When Minor Structural Issues Turn Into Major Problems (and How to Fix Them)

Every day when I’m out doing estimates I am shocked at the number of projects that are failing because minor structural issues were not done correctly the first time around.

Some of these are done by Homeowners over the years to save on costs, which is somewhat understandable.  But something done blatantly wrong by another licensed Contractor is an even more disturbing, and all-too-familiar trend I’ve seen in the structural repair business many times in recent years.

I try to stay out of doing bids when houses are being bought and sold.  I find the environment does not lend itself to finding the best solution to structural issues, since there is often a conflict of interest between the Seller (and their agent, Contractors, and “experts”)–who want the best sales price for their home and may want to downplay any structural or drainage issues, and the Buyer.  The Buyer tends to be more interested in the real problems, but also wants to negotiate the price down and may or may not intend to do any of the work.

So the upshot of this is folks call me years later when they have a new or developing problem, and all they know is what information or work was given to them at the time of the sale.  If they are lucky they have good intel and have a reasonable idea of what the issues are.  But sometimes they only have information from the seller (or work done by them), which they are relying on to be accurate.

One of the more glaring examples of this “structural issues” scenario was from a recent bid I did

The Owner had been in his new place about 5 years, and was beginning to see cracks develop inside, which is often an indicator of trouble below (in the crawlspace).

structural issues bay area

He had some suspicions that there were some issues with the foundation, which had been replaced as part of his deal with the Seller.  When I learned that the work had been done for about half of what he should have been charged for the job, I was preparing myself for problems down below … 

But what I saw went beyond just poor workmanship 

The most obvious thing that I noticed right away was that they failed to remove any of the dirt from under the house when they did their excavations (to save money). 

Not only did this make it impossible to get around under there to do future work, but it also decreased the ventilation down to a minimum, and given that there was evidence of prior termites (scraped down termite tubes on the floor joists).  The building code requires 18” of underfloor clearance, and there was only 6”-8” in many places.  All of this dirt would need to come out to fix the structural issues!

fix foundation problem california

 

major structural repair At first I was scratching my head as to how this had gotten past the building inspector.  Then I realized that he probably saw everything only from the outside–the forms and rebar at the time of inspection, and never got a look underneath, (since no reasonable Contractor would leave the dirt under the house).

Which brings me to an important point:

Never rely on a Building Inspector, permit, or signed inspections to show that your job was done properly.

Building inspectors are often in a hurry, may be relying on inaccurate plans, or Contractors may be trying to do things they don’t want the inspector to know or look at.  It all boils down to the integrity of your Contractor and their workers.

The second issue was that some of the structural elements had been damaged during the work

Some of the floor framing and post beam work were either damaged or missing: 

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The biggest problem however, was that there was a basic misunderstanding, either intentionally or through ignorance, of the work that needed to be done.

As you can see in the picture below, the floor framing runs front to back under this house.  The floor joists are small (2×6) with long spans, making the three interior lateral foundations very important to the integrity of the house. Since they were highly inadequate (consisting of small damaged concrete piers and 4”x4”’ beams), and were either not addressed or in some cases compromised by the perimeter work, the house was settling at the interior, which was reflected by the growing number of cracks inside.

interior home settling CA

By leaving the dirt under the house, damaging some of the structural elements during the work, and failing to address the bigger foundation issues, the new owner was left with a big expensive mess.

Removing the dirt from the tiny crawlspace will be a lot more costly than just removing it from the perimeter in the first place. Things were damaged that need to be repaired that were OK before the work.

And it could have been even worse.

Fortunately there are not drainage problems under the structure.  If there were, the settlement would have been more dramatic. And the termites might have returned (invited by moisture and higher humidity) and caused any number of problems given their improved access to the building with the soil to wood contacts that were created.

Hopefully the new homeowner has seen enough and will opt to do things right this time. Only time will tell.

Long story short, this is just another example of why doing the wrong job can cost you a lot more in the long run. 

If you live in our service area of Oakland, Piedmont, Alameda, Berkeley, or Orinda and have a structural issue you want fixed the right way, feel free to reach out

How to Find the Right Structural Repair Contractor for Your Project

Most people who I do estimates for me tell me the same story.  They have talked to a bunch of Contractors about their structural repair project and they all have different ideas about how to do the work …. and their pricing is all over the board.  

There are a variety of reasons for this, and once you understand them it may make your path to finding the right person for your job a bit easier.

Reason #1: Most Structural Repair Contractors Are Inexperienced

This means they’re unable to properly evaluate your job!

The average Contractor stays in business for around 2 years. I have been doing this work for over 35 years, and I feel I really didn’t feel confident in evaluating structural jobs until about 15-20 years into my career. Most of this confidence came after completing hundreds of jobs and learning how to analyze the various differences and commonalities between projects so that most solutions seemed straightforward.

Very few Contractors specialize in structural work. Most are General Contractors, and as the term implies, they handle a wide variety of Home Improvement projects, most of which are remodeling jobs. And most contractors that do structural repair tend to focus on either foundations, drainage, or retrofitting and lack knowledge in the other areas of structural repair and how they interact.

Because they are inexperienced, Contractors will often defer to engineers to come up with a plan, or they will suggest partial or incomplete solutions based upon guesses or which reflect work they have more experience with or which they view to be most profitable. Clearly not the right answer for homeowners looking for a long-term solution.

Reason #2: Most Contractors and Homeowners Fail to See “The Big Picture”

Because most contractors in this field are either specialists or generalists, they fail to see how foundations, drainage, settlement, retrofitting, termite and dry-rot repairs, retaining walls, and structural framing problems are all interrelated.

Just like in the healthcare world, homeowners often look at the symptom of their problems and not the cause.  They see cracks inside their homes, for example, and worry they have a foundation problem, or a seismic issue that needs to be corrected.

What I know from experience is that most foundation problems and settlement issues come from improper drainage and abnormal structural conditions under you home.

This in turn leads to foundation damage and deterioration.

So if you hire a foundation guy to fix your foundation but fail to correct the drainage problem or other issues that led to that condition, you may find yourself having to redo the work sooner rather than later.

Reason #3: Most Homeowners Already Have Bad Information from Their home Purchase

New homeowners are often the victims of home sale disclosure information. Termite reports and home inspections are often the primary sources of information related to the condition of a home at purchase, which can give incomplete, inaccurate or vague structural advice.

Sellers reports tend to minimize problems, with buyers reports often doing the reverse, causing homeowners to have an inconclusive view of what needs to be done.  

In all honesty, I view home sale information to be primarily garbage, generated mostly for negotiation purposes. But this unfortunately is the starting point for a lot of homeowners and is their only reference point for the problems they are experiencing, or for the work they were told needs to be done. And even if they are lucky enough to get an engineering evaluation, engineers tend to have a poor understanding of how to design residential drainage solutions, which is often the crux of the problem.

Let’s Face It: Nobody Wants to Spend Big Money on Structural Work

The cost to do the right repairs can be expensive. And there is nothing a homeowner likes less than to have to spend a bunch of money on a drainage system that can’t be seen … especially when you’re deciding between a kitchen remodel or other work you’d much rather do!

This is the most obvious with drainage jobs, as proper French Drains need to be below the lowest floor grades and can be very deep and sometimes require the removal of stairs and other hardscape that are along the border of your home, or require drainage in your crawlspace.  

Old foundations can’t be fixed. They have unreinforced concrete, which is usually near the end of its lifespan after 100 years or so when exposed to water which leads to its deterioration.

The bottom line is that there are not a lot of simple or even intermediate solutions once foundations and drainage systems reach the point of no return, and selecting a solution based upon price rather than on sound information can be a big mistake. But like any good investor, you have to think about what’s best for your home long-term

Bottom Line: Do Your Homework When Choosing a Structural Repair Contractor! 

That means picking the right contractor who can determine the proper scope of work and who has the experience to execute it.

I can count on one hand the number of local contractors that have the experience we have in this field, though there are hundreds that will be willing to bid on your project.  You may get a variety of opinions, approaches, and costs but most of them will be incomplete or short-sighted.

I am only interested in long-term solutions, as I have no interest in returning (in my lifetime) to re-do work that should’ve been done right the first time. I like to try to understand a customer’s budget, but ultimately my solution is not budget-driven unless I feel there are different options that will both have a high probability of success in the long term.  

If you are looking for a quick fix, that is certainly your call.

But some quick fixes, particularly in drainage work, can lead to bigger problems that the ones you started out with and we avoid these at all costs.

Look closely at the solution when evaluating the price. We may be suggesting something that is twice the cost of a competitor, but it involves 5 times as much work and it is what is actually required to solve your problem. The job may be more complex and more expensive than you anticipated, but if you solve the problem correctly the first time through that is generally the best approach because it saves you money down the road. 

Hidden Structural Damage – When your front stairs may no longer be supportive

We were recently doing some minor repairs to a set of front concrete stairs when they suddenly and inexplicably collapsed into a pile of rubble in front of the home. After overcoming my initial dismay, I began to consider what might have caused this dramatic event. If this were to have happened when the homeowner was entering the house they could have been seriously injured. From above and below the stairs appeared to be in reasonable condition.

stairs after collapsing
Stairs After Collapsing
On closer inspection it was clear the concrete steps had been patched in the past, allowing water to get into the support framing. The only waterproofing under the old concrete protecting the framing was building paper (tar paper), which has a limited lifespan when it is in frequent contact with moisture. Since the old concrete had no steel reinforcing (rebar), once it settled due to the poor support framing it actually broke up into several smaller pieces. The wood form material underneath the stairs concealed this cracking. Because of a lack of proper flashing where the steps met the stucco sidewalls, water got into the walls and rotted the studs. This framing made up the structure supporting the steps, but it was also concealed by the stucco. All it took was the removal of one 2×4 and the whole thing came crashing down. If you figure at least a couple of cubic yards of material you are looking at approximately 10,000 pounds of concrete!!!!

New Stair Installation by Jim Gardner
New Stairs
Front stair and landing replacements are becoming a significant part of our work, and with good reason. This dramatic collapse shows what can happen when the damage is severe, and why it might go unnoticed. With older concrete structures that show signs distress one should make test openings in the stucco and the support framing to look closely at their condition. If they are in poor shape it might make sense to consider replacing the whole structure. Sometimes new foundation work is required, but not necessarily. We would demo the existing concrete steps and support framing and replace the wood with new pressure-treated material, usually of a bigger dimension and with narrower spacing. This usually requires some detailing from our structural engineer to design the supports to modern engineering standards. On top of the framing we use pressure-treated plywood and then a bituthene roofing membrane for waterproofing, along with metal flashing at the sides adjacent to the wall framing. The final step is the steel-reinforcing for the new concrete. The end product is a much more supportive structure which will provide a safe entrance to your home for many more years to come.