25% of US homes have foundation cracks. Image: Flickr/baldeaglebluff
In a 2012 study, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) , estimated that 25% of U.S. homes have foundation cracks - meaning, at that time, one in four Americans was living in a home that’s structurally unsound. Since then, they believe the number has grown thanks to the very earth under our feet.
The main culprit in NAHB’s study is shifting ground. Whether it’s due to a large-scale event like an earthquake, a long-coming issue like worsening erosion, or simply soil shifting in your own backyard, these movements leave your home open to serious structural issues.
This issue is especially insidious because it literally happens right under our noses. Sometimes the damage occurs quickly and sometimes it takes years to rear its ugly head, but if you don’t know what to look for, you may realize what’s happening until it’s too late.
Luckily, there are ways to protect your home. Consider this your ultimate guide to ground movement. Read on below to learn about its causes, its signs, and what to do if you spot an issue. A little preparation now can make a huge difference in the long run.
Natural events like earthquakes and erosion can harm your foundation. Image: Flickr/Martin Luff
What causes the earth to shift?
When most people think about foundation problems, the first thing that comes to mind is an earthquake - and for good reason. As the ground shakes underfoot, the foundation cracks open, walls shake and entire buildings can collapse. Not only are these occurrences scary, they also cause a lot of structural damage.
The Insurance Institute estimates that the United States experiences 20,000 quakes per year. Couple that with data from the 2015 US Census, which states that each earthquake registering at a 5.0 or higher causes over $12 million in property damage, on average, and it’s clear these occurrences are a costly problem.
Interesting, residents of Southern California aren’t the only ones who should worry about protecting their homes from a quake. The insurance institute counts 42 states as “at risk” and each geographical region has its own structural and financial concerns.
For example, in places with a sandy soil concentration - from major cities like Portland and Seattle to small coastal towns - an earthquake will essentially cause the ground to liquify.
Scott Ashford, the Interim Dean of Engineering at Oregon University, explained this phenomenon to PBS NewsHour:
“An earthquake can spawn sand boils, a miniature volcano of sand and water,” he told reporters. “The increase in water pressure from earthquake waves causes the sand grains to lose contact with each other and break their structure”.
Known as liquefaction, this process causes the ground to move sideways, creating a slope. Eventually, the slope will get big enough that the ground will slide out from underneath any structure that it’s supporting and cause it to topple.
Though earthquakes in areas susceptible to liquefaction are not as common, they are thought to be the most severe.
Additionally, not all earthquakes are natural occurrences. Some are man-made. Although there is debate about whether they are caused by fracking - the process of opening up oil and natural gas deposits with pressurized drilling - or through improperly disposing of waste water by injecting it into the ground, there’s little doubt that our actions have serious geological consequences.
In fact, the 2016 U.S. Geological Survey concluded that an estimated 7.9 million Americans - and their homes - are at risk for a man-made quake, particularly, in states like Oklahoma and Texas where subterranean manipulation common. Despite the fact that earthquakes were once unheard of in the Midwest, these states now are on surpass California in their risk levels.
By the numbers, the survey found that between 2010-2015 annual occurrences of earthquakes in Oklahoma rose from a mere 41 to 888. Texas, Wyoming, Kansas, and Nevada all show similarly sharp spikes. But, it wasn’t always this way.
Knowing that their Dallas neighborhood was prone to expansive soil, Cathy Wallace and her husband had taken precautions to use a sturdier, pier-and-beam foundation when building their custom home. They lived there for over ten years without issue, until fracking started nearby.
In 2014, they began hearing reports that earthquakes were coming closer and closer to their quiet suburb. Their first one finally hit on a Saturday night in November of that year.
“My husband and I were sitting downstairs when there was a loud rumble and the walls started to shake,” recalls Cathy. “All of a sudden, there was this jolt. It was like a Mac truck hit the house.”
From then on, there was no break.On one instance in January of 2015, Cathy’s family endured 11 quakes in a single afternoon. They continued nearly every day that year.
“We watched the sheetrock crack in our garage,” she remembers. “Everything in the ceiling was busted. Our arched doorways split and cracked in the corners. Outside, we had cracks in the brick exterior and through the mortar. Our driveway was just a mess.”
By the beginning of 2016, businesses left Texas’s Barnett Shale due to overproduction and plummeting oil and gas prices. Since then, there are only three minor quakes on record in the area.
Even though the Wallace home was declared structurally sound by a licensed engineer and they were able to make the necessary cosmetic repairs, the emotional effects of their experience have stayed with them.
“It still affects me,” Cathy admits. “It’s getting better, but to this day, every time someone slams a door or a big truck goes by, my heart is in my throat.”
Aside from earthquakes, erosion is another huge factor that can significantly impact a home’s structural safety. Coastal regions ranging from California to North Carolina are most at risk.
In some areas - like San Diego’s Carlsbad Bluffs - the bluffs have become so damaged that they have been rendered completely unusable. J. Taylor Perron, an Associate Professor of Geology at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains their danger:
“Coastal bluffs retreat in part because the force of waves striking the coast strips sand and pieces of rock away from the land and carries it into the ocean. If that happens for a long enough period, the bluff will start to crumble.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) sees this as a growing problem. According to their calculations, our coastlines lose an average of 25 feet per year - with numbers reaching 50 feet per year in the Great Lakes region. However, they note that a loss of as little as one or two feet can be “considered catastrophic” in densely-populated areas.
Currently, these erosion rates account for an estimated $500 million per year in property losses, but that number is expected to grow as erosion increases due to rising sea levels.
Improper soil consideration
However, sometimes the biggest threat to your home’s structure doesn’t reveal itself in a big way. Sometimes signs of damage can take years to show up, all because of the way in which the soil in your backyard moves over time and causes the home foundation to shift with it.
As Professor Perron points out, sometimes small-scale erosion can become an issue, if your lot hasn’t been properly graded. “Water running over soil can also erode it quickly,” he says. “Especially if there aren't many plants growing there to slow down its trajectory.”
The inherent qualities of the soil under your home can also be a cause for concern. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that half of all homes in the US are built on expansive soils - or areas where the soil is particularly susceptible expanding and contracting with moisture - and that half of those homes will experience some level of damage from it.
Shockingly, the ASCE also claims that expansive soils account for more home-related damage each year than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined.
These factors should have been taken into consideration when your lot was built. The builder is responsible for selecting the type of foundation that will fare best in your area’s soil content, for grading the lawn so that water runs away from the property, and for installing systems that will keep the soil at a consistent moisture level, if needed.
However, unfortunately, that is not always the case. Whether due to changing building codes, age, or negligence improper soil consideration is one of the biggest causes of your home’s structural problems.
Signs your home has a structural problem
Whatever the cause, the best thing you can do to protect your home is to make sure you’re always on the lookout for signs there may be a problem. While this task may seem most important after a major geological event, it’s critical to make it a part of your regular home maintenance routine.
The reason for that regularity is because structural problems often start small. Even after a major event like an earthquake, the signs of damage may be so minor that they are hard to notice. However, when left untreated, these small issues grow.
To safely keep problems at bay, it’s best to take a walk around your home at least once a year and document signs of damage. According to Catherine Gilliland, a licensed structural engineer with Vitruvian Designs and Engineering, foundation cracks are the first thing to look out for.
“If the foundation has settled for any reason, the first sign is usually cracking around the corners of windows and doors,” she warns. “As the settlement gets worse, the home’s concrete slab will crack and its doors and windows will no longer open and close properly.”
Beyond cracks, she suggests that homeowners keep an eye out for sagging roof lines, damage to the chimney, or around the eaves of the house. ‘Soft spots’ in the floor,” she says, are also cause for concern.
Ms. Gilliland’s recommendations are consistent with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s guidelines for spotting damage, along with larger indicators such any sign that the home has shifted on its foundation or that its building materials are starting to separate.
What to do if you find a problem
If you think you might have a structural problem on your hands, the first step is to document the damage, particularly if it appeared as a result of an earthquake or another geological event. Dated pictures, especially ones that note the size any of any foundation cracks, will be helpful if you plan on filing an insurance claim.
From there, you should get a structural engineer out to the property to assess the damage. If you’ve filed a claim, your insurance company will likely send one out on their behalf. Even so, it may be in your be useful to get multiple opinions.
Doing so will allow you to see an unbiased picture of the extent of damage to your home and find out more about the necessary repairs. It will also allow you to price shop.
Once you have a few repair plans and price quotes in front of you - three is likely sufficient - do your research. Rather than simply going with the most affordable option, take your time in making an informed decision. Read each company’s reviews, ask to see their portfolios and make sure to get all your questions answered. You should go with whoever makes you feel most comfortable in their skillset.
Since repairing the damage to a home is such an individualized process - it depends on where, how, and how severely the damage occurred - specifics about what you expect are hard to come by.
However, there is one detail that seems true, no matter who you ask. Structural repairs do not come quickly or cheaply. In fact, Home Advisor found, as of 2017, the average cost of a foundation repair fell between $1,800 and $6,321, nationwide.
Bear in mind, that number simply accounts for the foundation itself. Other repairs, such as filling in the cracks surrounding your windows and doors, will come at an additional fee.
Foundation repairs can often get very costly. Image: Flickr/Nat West
Offsetting the financial cost of foundation cracks
Unfortunately, getting financial assistance for structural issues can be harder than you would think. Your best option will vary depending on your unique situation, but here are a few of the most common scenarios:
If the damage is caused by an event that is severe enough to be federally declared a "disaster", FEMA or another state-based agency may provide some assistance. In the short-term, they can assist with your immediate needs by providing temporary housing and other essentials. Long-term, they may be able to provide financial assistance for homeowners with repairs not covered by insurance.
However, be aware that any financial assistance is not likely to be immediate. You’ll still be expected to pay out of pocket for the repairs and it can take months or even years to be reimbursed.
An insurance claim
Believe it or not, many of the things that cause soil movement - earthquakes, erosion, flooding - are not covered under a typical homeowner’s insurance policy. In fact, they may even be specifically excluded. Usually, coverage for these events is part of an additional rider or a separate policy altogether.
If you know you live in an area that’s particularly susceptible to these types of damages, your best bet is to do as much research as possible before the next major event occurs. Read through your policy thoroughly to familiarize yourself with your current coverage Then, if needed, shop around for additional support.
Though, Cathy Wallace warns that the peace of mind of knowing you’re protected won’t come cheap. “I wanted to know that we were covered in case something happened, so I got earthquake insurance. The deductible was $14,000! At that point, we knew it could only be used for something catastrophic - like if the house fell down."
Luckily, despite all the quakes, Cathy’s home was declared structurally sound by an engineer, but some of her neighbors weren’t as lucky. Those in the next in the next community over - where the homes were older - learned that their concrete slab homes were full of severe foundation cracks.
However, even those with supplemental coverage found that it was nearly impossible to get their insurance companies to pay for repairs.
“The companies told them, ‘You have to give us one specific event that caused this’,” Cathy says, “They wanted a date, a time, and a particular earthquake.’”
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, Catherine Gilliland says her years a structural engineer have taught her the value of following through with the appeal process. She recommends:
“If you disagree with your insurance company, contact at least three local contractors to get competitive bids for all necessary repairs. Then, provide the insurance company with copies of the evaluation and bids. If your request is reasonable, this could be enough to convince the insurance company to provide coverage for additional work.”
However, she recognizes that even justifiable appeals are not always effective. As a last-ditch effort, she suggests contacting a local lawyer to discuss if you can file against the insurance company.
Those who have recently built new homes may have an extra layer of protection afforded to them in the form of a limited warranty from the builder.
But, even that is not ironclad. These warranties may contain specific exclusions pertaining to “acts of god“, or ecological events like earthquakes and erosion. If so, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to receive payment, unless you’re trying to prove that the damage occurred as a result of poor workmanship or negligence.
If you’re covered under insurance or a warranty and the company is refuting your claim, it may be time to pursue litigation. Read over your policy carefully to make sure that the damages you’re claiming aren’t excluded and check to see that your account is in good standing.
Then, take your case to a lawyer who specializes in foundation cracks and other types of structural damage. He or she will be able to assess your situation in-depth and determine whether or not you have a credible case. As for what makes a case hold up in court:
“We can't say it enough: pictures and receipts, pictures and receipts, pictures and receipts," says Phillip Sanov, head of the Bad Faith Insurance Practice Group at Lanier Law Firm’s Texas division.
In this situation, “pictures and receipts”, would cover items such as dated pictures of any damage, additional shots to show progressive damage over time, copies of your policies and warranties, documentation of paid premiums and work estimates, and a paper trail of communication between yourself and other involved parties.
You should also be prepared to make a statement of your own. However, don’t get too nervous, In an article for his firm, Frank Darras of Darras Law, explained that honesty, sincerity, and kindness are the three ingredients that hit home with juries.
"Juries want a consumer who simply states, 'I've paid my premiums, I've documented my claim, I've asked for help, and now you've chosen to delay or wrongfully deny my claim’,” he says.
“Tell them, ‘It's hurt me, my family, my ability to pay my bills, and you're causing serious harm to all of us, which isn't fair’”
Some are unwilling to accept ground movement as inevitable. Image: Flickr/greensefa
For some, knowing that they’ve taken the steps to repair their homes is not enough. They know that others are at risk and want to ensure a safer future.
For Cathy Wallace, that meant gathering her neighbors together to protest the ground manipulation in her area. Through social media, she was able to form a group called Irving Impact that grew to over 300 members.
Together, they contacted their representatives, protested at city council meetings, and sought to find ways to help those affected seek out financial assistance.
Though the fracking eventually stopped, Cathy is still willing to share her wisdom from that time. To her, creating change is all about persistence and communication.
“Hound your representatives, but listen to what they’re saying,” she advises. “Eventually, you’ll find someone who sounds like they’d be willing to work with you and you can talk about what can be done on both sides.”
If you liked this please feel free to share it with your network and leave a comment so that we can improve the article. Joy Bender is the co-founder/owner of Aumann Bender & Associates real estate group with Pacific Sotheby's International Realty.