Not All Deficient Foundations Are in Need of Repair

Mar 5, 2017

You just received your home inspection and the foundation was marked as deficient. The inspector found cracks in the slab and the drywall. Is the house a lemon? Does the foundation need to be repaired? Foundation performance is difficult to evaluate over a short duration and inspectors are understandably afraid of liability. The purpose of this post is to explain how a home inspector determines if a foundation is deficient and to review the actions a homeowner can take.

Home Inspection Report - Deficient Foundation

The Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC) regulates home inspections and requires home inspectors to "render a written opinion as to the performance of the foundation." (TAC 535.228) This may be in conflict with the Texas Engineering Practices Act which considers evaluation to be the act of engineering if "adequate performance of which requires engineering education, training and experience in applying special knowledge or judgement of the mathematical, physical or engineering sciences to that service or creative work." (Texas Engineering Practice Act 1001.003(c)(1)) Not all professional engineers (PEs) are qualified to evaluate foundations because they are required to practice in their area of expertise. For example a PE that designs storm water drainage systems should not evaluate residential foundations. That being said, the average home inspector may not have the training and experience to provide an opinion of foundation performance that can sufficiently minimize your concerns.

Preparation of a Drilled Pier Foundation (Highway Construction)

How does a home inspector determine if a foundation is deficient? The TREC Standards of Practice for Real Estate Inspectors requires the inspector to observe the foundation directly and systems that depend on the foundation performance for proper operation. Specifically:

(I)(C) Report present and visible indications of adverse performance of the foundation, such as:

  1. binding, out-of-square, or non-latching doors
  2. framing or frieze board separations
  3. sloping floors
  4. window, wall, floor, or ceiling cracks or separations
  5. rotating, buckling, cracking, or deflecting masonry cladding

(I)(D) The inspector shall report as Deficient:

  1. deteriorated materials
  2. deficiencies in foundation components such as; beams, joists, bridging, blocking, piers, posts, pilings, columns, sills or subfloor
  3. deficiencies in retaining walls related to foundation performance
  4. exposed or damaged reinforcement
  5. crawlspace ventilation that is not performing
  6. crawlspace drainage that is not performing

If an inspector finds any of the criteria listed above, it a safe bet that they will mark the foundation as deficient. There are a variety of conditions where indicators of adverse foundation performance can occur when there are no problems with the foundation. For more information on these conditions please refer to "Distress Phenomena Often Mistakenly Attributed to Foundation Movement."

Typical Shrinkage Cracking

If a homeowner is not satisfied with the performance of the foundation or if there are conditions present that could affect future foundation performance, a professional engineer that specializes in residential foundations can perform an investigation. The Texas Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (TX ASCE) recommends the following levels of investigation for evaluating and repairing residential foundations. (Guidelines for the Evaluation and Repair of Residential Foundations)

Level A Investigation

This level of investigation shall be clearly identified as a report of first impressions and shall not imply that any higher level of investigation has been performed. This level of investigation will typically include, but is not restricted to:

  1. Interview the occupant, owner and client if possible, regarding a history of the property and performance of the structure
  2. Request from the client and review the provided documents regarding the foundation, such as construction drawings, geotechnical reports, previous testing and inspection reports, and previous repair information
  3. Make visual observations during a physical walk-through
  4. Observe factors influencing the performance of the foundation
  5. If requested by the client, provide a written report, containing at least the following:
  6. Scope of services
  7. Observations, site characteristics, and data deemed pertinent by the engineer
  8. Discussion of major factors influencing foundation performance and rationale in reaching conclusions concerning the subject residence
  9. Conclusions and any recommendations for further investigation and remedial or preventative measures

Level B Investigation

This level of investigation should include a written report including the items listed above for a Level A inspection and also the following items:

  1. A determination of relative foundation elevations, considering floor finishes, in sufficient detail to represent the shape of the foundation or floor adequately.
  2. A drawing showing relative elevation

Level C Investigation

This level of investigation shall include the items listed above for Level A and Level B inspections and additional services, testing and related reports deemed appropriate by the Engineer. These may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Site specific soil sampling and testing
  2. Plumbing testing
  3. Material testing
  4. Steel reinforcing survey
  5. Post tensioning cable testing

This level of investigation should also include a more detailed level of reporting which may include the following:

  1. Scaled drawings
  2. Description of factors that affect soil moisture
  3. Observations of cut and fill
  4. Tree survey
  5. Photographs
  6. Detailed distress survey

An engineer may be able to make an assessment from a level A investigation. However, if there are any concerns about future movement or if foundation repair is needed, a homeowner should have a Level B investigation to establish baseline slab elevations. Having baseline slab elevations allows for future evaluation of slab movement and is needed to determine if a repair was properly performed. It should be noted that using one set of elevation data to determine if the foundation has moved or deflected can be misleading. Foundations can be constructed with built in elevation differences or the entire slab could have a slight slope. In both these cases, the foundation may be performing fine, but the elevation data would not represent this. Ideally, baseline elevations would have been performed on the home when it was built and could be compared to a new set of elevation data. One set of elevation data may not be helpful for a final conclusion, unless it corresponds with the indicators of adverse performance.

Once the investigation is complete the engineer may recommend repair, monitoring or correction of conducive conditions. The guidelines issued by TX ASCE recommend that the engineer "consider the cost effectiveness and practicality of the recommendations, the projected performance, and the needs of the client. For example, an owner may choose to perform periodic cosmetic repairs and door adjustments, rather than comprehensive foundation underpinning." What is a nuisance to one homeowner may be unbearable to another.

Foundation repair can cost thousands of dollars and cause additional cracking of walls, ceilings, floors and windows. Determining if a foundation has ever moved or deflected is easy to evaluate by looking at the criteria suggested by TREC. Determining if the foundation is actively moving during an option period is next to impossible. If conditions conducive to foundation movement are present and not corrected, foundation repairs may not prevent additional movement.

A deficient foundation is not necessarily a foundation in need of repair. In cases where foundation movement makes the home unsafe or uninhabitable, the homeowner does not have many options. Repair is more of a personal preference for a foundation that has visible signs of movement, but does not compromise the safety or sanitary conditions of a home.