The Inspector Who™ Noticed a Crack and Found Structural Problems

Home inspectors can use simple visual tools to determine when a crack or bulge might indicate structural problems in the foundation of a building. Sometimes a simple set of tools including a level, ruler, flashlight and plumb line are enough, combined with the experience and expertise of the instructor, to unveil potentially dangerous conditions.

There are several signs that inspectors look for. Among the most common are:

  • Cracks that can indicate settlement due to poor construction, water damage, earthquakes, or too much weight in a concentrated area.
  • Leaning or buckling foundations that can indicate a situation arising from pressure due to backfill, low grade building materials used, or differences in settlement between materials.
  • Cracks in footings or slabs that can mean that they were built too shallowly, damaged by frost, or built on loose soil.
  • Foundation damage due to impacts by equipment.
  • Bulges, leaning or tipping due to settlement, frost, water or building movement.
  • Shrinkage cracks in concrete or concrete block that may not be a structural concern but may be an indication of water or radon entry.

It is important to note that each foundation material has specific key indicators of stress or damage. For example, a horizontal crack a concrete block wall may be more serious than the same crack in brick, concrete, masonry, or wood.

Whatever the material, all foundation walls are worthy of an inspector’s scrutiny because as they age, cracks and bulges indicate movement or leaks. This applies to both solid walls and veneer masonry. Cracks are common because houses settle over time. Home inspectors must determine whether cracks indicate defects in the structure of the house. Generally cracks larger than an eighth of an inch, or cracks that indicate movement warrant an extended evaluation, perhaps by a structural engineer because they allow water to seep into the wall.

Inspectors also look around window and doorframes for cracks, and for sloping floors, all of which maybe harbingers for structural damage. In some cases, door and window frames may absorb moisture and can cause deterioration.

In particular, inspectors pay special attention to veneers like siding, stucco, brick or stone. Veneers are built to allow moisture to seep down to the bottom and exit through holes. Some houses have “weep holes” built into the exterior walls to help control this issue. It is important that home inspectors check to make sure that building codes for these holes were followed, so that possible damage from that moisture behind the veneer has not frozen and caused movement. It is also important to check for rust in any visual metal supports and to check for possible movement in the veneer.

Another important fact to note is that doing a home inspection when defects like cracks and bulges are present in foundations can be dangerous. Some structural problems may be severe and there may be a possibility that a building could collapse while the inspection is taking place. In addition, sometimes building conditions can be disguised, further endangering the inspector.

The home inspector who notices and reports on these types of structural problems can save home owners and buyer’s money in the long run by recommending a professional to repair to preserve the integrity of the building. In all cases, home inspectors also need to protect themselves, their tools, and their own businesses with home inspection errors and omissions insurance, in the case of accidents or missed structural problems.