Interested in a house with "settling" issues
April 10, 2011 10:06 AM   Subscribe

You are not my structural engineer: I'm interested in a house that has a "settling" problem. There's a 2-inch gap in the floor moulding in the master bedroom. There's a small crack visible on the wall on the first floor directly below. Other than that, no visible issues (but I haven't looked too hard and were directed to these problems by the disclosure statement.) Is this a "RUN!!" situation or is there a scenario which can result in a clean bill of health? The house was built in 1910, is otherwise in beautiful condition, and we're in New England.
posted by moammargaret to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's not enough info here to work with. The small crack and the 2" gap don't exactly agree with each other. For there to be a 2" gap caused by movement, something has to move 2", which would cause much more than a small crack.

Can you describe the moulding gap more specifically? Is this a gap at a corner of the room, or between the baseboard and flooring, or what?
posted by jon1270 at 10:17 AM on April 10, 2011

Without inspection (and knowing the price of the house) this question isn't answerable.

Anecdotally, my mom bought a 1790 Federal that had a much worse "settling" problem (and the front wall of the house was detached from the rest of the building everywhere but at the roofline) and it was successfully repaired. Of course, she only paid like $20K for the house.Its definately worth the $400 or so bucks to have a very complete home inspection done, if the price is otherwise good and you love the house.
posted by anastasiav at 10:25 AM on April 10, 2011

Things to think about:
-damage to the structure of the building - floors sagging, doors gapping, eventually plaster being damaged in walls and ceilings, windows being pulled askew in a way that lets water get into wood, etc.
-damage to the plumbing and radiator piping (if you have radiators) - these depend on the pipes being slanted slightly downhill. if a structural issue pulls the pipes out of their correct orientation, you'll need to get that fixed or the systems won't work

We have friends who had a big structural issue, and it was a matter of jacking things up, building supports in the basement with wood and concrete, putting in columns in a couple of places (eg where some previous owner had taken out a load-bearing wall and never replaced it, they put a long beam along the ceiling and then two columns holding it up), that sort of thing. Expensive, but not tear-the-house-down, and they had gotten the house cheaply to begin with.

If you make an offer, make it contingent on both a regular home inspection and an inspection by a structural engineer.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:42 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you gotten an inspection? It's normally a good thing to get anyway, but in this situation, find an inspector who can specifically look at this. They can best answer this question.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like it would depend on how long those cracks have been there. If they've been there for eighty years, that's one thing. If they appeared six months ago, then that's another.
posted by hattifattener at 11:17 AM on April 10, 2011

You need more information. For example two immiate possibilites that occur to me are the foundation has sunk or the sil has rotted away. The fix for these two things are quite different. Also it isn' enough to merely fix the symptom; you need to mitigate the problem that caused the problem. IE: if the sill rotted away what caused that? Termites? Water infiltration?

hattifattener also has a good point that how long the problem has existed is an important consideration. A foundation that shifted 40 years ago and hasn't moved since is a lot less worrying than a more recent problem.
posted by Mitheral at 11:36 AM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get a PE (professional engineer) who does house inspections to look at it. You'll get an answer you can count on.

If you want to make an offer, make it contingent on the results of a house inspection. Use inspection details to adjust your offer as needed, and/or back out of it.

Since it's not your house, yet, you have nothing to worry about.

My presumption of settling of that magnitude is that it probably should be corrected. Usually, correcting that sort of thing isn't hard. (I am about to jack up my own house about 1/2" to deal with water-related settling at a particularly soggy roof line point. No big deal, usually.

I usually pay $300 or so for a PE exam of a house, with a report (in Vermont).
posted by FauxScot at 1:35 PM on April 10, 2011

It might be helpful for you to ask about the geology of the area. There can be some bad "settling problems" that stem from the subsurface geology or groundwater issues. Have others nearby had dramatic problems? How is the house's foundation? An engineer should be able to help you evaluate the situation.
posted by slidell at 2:08 PM on April 10, 2011

Speaking from personal experience, in a house of similar vintage, location and crookedness:

I had the house inspected before I bought it--engineer said old wood sometimes shrinks and sags, no big problem. A few years later, I had a first-floor ceiling replaced for aesthetic reasons. When we ripped off the ugly ceiling tiles, we found the gorgeous old thick oak beams that were supporting the second story. They had GIANT holes and notches cut through them to accommodate the heating, plumbing and electrical lines that were updated in the 1930s - 50s. My savvy carpenter was able to jack things up and bolt some sister beams onto what was left of the originals. Lots of cracks in upstairs plaster, crooked doors, etc. had to be tended to, but it was all fixable. Talking to others in the area has turned up a few similar stories of serious structural damage done to homes of this vintage when systems were upgraded.

Considering the magnitude of the problem, it really wasn't all that expensive or difficult to fix, if you love the house are willing to deal with the fuss. Do your best to figure out specifically what's causing your problem, make sure it's reflected in the price, and decide if you're willing to deal with it.
posted by Corvid at 2:10 PM on April 10, 2011

I believe the answer to your question is no, it's not a "RUN" situation. Houses built 100 years ago were often constructed without footings, often just large stones mortared together for a foundation. These houses often show evidence of major settling, floors many inches out of level and many framing elements (doors/windows) way out of square. These houses often have all kinds of crazy structural bracing in the basements.

Only a home inspection can tell you if you should stay away. The fact that it's in the seller's disclosure statement could be a red flag however. Why would someone selling a house disclose settling that is not current. So yeah, it's definitely a buyer beware situation.

Any offer you make on the house will be contingent on it passing your home inspection. But if that's the way problem is qualified then it's your money that was spent to find out. You might tell the seller the issue is of serious concern to you, and you want him to provide a statement by a qualified person (structural engineer) that there is no problem. I think in this market you could be in the driver's seat here, it's not so easy selling a house with no problems let alone one with potential problems. If the seller is unwilling to show you proof there is no problem then walk away. There are plenty of houses on the market today that aren't falling down.

I would add that a house that old will take plenty of your time to maintain and has lots of inherent risks. There is almost certainly lead paint throughout the house, maybe asbestos as well. If you have young children and plan to do any remodeling, even just paint scraping, they'll likely be exposed to some level of serious toxins. Something to consider.
posted by PaulBGoode at 2:12 PM on April 10, 2011

Oh my, we've got all sorts of gaps and small cracks in our 1900ish rowhouse. And we have fixed some structural issues -- most notably, the crossbeams beneath the main stairs were jacked up and sistered. (This wasn't as big of a deal as it sounds like.)

But our home inspector was able to tell us exactly which cracks and gaps were an immediate concern, a "key an eye on it, and here's how" concern, and "meh, not a big deal structurally."
posted by desuetude at 8:34 PM on April 10, 2011

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