What type of contractor do I look for?
February 11, 2012 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Paging Holmes on Homes...

One corner of my living room has an almost floor-to-ceiling crack right where the walls meet. There is clearly a water stain coming halfway down the crack (this is new and what caught my eye today).

There are other, smaller cracks in other places on nearby walls... I am afraid that whole corner of the house is collapsing or that there is a some sort of foundation issue, possibly combined with a roof issue. Home is a basic suburban split-level built in the late 80's.

I have zero experience or confidence in these matters and don't even know what type of company to call to come look at it. I also have a nearly 100% confidence that anyone who comes to give an estimate will immediately see me as an easy mark and I'll end up with a hole in the side of my house and thousands of dollars in debt. I just want Holmes on Homes to come over and make it right.

I have an Angie's List membership, so I can at least browse service providers who have had some feedback from customers.

I am at a loss and feel at the mercy of my ignorance. What is the critical issue here? The crack? The water damage? Do I look for plasterers? Remodelers? Drywallers? How can I know if they are ripping me off?
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of siding do you have on the exterior of your house? If it's hardboard siding, it can soften at the edges over time and let water into your house. My 1989 house developed some leaks when the hardboard siding started going bad.

What about your gutters? Are they attached firmly to your soffits? Any places where they are rusted through?

Do you still have the original roof? It may need to be replaced at this point.
posted by Ostara at 9:10 AM on February 11, 2012

Response by poster: Argh. Just pile on the fear.

Vinyl siding; will have to get back to you on the rest.

This cannot end well.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:15 AM on February 11, 2012

You would look for a general contractor since they could handle the entire job. Ideally, they would hire highly qualified sub contractors for specialized work such as roofing. A very good handyman may be able to tackle it depending on the actual problems.

Whatever you do, get references of other customers with similar projects and call them about how the process went and how well the invoices were itemized.
posted by mightshould at 9:15 AM on February 11, 2012

It will be okay! You're doing something about it as soon as you've noticed it -- that's key in preventing further damage. Drywall damage is pretty easy to repair. You just have to find where the water is coming in first.

I would stay away from the handyman franchises such as "Mr. Handyman" -- I've had bad experiences with those.

You know, most companies give you free estimates these days, so it costs nothing to have someone come out and look at it. Roofing and gutters would likely be handled by the same company. Then you'd need someone to look at the siding. So, that's just two phone calls you need to make to start. It's not that bad! Worry about solving the water problem first. See what those people have to say.

Once you've identified the problem, get a couple more estimates to ensure that you aren't getting ripped off.

You may want to run a dehumidifier in that room to dry it out if the walls seem actually damp.
posted by Ostara at 9:23 AM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: More data would help us at least provide more accurate diagnoses to increase your anxiety level.

Is your home traditional stick built? Is it slab on grade or do you have a crawlspace or basement?

When was it built?
What part of the country?

At the end of the day this will be a moderate to significant repair but ignoring it will definitely make things worse - I know you know that.

Use Angie's list to get a good General Contractor - they will supervise the job and hire subs as needed.

Get their diagnosis and recommendation of repair and return here for some hivemind input.
I know you don't want to hear this but likely a fair amount of siding will have to come off during the repair. Consider whether you can, at this time, bear the cost of replacing all your siding. Hardiplank or similar concrete sidings are much preferable to vinyl, will look better and will last longer. Just sayin' - the incremental cost of full replacement of siding now is as cheap as it will get since you are guaranteed to pay for some siding replacement anyway.
posted by BrooksCooper at 9:25 AM on February 11, 2012

I have not seen these cracks, nor am I a foundation expert, however, just to give you some amount of comfort, you may not have any serious issues at all. We had a few hairline cracks in our walls and ceiling (home built in 2000), and had a foundation company come out to look last year. We were expecting the worst, and, as ignorant as we are about foundations, they certainly could have convinced us that we needed work. We did not. This was quite a relief!

Apparently, there are clear indications of foundation issues, such as the direction and location of cracks that a reputable foundation service will be able to recognize. It may not be as bad as you fear, but dealing with any issues early is better than letting it go.

Good luck!
posted by blurker at 9:31 AM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: Something to try is find out who is building the high end custom homes in your area-this is a little harder right now with the housing bust but the good companies are still getting some work and should be around. Try calling some different realtors who seem to specialize in high end homes and see if they can tell you who to call. This may not be as bad as it seems. I could just be a leaky roof and not a collapsing foundation. BTW the big things that make foundations fall are either you are on a hillside that is moving (this takes a noticeably steep hill) or the land around the house isn't draining well. Is the soil around the perimeter of your house near the wall with the cracks really muddy? with standing water? then you might have a problem. If the house still has the original roof from the 80's on it that is most likely your problem and pretty easy, standard fix (not necessarily cheap-just straighforward and easy to solve). Get more than one bid from independent contractors, make sure it is itemized, not a lump sum bid also. Don't tell the contractors you are shopping around. If two or more of them tell you the same thing, it is probably the truth. Don't necessarily go with the lowest bid either. Also just use your judgement-is the contractor showing up in a well repaired vehicle? (not necessarily new or shiny-just well maintained) are his tools clean and well organized? Does he mention getting permits? you can also call your local municipal building department and make sure he/she is licensed by the state board (this is actually legally required in most states to work on your house). After they show you or tell you something (and if they cant explain it so you understand or they don't take the time to get a new contractor) google it, buy a be your own contractor book or just ask friends (or hell just post a new question on here). If you do need a new roof, see about getting a standing seam metal roof-they last forever and are much stronger and watertight than asphalt shingles. Also if you can get a light colored roof it will help your house stay cooler in the summer (if that is a concern). Good luck, don't panic and just approach this like any other problem in life-houses aren't magic and in reality are pretty low tech items and have been built the same for at about 50 years now.
posted by bartonlong at 9:32 AM on February 11, 2012

Do you live in a basic suburban subdivision? If so, it's likely that most of the houses around you were built at the same time, by the same builder, using the same materials. You may not be the only one who has or has had this problem. Ask around the neighborhood - you might find someone who has already tackled this issue and can give advice on how to proceed.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:15 AM on February 11, 2012

Response by poster: Modicum of calm returning, feeling a bit more empowered. Thanks all. This is one area where the bottom just drops out of my normal ability to manage/cope and I need to stop the panic spiral. These are definable tasks I can handle and as we all know, well-begun is half done.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 10:41 AM on February 11, 2012

This is how I would proceed in the UK, to avoid being ripped off and to ensure the job was done right. I don't know whether you can find an equivalent professional in the US, but I would have thought so.

I would employ a building surveyor, not a contractor, to inspect the damage, diagnose the problem and draw up a small schedule of works, on which you can ask a number of building contractors to bid.

The advantage of this is that (a) the surveyor is an expert and should be able to diagnose the problem accurately (b) the surveyor is not going to be doing the building work and so has no incentive to inflate the nature of the problem and the extent of work to be done; indeed you may be able to discuss different solutions for different budgets (c) you will get a proper specification which ensures that the work that needs to be done is indeed done and done properly. If you wish, you can probably employ the same surveyor to check the work as it progresses and/or when it is finished.

As I say, maybe you don't have these surveyor geezers in the US, but if you do, then a few hundred dollars may be money well spent.
posted by londongeezer at 11:13 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The water is an issue. Is there currently snow on your roof and, if so, how long has it been there? Recent hard rains? Things can get damp without it being necessary that the building be condemned, but long term moisture is a Bad Thing (TM).

Depending on the weather, I'm wondering if part of your issue involves ice dams. Or, if you're still on your original roof, yeah, it might be time to have your shingles replaced.

How wide is the crack and how long has it been there? If it's been there forever has it gotten any bigger? If the crack is brand new but very narrow, has been there forever and isn't growing or is slowly growing but isn't much more than 1/16th of an inch wide, I don't think your in any danger of the house falling down any time soon. A crack that wasn't there a month or two ago but is now 1/8th of an inch across is back in Bad Thing (TM) territory, though it might still be mostly related to the presence of the water.

A trustworthy general contractor is probably a good move.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:33 PM on February 11, 2012

londongeezer - they don't have building or quantity surveyors in the US, only land surveyors.
posted by twisted mister at 2:50 AM on February 12, 2012

I think londongeezer is talking about what the US calls a home inspector. It isn't a bad way to go but if you do go that route you run the same risks as the general contractor in getting a competent one. Here in the US they tend to specialize in being part of the realty buying process, not the home repair process. You can also just hire a general contractor for an hour or two and pay them for their time to look at your house. Think of it as hiring a consultant. I think this might work pretty good in sifting out an honest one as they are guaranteed at least a little money for their time and you get to see how they work, how thorough they are and what their work habits are. While the skills are different, good work habits are good work habits across a wide variety of professions. Diligence, attention to detail, ability to explain to a laymen, organization-just look for these and consider the couple of hundred dollars money well spent to gain some expertise.
posted by bartonlong at 10:33 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

One corner of my living room has an almost floor-to-ceiling crack right where the walls meet. There is clearly a water stain coming halfway down the crack (this is new and what caught my eye today).

Late to the party, but one idea -- if you are still figuring out what to do -- would be to actually remove some of the drywall and see if you can see what's going on. We can advise you on how to get off a small amount of drywall safely, so let us know if you'd want to try that. Then you could see whether it's clearly an issue of water coming in from above, or what. That would help the contractor as well.
posted by slidell at 11:16 PM on February 23, 2012

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