What could be causing these drywall cracks?
December 5, 2004 8:23 PM   Subscribe

Hairline cracks in my house. I bought a new home last year, and it's barely over a year old now, but we've noticed 3-4 hairline cracks (like this one, which is just above a sliding glass door) around a couple of the windows on the downstairs level. I've lived in a lot of old homes featuring cracks and figured that it was mostly normal house settling and we could easily patch the drywall when it comes time to sell, but my partner thinks it's a big deal and may point to problems with the foundation or construction. So I have two questions: 1) Should we be concerned? 2) If so, who exactly do you call to "fix" it or get to the bottom of it?
posted by mathowie to Home & Garden (28 answers total)
It sounds like normal 'settling' but many new homes come with warranties generally for as long as 10 years. I would contact the builder or developer to ask about repairs.
Given your Bay Area location do you ever/often feel rumblings? Even if you don't but they are reported they may affect your home.
posted by geekyguy at 8:29 PM on December 5, 2004

Response by poster: Given your Bay Area location

I'm actually outside of Portland, Oregon now. I think our realtor told us the builder was responsible for repairs until to 1 year after purchase, so maybe I'm SOL there.

I would think the original builder would sugar coat any problems we pointed out to him (since he built it with his own two hands). Should I look into finding a home inspector or another competing contractor?
posted by mathowie at 8:37 PM on December 5, 2004

1. Too early to tell. Cracks are not uncommon in new-built housing. Spackle and paint, to touch it up cosmetically. If it becomes a recurring theme or seems to accelerate, then you may have cause for real concern.

2. Dig out your purchase and sale agreement. If it's a new build from the ground up you probably got some kind of warranty, I'd assume.

First, note the deadlines. Do you have one year on minor defects, or something like that? Look at the warranty definition and terms. Usually those tend to get limited to "structural defects," but YMMV. And if you have a crack, how do you know the real source without further inspection?

I'd suggest overreacting and freaking out on the builder. If they're pros I bet they have a "chill out the new homeowner" procedure, which probably includes spackle and soothing reassurances.

We had a reoccuring crack in the ceiling of our master bedroom, part of a new section of the house built three years before we bought it.

I say "had" because once we were assured by competent pros that it wasn't a structural integrity problem, we just put decorative wood trim over it.
posted by sacre_bleu at 8:39 PM on December 5, 2004

That kind of cracking should be covered by a new home warranty. Check your paperwork. I would almost guarantee, however, that the guy who you talk to at the building company will try to tell you that is a normal occurrence. Make sure you make it clear you don't agree. Also, if they give you any guff, start sending all correspondence by registered mail and insist on written responses for everything they tell you. It will save you time later when you go to the lawyer to sue them. As an alternate to suing, try contacting the consumer affairs reporter at the local TV station. We did this regarding a problem with our mortgage company and it helped us get a good resolution. Be persistent; don't give up. This is the largest investment you will ever make.
posted by Doohickie at 8:41 PM on December 5, 2004

Spackle and paint, to touch it up cosmetically.

This should be done by the builder; you shouldn't have to do this if you have a new home warranty.
posted by Doohickie at 8:42 PM on December 5, 2004

I would think the original builder would sugar coat any problems we pointed out to him (since he built it with his own two hands). Should I look into finding a home inspector or another competing contractor?

Since we became homeowners in 1998, I've adopted a policy of getting "does it need work?" advice from people whe wouldn't be doing the work. Cuts out guys like the "furnace inspector" who told me our furnace's guts were cracked upen and it needed replacing. I got a second opinion, and replaced him instead.

Unless you have sworn testimony to a particular contractor's trustworthiness from a close friend or spouse, I'd look to a home inspector.

Problem is, you might need to open up some walls or ceilings to get a look at the structural members in question. If it comes to that.
posted by sacre_bleu at 8:45 PM on December 5, 2004

It's hard to tell from the picture. Around windows does not sound too bad; I'd be more worried about long vertical cracks up a wall. If it *was* subsidence, you might notice the following over time: cracks in vertical surfaces aligning above each other; cracks in horizontal planes (e.g. cement patio, tiled floor) lining up with vertical cracks. Imagine your house falling into two parts, on either side of a section drawn through it.

Also - if it was subsidence - the cracks could widen; you might want to take some photos with a ruler or something in frame, so you can compare in a few months time. These would be useful to show the builders anyway.

Not to be paranoid - but, as others have said, beware of snow jobs from the builders if it looks serious and you complain. Not to be completely paranoid, check your contract to see if you're allowed to mention their name in public in connection with defective workmanship (generally something to do with casting doubt on the good name of the company). If you can't, and you do, then they sue *you*, if they want.
posted by carter at 8:47 PM on December 5, 2004

Although IAAL this is not legal advice!

I have worked on a several cases where buyers of new houses have had things happen that were the fault of the builders, from pretty run of the mill mold issues to gaps in the foundation to faulty installation of windows, which led to some pretty impressive rot issues.

The common theme of all of these cases was statute of limitations-- new houses are covered by a number of statutory warranties, which vary wildly from state to state (which is another reason this isn't advice). These warranties cover problems in the workmanship and the habitability of the structure, and you can successfully establish liability against the builder or contractors assuming you bring it to the attention of the builder or contractor within the period of time established by the statute of limitations.

IfI thought there was a problem, I would send a letter to the builder in a fairly quick timeframe (if I read this correctly, you bought a finished home that was new) asking them to inspect the cracking issues. They should come out and check it out at no charge, because if they don't and it turns out to be a big deal, they could be on the hook for a big repair.

Good luck!
posted by norm at 8:47 PM on December 5, 2004

(on a several cases, Jebus...)

It looks, based on a quick Googlization, that the statute of limitations in Oregon for a construction defects case is actually 10 years. In any event, I think a successful resolution of this situation probably involves giving the builder an opportunity to inspect and remedy the issue.
posted by norm at 8:55 PM on December 5, 2004

I have a home built in '68 with the same problems you mention. It appears in my case to be a bit of settling due to some water damage to a beam. It bugs me to no end (door openings out of square 1/4"), but the home inspector (a trustable friend, incidentally) said it wasn't anything to worry about.

I guess it's not really worsening, but I personally kinda want to fix it anyway--I want to get new doors, and don't really want to fit them to openings that are out of square just to possibly fix later.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:23 PM on December 5, 2004

I'd definitely have someone look at it, others in the thread have given good advice. It is probably typical settling but without seeing it and knowing more I certainly would not say that is all there is to it. There is always a slim chance that you are seeing the beginning of foundation failure.

Someone the other day was telling me about a friend that bought a new home and then the ground under part of the property started to shrink away for reasons unknown to them. It was not drought-caused subsidence as it was during the wet spring. The brick walls began to show a crack, which became a large gap. They had to pay a company to fix it and what they did was to bring out a lift which was placed under the foundation (they had to dig obviously) and they lifted it back into place.
posted by weretable and the undead chairs at 9:45 PM on December 5, 2004

While this could be "nothing" (as in, nothing to get your panties in a bunch over) a work aquaintance had a house that had a major foundation crack in their 100-year-old home. Granted, yours is a new home, but just to scare you: the entire house had to be jacked up in order to fix the problem. This repair cost them about 50% of the home's value.

Have a professional look at it who has no vested interest in the outcome. As just about everyone has already said.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:35 PM on December 5, 2004

I just had a physical engineer come take a look at my house. It made me feel a whole, whole lot better. It turns out that there's really no such thing as "settling" -- there's moving and not moving, and if you've got cracks that aren't just paint shrinkage, there's moving. HOWEVER, there is a big difference between movement that needs to be corrected and movement that doesn't.

Here's the website for the guy that we used. Some of the information is Houston-specific, but a lot of it's not. It's a pretty good resource.

posted by LittleMissCranky at 10:53 PM on December 5, 2004

After notifying the builder first thing tomorrow morning, you might check for help at that college near you. I am not familiar with the departments there*, but if they have a geology type person familiar with local conditions, s/he might be able to clue you to something like "it happens to everyone - you are not in California anymore, but you are still on the Pacific rim". You are well aware of Mount Saint Helens and the fact that local machines register seismic unrest constantly.
*If the local college cannot help, try Portland State or OSU for an understanding of the possible forces in your area.
But as everyone advised, notify your builder. Give him a chance to correct the anomaly; armed with your knowledge of tectonic plates etc., and with your native smarts, you should not get snowed too much. If you do, that is what lawyers are for.
posted by Cranberry at 11:21 PM on December 5, 2004

Sorry for the double - but will your next site be Ten Years of the Crack in the Wall?
posted by Cranberry at 11:22 PM on December 5, 2004

It turns out that there's really no such thing as "settling"

Well then someone needs to tell the home inspection industry. I've seen multiple reports from several well known companies and they all mention "settling" (including the report on the house we just bought).
posted by justgary at 11:36 PM on December 5, 2004

Cranberry: OSU is the "Local College"(tm) for mathowie. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 12:43 AM on December 6, 2004

Well then someone needs to tell the home inspection industry.

Yep. "Settling," according to the PE, is a word used by realtors and house inspectors that aren't engineers or otherwise qualified to conduct inspections specifically on the foundation. It usually means that there is evidence of foundation movement, but not movement that needs to be repaired or is otherwise troublesome.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 4:31 AM on December 6, 2004

I wouldnt say its a serious foundation type prolem. From looking at the picture it seems to just a bad plastering job. You can tell this by the weird line the crack takes, and i've seen it quite often in my plastering days. At each external angle of the reveal is a metal bead, used for keeping the corners looking neat and tidy. Where the crack starts off at 45 degree angle is where the horizontal metal bead joins the vertical one, then it follows along the bead, until it meets (i'm guessing at this point) a join in the platerboard underneath, which then runs up towards the ceiling. They usually occur due to either the beads or the plasterboard not being affixed to the wall firmly enough. I would recommend just retouching it.
posted by kev23f at 5:54 AM on December 6, 2004

I would definitely talk to the builder first. If you do end up talking to someone else, I agree with LittleMissCranky: talk to an engineer first. The one we worked with charged $200 to come look at the place, and he spent a couple of hours explaining everything that was going on with the structure, the slope (we have erosion issues), etc. $100 more would have gotten us a written report, but we didn't feel it was necessary at the time.

Home inspectors charge less, but they are generalists.
posted by whatnot at 7:08 AM on December 6, 2004

Cranberry: OSU is the "Local College"(tm) for mathowie. ;)

No way, it's Linfield! But OSU is reasonably close.
posted by norm at 8:00 AM on December 6, 2004

Yep. "Settling,"... usually means that there is evidence of foundation movement, but not movement that needs to be repaired or is otherwise troublesome.

so how is there no such thing? It refers to "foundation movement that does not need to be repaired or is not otherwise troublesome." Isn't it nice to have two syllables that can cover that concept?
posted by mdn at 8:33 AM on December 6, 2004

Best answer: From your picture, what is going on is not a structural issue but merely cosmetic, assuming that the cracks are mainly over doors and windows. It is a result of differential wood shrinkage underlying the sheetrock. This would be especially the case if the construction occurred during the rainy season in Portland (i.e. most of the year) because the lumber absorbs a lot of moisture and expands. After the home is closed in, the lumber slowly dries out over a year or so and shrinks.

Over each door and window is a solid beam called a header. The grain of that wood runs horizontally. Wood shrinks primarily perpendicular to the grain, that is, in the vertical direction across the header beam. At the side of each door and window are vertical studs. The grain of the studs runs vertically so they shrink only in the horizontal direction. As the header shrinks vertically, the stud does not, remaining the same length, causing stress in the sheetrock nailed to the two pieces of wood near the corner

The stress from the differential shrinkage is relieved at the weakest points in the sheetrock. These are the metal beads forming the trim. That causes the 45 degree crack at the corner and following horizontally across the top of the bead. The vertical crack is probably a joint in two pieces of sheetrock, also a weak point.

It appears that the wall finish is textured, so unfortunately it is difficult to make a patch that matches.
posted by JackFlash at 10:27 AM on December 6, 2004

It is hard to tell from the picture if it is just a crack in the paint/texture or more serious than that. If it is the paint cracking, then it is normal. A friend of mine bought a new house and the builder included ONE free touch-up session that the friend could request any time he wanted within the first (i think) 2 years.
posted by achmorrison at 1:40 PM on December 6, 2004

mdn, most realtors/house inspectors will tell you that "settling" is something qualitatively different from foundation movement. It's not.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 2:37 PM on December 6, 2004

Best answer: JackFlash gives a good explanation of what i first thought when seeing the photo: wood does expand and contract to a remarkable degree across the grain. (From what I've read, it will not shrink or expand AT ALL along the grain.)

An instructor I had at furniture school kept a 12" wide board in his wood shop and measured it every few months. The width (across the grain) varied by (exact numbers escape me) about 3/4"! This was in Maine where seasonal humidity swings are huge and most wood shops have no AC.

If a structural problem, look for other oddities: doors that no longer swing properly (they might open or close as if running downhill), doors and windows jam, cracks larger on one end than the other, floor not flat, etc.

*goes back to grumbling about own construction headaches for the day*
posted by Dick Paris at 3:18 PM on December 6, 2004

I work for one of these "evil homebuilders," and of all the advice above, kev23f is the one I'd agree with.

I bet your warranty will cover this - if not the letter of the warranty, then the spirit of it. Call the builder and have a friendly conversation and ask them if they'd send a touch up person over with some spackle and paint.
posted by tizzie at 6:32 PM on December 6, 2004

mdn, most realtors/house inspectors will tell you that "settling" is something qualitatively different from foundation movement. It's not.

well, I would say it is qualitatively different - the quality of the movement is such that it doesn't need to be fixed or is not troublesome. You say yourself:
"HOWEVER, there is a big difference between movement that needs to be corrected and movement that doesn't."

There is dangerous movement and there is neutral movement, and the neutral movement is just called "settling"... I know it's just semantics, but it seems silly to me to deny a useful word...
posted by mdn at 1:50 PM on December 7, 2004

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