Do I Need a New Foundation?

Most clients have no knowledge about their foundation and its condition until they begin to notice problems inside their homes- generally settlement cracks, sticking doors and sloping floors are indicators that something is amiss.

Though there is no cut and dry formula to show when a foundation needs to be replaced, there are a number of indicators which when looked at together should point the direction one way or another.

1. Are there drainage issues?

Drainage is the #1 culprit, and leads to settlement, cracking, and deterioration of concrete. Older concrete is somewhat porous, and water will soak into the material causing it to deteriorate. Since most older homes have nonexistent or improperly installed drainage systems, it is important to have the drainage issues addressed- either as part of the foundation work, or if the foundation is in decent condition to avoid an expensive foundation replacement project in the short term.

2. Is the concrete deteriorating?

By poking around with a screwdriver, we can see how intact the concrete is. Often concrete with lots of sand in the mix that has been subjected to drainage issues will be so soft it can be pulled apart with your fingers. This condition can be of major concern, as this concrete has very little strength and could liquefy in an earthquake. The harder the material the better. Appearances can be deceiving. Some of the ugliest concrete with lots of rocks and voids can be quite strong and is less of a concern.

3. Are there cracks?

A few cracks in older foundations is expected, but lots of cracks, especially one’s that are ¼” or larger can be problematic. Since older foundations typically do not have rebar in them, once large cracks occur the concrete can separate into sections that can rotate or settle independently from one another, causing settlement or shifting in the house above.

4. Is there rebar?

Most homes built before 1930 or so do not have steel reinforcement in them. Rebar helps to strengthen the concrete and hold it together in the event of cracking from settlement or earthquakes- cracks can still develop, but they remain hairline and don’t pull apart. The modern foundations we build have at least 5 pieces of rebar running horizontally, and verticals every 12” so they are heavily reinforced.

5. Depth and location of the concrete.

Often older foundations are not of sufficient dimensions to work effectively. If the footings are not at least a foot or more below the grade level they will be subject more to movement in expansive soils and drainage issues. If they are not 6” or more above grade there can be water issues at the framing level causing dry rot issues above. And if the soil is excavated on the interior of the basement or crawlspace too close to the foundations or if the footings are functioning as retaining walls and they are not designed properly they may settle or move, and they may create drainage issues leading to more settlement.

6. How old is the concrete?

Concrete from the early 1900’s that is still in place in older foundations is often in poor condition. Since most of the homes we work on in the East Bay were built between 1900 and 1930 this would definitely apply to them. Again, drainage, lack of rebar, improper dimensions, cracks etc. are much more pronounced in older foundations.

When all of these elements are looked at together, it is easier to get a sense of how your foundation is performing in these key areas. In many situations, where I give the foundation an overall score of 1-3 on a scale of 1-10 the need to replace is fairly obvious. In the 4-5 area it often becomes a more difficult question, where the client needs to consider their resources, how long they plan on remaining in the home, etc. If the foundation is in fair condition but in need of drainage work which might add another 20-30 years to its lifespan, that is often a reasonable alternative course of work. When the condition is poor, however, it generally does not make sense to do a drainage only project, since that work would need to be torn out and redone sooner rather than later as part of an inevitable foundation replacement.

Water is the REAL ENEMY for most homeowners!

The bottom line is that water is the main culprit implicated in most of the damage created to the exterior of your home, and can lead to interior damage as well. Maintenance problems such as chipping paint and damaged trim, poor flashing details around windows, decks, porches and doors, a roof which is leaking or needs replacement, or the lack of a proper drainage system around the home will all lead to potential problems when water comes into contact with your residence. Rainfall and underground water sources such as creeks and springs, a high water table, irrigation systems, leaking water lines or broken or disconnected drain lines- all of these water sources can wreck havoc on your home. Lets discuss how the different components of your homes exterior are affected.

The Foundation
Many of the older homes in our area have foundations that are in poor condition.

But this is not merely a function of the age of the concrete. Since most of the foundations were installed without drainage systems moisture in the ground adjacent to them, whether from rainwater or subterranean water sources, is causing them to deteriorate. Concrete becomes porous over time, and the water will saturate the interior of the concrete and cause it to break down. Water in the soil adjacent to and under the foundation, in conjunction with the expansive clay soils present on most of our properties, will cause the foundation to move as the soil shrinks and expands between wet and dry periods. Since older concrete is generally unreinforced it can settle unevenly causing it to crack, allowing more water to enter causing settlement. This often appears as cracks in walls, ceilings, and around doors and windows, along with sloping floors. Installing proper drainage will help alleviate these types of problems.

Exterior Walls
In older homes the stucco was often brought all the way to the ground. Since there are boards behind the stucco that were in contact with the soil, this gives termites access from the ground. When the paint and caulking are not maintained water can get in around doors and windows, leading to dryrot. Poor flashing details around porches, decks and roofs and leaking gutters and downspouts can allow water into the building as well, and termites love warm moist spaces. Foundations should always be at least 6”-8” above the soil level to prevent termites from entering at the base of the exterior walls. Foundations that are in poor condition should be replaced with taller, steel-reinforced footings. For foundations in better shape, concrete termite curbs can be installed at the outside of the building to create this clearance, and they are a more reasonable alternative to replacement. Painting and caulking should be properly maintained and trim should be repaired or replaced if damaged. Gutters and downspouts should be repaired if they are leaking, and they should be properly sloped to drain properly, flashed and kept clean to make sure they don’t leak into the exterior walls.

Interior Damage
When your foundations move for the reasons described above, this can lead to cracking and settlement on the interior walls and ceilings, doors and windows that stick or won’t close, etc. Sloping floors reflect foundation settlement or damage. By correcting the moisture problems first the interior damage should be minimized, at which point it will be appropriate to undertake repairs.

In summary, water is often the main factor leading to a large variety of structural repairs. Soil problems, earthquakes, and poor construction- these can also cause damage, but they are less common. Water is a subtle culprit that affects many older homes over an extended time frame, increasing with the age of the homes foundation. The sooner the maintenance issues can be corrected, the less they will affect the structure as a whole and the lower the ultimate cost of repairs will be.