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Foundation Maintenance And Repair
Dated: December 11 2018
Few words strike more fear into the hearts of homeowners like “foundation repair.” Foundations are pretty critical, but repairs usually aren’t as frightening as they seem, and many can be prevented with a few simple routines. We’re breaking down the basics to help you understand the process, if repairs are needed, and some basic maintenance to help you avoid problems.
There are several kinds of foundations- pier & beam, engineered & basements to name a few. The type used will vary by the location and soil type in the area where the home is built. Because of our softer soils and warmer weather, slab foundations are most common in North Texas. Wooden forms are built, and post-tension cables are installed within the frames, which are then filled with concrete to create the foundation slab. As the moisture levels in the soil change, the slab can shift and move. Over time, too much shifting and movement can cause cracks in the slab, or even breaks.
Homeowners can prevent many foundation problems simply by keeping moisture levels as consistent as possible, year-round. During hot summer months, run the sprinklers regularly, respecting local watering restrictions of course. Early morning is commonly recommended, to allow water to seep into the soil before the heat of the day dries it all up. Soaker hoses around the perimeter of the house are another great option. 2-3 times per work usually is enough. If you see that the soil is drying out and cracking, or contracting away from the slab leaving a gap, your soil needs more water. Avoid over-watering as well. If you notice that water is pooling around the foundation, cut back on the watering some for this area. You may need to adjust the sprinkler zones to run for different amounts of time, depending on the needs in different areas. A shady part of the house might need less water than the side that gets full afternoon sun for half of the day! If puddles stick around for a long time after a rain shower or sprinkler session, some drainage interventions may be required. Again, consistency is the key. Like the Three Little Bears, too much or too little can be a bad thing, so it needs to be just right. Excess water on one side with dryness on another is not a good thing for your foundation. Drainage can be as simple as adding gutters, digging trenches to allow water to flow away from the house, or can be slightly more complex, requiring French drain systems. French drains allow water to pass through an underground tube instead of pooling up and causing puddles in the yard. Gutter downspouts can be connected to French drain systems to catch excess water after rain showers. Most French drains exit to the street or storm drains, but some can re-direct water to holding tanks to be used to water the lawn.
Another important thing homeowners can do to prevent foundation movement is to control erosion. A slight slope is required by building codes (6 inches in the first 10 feet) to allow water to roll away from the foundation, but over time, the water can slowly take the soil away with it. When the soil along the house washes away over time, there can be too little left to support the weight of the house, causing it to settle or shift. Slab foundations usually have a smooth concrete surface on top, and a lumpier portion on the bottom. The lumpy concrete should be underground. If you see that the dirt on the side or corners of your house has washed away enough to show off the lumpy part, it’s time to add some soil to the area. Homes on a slope or corner will often need further intervention to hold the soil in place, like a retaining wall. Retaining walls are simply stone or concrete walls, reinforced with rebar. They’re often built as part of a landscaping plan and used as planters, but in this case, they serve a much more important purpose. Like a French drain, retaining walls can be installed by a landscaper or foundation pro. If you decide to tackle this one on your own, be sure to do some research on the building process to ensure that your wall will last long term.
Landscaping and mulch along the foundation can also help keep moisture levels fairly consistent. Avoid thirsty plants and trees with large roots, as these won’t help and the roots might cause problems as the tree grows. Roots growing underneath the foundation or too close can put pressure on the slab. Also avoid any mulch touching siding or wooden fences, as these are ideal conditions for termites and other pests. Generally 4-6 inches of the concrete slab should be exposed.
Not sure if your foundation is in good shape? There are a few tell-tale signs to watch for. When homes are built, drywall is installed in large sheets, usually about 4 to 6 feet wide, and then the seams are taped and the whole surface is covered with texture and paint. But what does this have to do with foundations? More than you’d think. When homeowners begin to see cracks, the location and shape of the crack can tell a lot of the story. When the drywall seams shift over time, sometimes the tape or texture pops and creates a straight, hairline crack. These cracks can cause homeowners’ hearts to skip a beat, but they’re often not as scary as they look. Over time, simple expansion and contraction as the weather changes will cause minor movement in a house, and that can cause these small cracks to open up. Diagonal or horizontal cracks, especially coming from corners of windows and doors are more concerning. Cracks in the slab itself are an ominous sign as well. A few inches of the corners crumbling off or small, fine cracks in the slab tend to be benign, but cracks through the slab (like the one pictured above) are pretty definite. Other signs to watch for are sloping feelings in the floor, cracked mortar between bricks, gaps between siding pieces, cracking tiles, and doors or windows that are difficult to open & close, stick, or swing on their own without wind. If you’re noticing these signs, it’s time to call in a professional for an evaluation.
The best person to call out for an evaluation is a structural engineer. They’re educated and trained to find problems and give an unbiased opinion on the need for repairs. They can cost about $500 (or more for a larger than normal area) for a single evaluation, however, so many home owners begin by getting a free estimate from a foundation repair company in the area. Most foundation companies will send a technician out for free to measure the foundation levels and give an estimate for the repair. If work is done, a structural engineer must sign off on the final report anyhow. The tech will use a tool called an Altimeter, which is placed in multiple locations throughout the house (or building) to measure the elevation levels. Few foundations are perfectly level, and the measurements may be impacted by the flooring thickness (though most professionals adjust for that). More than a 1.25 inch drop in a 10 foot length of space, or a big change in a small area can signal trouble. An area that’s higher than the rest can indicate excess moisture underneath the slab, often caused by an underground plumbing leak. It’s wise to have 3 companies check the levels and compare their estimates. Quite often, the numbers and estimates vary. After all, they are not just techs, but repair sales people and some are more honest than others. Ask friends or your favorite Realtor for recommendations. If the options are dramatically different, consult a structural engineer for certainty.
Repairs can vary dramatically in cost, depending on the work needed. The earlier a problem is addressed, the lower the cost will be in most cases. If the movement is in one corner, and only a few piers are needed to solve the problem, the cost can be under $2,000. If the entire house needs intervention, the cost can exceed $10,000. Sometimes the only intervention needed will be a better watering plan, landscaping changes, and/or a drainage system!
A pier is simply a cylinder made of concrete or steel that’s placed under the house. A hydraulic jack is placed on top of the pier and used to raise an area of the foundation up to an appropriate height to restore proper function. Multiple piers may be needed to raise an area, such as a corner or entire side of the house. Fore more serious movement, some piers may need to be installed by breaking into the flooring and foundation from inside of the house.
Whenever a foundation is moved, the pipes that run through the concrete can be impacted. After foundation work, a plumber should always be consulted to test for leaks throughout the house. This step is often required before a city or engineer will sign off on the repair work.
We hope this information helps reduce the fear of the unknown when dealing with your home’s foundation. Some intervention should be expected if you own a home in Texas long-term, as our soil causes frequent movement as it swells and contracts in differing weather conditions.
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3800 Monterrey Circle, The Colony TX 75056
Texas A&M AgriLife: http://water.tamu.edu/watering-foundation
Integrity Foundation Repair: www.integrityfoundationrepair.com
Structured Foundation Repairs, Inc.: www.structuredfoundation.com
Texas Home & Garden: www.texashomeandgarden.com
Thomas Engineering Consultants: www.thomasengineeringdfw.com
Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs- TX Minimum Construction Standards: https://www.tdhca.state.tx.us/single-family/training/docs/14-TMCS.pdf
Whitworth Engineering www.whitworthengineering.com
Scott and Tammy Watson are the Owners and Team Leads for GroupWatson, Keller Williams. With 53 years of combined real estate experience, a "Client First Philosophy" is exemplified by providing excepti....
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