracks on the ceiling paint or plaster result from a slight amount of natural house settling and should not cause you concern.
  • Vertical wall cracks on the foundation are especially common in poured concrete foundations and occur either due to slight house settling or the natural concrete curing process.
  • As a general rule, cracks that are less than 15mm or 0.6 inches and do not show an increase in size are most likely the result of a harmless home-settling.

If you determine that the cracks on your surfaces occurred due to the house curing or settling, you can easily repair them yourself.

Use a caulking gun and concrete patch if they are on the floor. For cracks on drywalls, retape the joints, then cover the paper tape with layers of drywall compound. However, if you are in doubt, it is safer to let a professional examine your home and confirm the source of the problem.

What Causes Cracks In Walls?

While other causes of cracks in walls are unavoidable, others can be prevented by taking the necessary measures. Below are some of the common causes of cracks on walls that you should prepare for to minimize the damage to your home:

Foundation Settling

By now, it is probably clear that foundation settling is the biggest cause of structural issues in most homes. For normal settling, the cracks will be mainly aesthetic and will not impact the structural integrity of your home.

On the other hand, if your foundation undergoes rapid, uneven settling, your home will suffer from large cracks, among other serious issues.

Excessive Moisture

Excess water will create problems for you, whether inside or outside your home. If the soil behind your foundation wall is saturated, the hydrostatic pressure will push against the wall and cause it to crack.

The penetration of water will also enhance and cause existing cracks to grow. When the water gets into the walls and floors of your home, it will compromise their structural integrity, and the result will be cracking or even crumbling.

Watch out for plumbing leaks, as these also contribute to unwanted moisture in your walls, floors, and crawl space.

water leak on the floor

Poor Drywall Installation

It is not uncommon for inexperienced or unscrupulous contractors to do shoddy installation works. If all other fixtures of your home are intact and the only cracks visible are on your drywall, it could be that the drywall was not properly taped, and part of it is pulling away.

Changing Weather Conditions

Like most other surfaces, the structural components of your home will react to changes in temperature. They will expand when temperatures are high and contract when temperatures drop.

Since the concrete surfaces are not elastic, these movements will eventually result in the formation of tiny shrinkage cracks.

Reactive Soils

Expansive or reactive soils are those that undergo dramatic swelling and contraction when exposed to wet and dry conditions. If your home is built on clay soil, alternating dry and wet periods will put your foundation and walls under immense pressure and cause them to develop cracks.

Before settling on where to build your home, you should get the soil tested for plasticity and take the necessary measures to protect your foundation from drastic changes.

Mechanical Reasons

Sometimes, cracks are the result of accidental mechanical forces due to human error. For instance, when moving heavy furniture and appliances, they could collide against the walls and floors and cause slight cracking.

Tree roots growing near the foundation could also push and penetrate it, destabilizing it and causing cracks to form.

Degradation of Building Materials

With time, everything ages, and with old age comes natural deterioration. The building materials of your home are no exception. When they age, the bricks and concrete in the structure of your home will lose their strength and start to crumble from within, causing cracks to form.

The steel components of your home could also undergo “concrete cancer”, where damage from rust will cause them to shift within the concrete, leading to the formation of cracks.

When Should You Contact A Foundation Repair Expert?

When it comes to construction issues, having them resolved as soon as possible is the way to go. As soon as you suspect or see the first signs of foundation damage, call in a foundation repair expert to inspect the area and offer the best solution.

The sooner you identify and resolve a foundation problem, the less the damage will spread to other areas, and the less you will eventually have to pay for the repairs.

Get It Done Right!

Since your home is perhaps your most expensive investment, you should entrust it to qualified professionals you can trust.

At Regional Foundation Repair, our specialists are highly qualified and experienced and have helped many homeowners resolve foundation issues and create safe and comfortable homes for them and their families. Let us give you the peace of mind you deserve.

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Sam Smith Foundation Repair Consultant
SHORT BIO: Hey, I'm Sam Smith. I'm one of our service techs here at Regional Foundation Repair. I'm here to help you learn more about your home's foundation. I've been doing this for a while, so I have a few insider tips and tricks to share!

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