Ceiling crack - should I still buy the house?
March 12, 2014 11:51 PM   Subscribe

We went to view a house yesterday that we would love to buy - this is in England. It's a gorgeous old Victorian house built in 1877 and it has a lot of good qualities. Not so good, however, is a crack in the ceiling that runs along the length of the living room and dining room ceilings in a straight line. And the floor upstairs is kinda bouncy and squeaky around this area.

The crack doesn't extend down the walls and is a little thicker than a pencil line. If we make an offer and it's accepted then we would get a full structural survey but this will cost us around £1000. Therefore if the crack means we should definitely walk away then we would rather save that money.

There is another house for sale on the same street that we also like but not quite as much. This other house needs a second bathroom added downstairs so my disabled mum can visit us. So the big question is, would adding a new bathroom by sectioning off part of the kitchen etc be more expensive than fixing whatever is causing this crack?

I know no one can tell for sure without examining the crack but any advice or opinions would be great, and thank you.
posted by hazyjane to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
We won't be able to tell you much about the geology of the area without some coordinates - if the soil is "agile" we'd be able to look it up easily. IRT crack, do you mean "pencil line" as in the thickness of a pencil writing the line or the thickness of a pencil itself?
posted by Brent Parker at 12:16 AM on March 13, 2014

My guess is that fixing the crack and its cause would cost less than adding another bathroom.
posted by brujita at 12:18 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should specify that the crack is one long crack in the middle of the rooms. It disappears on one side of the wall separating the rooms, reappears on the other side and is around 15 feet long. Thanks.
posted by hazyjane at 12:20 AM on March 13, 2014

Brent a bit thicker than the writing but much thinner than a pencil. A postcode check via Landmark shows the area is at low risk of subsidence if that helps.
posted by hazyjane at 12:23 AM on March 13, 2014

Since you mention a bouncy floor and a ceiling crack, it sounds like maybe the second floor is inadequately supported. That is less worrisome than say, a crack caused by a massive sinkhole opening up under the house.

In our house, we doubled-up the framing for the second floor, which we deemed inadequate. We had removed the drywall already, given the water damage. We hired an engineer to sign off on the framing, a contractor to do the framing work, and his subcontractor re-did the drywall.

Under some circumstances, I could imagine this work triggering a slew of city requirements. And whenever you open up walls, you may learn of many problems that need fixing. Also, if you have plaster instead of drywall, that might be tougher to work with than drywall.

You might even be able to conclude that the amount of bounce and one crack isn't a huge problem (after consultation with an engineer).

I suspect that adding a bathroom would be more complicated, because that involves plumbing, electrical, framing, waterproofing a shower / bath, drywall, and whatever kitchen renovation work you incur to section that area off.
posted by slidell at 12:27 AM on March 13, 2014

Can you put in an offer that's conditional upon the house passing a building inspection? A crack like that could be caused by the house settling a bit, or from damage to the foundations, or any number of structural issues. Cracks aren't hard to fix cosmetically, but if it is a symptom of a bigger problem, it could be really expensive to fix. I wouldn't buy it until you have an inspection.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:57 AM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like it might be a plaster crack, which is just part and parcel of owning an old Victorian property. Very commonly, it joins up neatly with light fittings. I've got 2 or 3 plaster cracks in my house which I could sort by painting over them (the cheat's fix) or replastering (which I'll do, eventually).

The bouncy floor is a different issue. Again, floorboards move. Fixing them is expensive and lots of people just put up with some movement and creaking. I would ask the homeowner if you can take the carpet up in that spot for an inspection - look for rot, water damage, the quality of the floorboards, why it is moving.

They might say no - it can be a bit of a faff if there's a lot of furniture in the way. Equally, you can walk away from the sale.

I would strongly recommend getting a decent independent survey though. The ones required for a mortgage are rubbish and just there to see if the bank is covered. They don't give a damn if you have to spend £10k in the next couple of years fixing stuff. They use terms like "appropriate for the age of the building" when referring to the condition of house, which is not really helpful.

If you want to see if the house is moving about spend a good amount of time looking at the outside brickwork. Look for cracks there or signs of movement. Look for where bricks have been replaced. Look around weak spots like window frames.

From experience, ignore the cosmetic stuff for a moment. The big stuff that will cost you money are things like repointing the house, redoing the floorboards, replacing the windows, reroofing, redoing the electrics, the redoing of the plumbing. Don't forget to properly go into the cellar and attic space, where you can actually get a good look at the structure of the house.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:45 AM on March 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

How about paying a structural engineer to come and look just at this one crack?

That should be substantially cheaper than a full structural survey of the whole house and will hopefully give you the info you need to decide whether to go further.

I'd trust a structural engineer over a surveyor's report any day.
posted by emilyw at 2:24 AM on March 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

I recently paid a structural engineer about £400, plus VAT, to look at a specific problem, but if you're going to do that, you might want to spend the £1000 on the full survey.

The structural engineer specialises in looking at problems and recommending sound and economic solutions. If there is a bit of settling / subsidence / cracking, it very possibly can be dealt with through some tie-rods or strapping (you see it everywhere on older houess once you start to look at them). It can probably be done relatively cheaply such that it is not a showstopper for a house you love. It doesn't mean the building is about to cleave in two and fall over.

I think any contract should be contingent on a clean survey that does ID showstoppers. If you're out the cost of the survey, consider it money well spent. I've paid for two surveys on buildings I did not subsequently buy, and while it rankles to have nothing to show for your money, I am happy not to have been stuck with the liabilities identified in the surveys. In one case, the fix was >£30k.
posted by sagwalla at 4:16 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The house is 137 years old. I'd be shocked were there NOT cracks. I'm shocked you're only seeing cracks in one place. Anyway, ceiling cracks do not normally indicate subsidence. The crack you describe more typically indicates a sagging joist which is actually no big deal except that after repairing or putting in a new one, you will need to re-plaster and re-paint.

In other words, the crack does not mean you should walk way. Make an offer, get the survey. You can always adjust the offer later if needed.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:33 AM on March 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm in the US so not all building practices are comparable, but I've owned & renovated a house that old. It wouldn't be surprising if something is wrong with the floor joists supporting the upper floor - that house has probably already endured many renovations, and it's surprising how cavalier some builders are with things like structural integrity. Even with real plaster it would be a lot cheaper to rebuild that floor (from underneath) than to install a new bathroom.

In my house, we were renovating an existing bathroom, which had been added after the house was built. Whoever did that job thought nothing of sawing through 3 or 4 floor joists to put in the plumbing, and leaving them unattached. The structural repairs were simple once the floor was ripped up, and were a lot cheaper than the bathroom renovation.

You might ask a builder how much it would cost to take down the LR & DR ceilings, sister some framing, and put it all back.
posted by mr vino at 4:53 AM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

mr vino has it. I've added support to a floor above by strengthening the ceiling. And adding a whole new bathroom, even if it's cut out of an existing room, is going to be way more expensive. Just don't put any water beds or pianos upstairs!
posted by mareli at 6:13 AM on March 13, 2014

If it's a plasterboard ceiling (likely), that is just movement between the boards, and means nothing. We have that in one of our bedrooms, it disappears when we repaint and reappears a few months later when we go in the loft and put different pressure on the joists. It is pretty hard to get rid of though, you may well just have to live with it. Personally we only bothered reskimming once, and just put up it now (since it's just cosmetic).

Look for cracks in the walls and under window. Even that is not necessarily active subsidence - ours turned out to be WW2 bomb damage, according to our surveyor. And he was right, it hasn't changed at all in the 15 years we've lived there, even when our next door neighbour rebuilt most of his house from scratch. Have you had a survey done? What did the surveyor think?

And yes, adding a new bathroom would be significantly more expensive than reskimming a ceiling (£15000 and up, depending on what new plumbing needed to be done, how much of the kitchen would need re-doing, and what tradesmen charge where you live).
posted by tinkletown at 6:18 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

While cracks in an old house are expected, a crack like that could very well indicate a failing foundation. Basically, one half of the house is falling away from the other half. I think a thorough inspection by a licensed contractor is in order, with a close look at the foundation and structural support.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:50 AM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd pay for a full inspection and structural engineering report.

You're buying the most expensive thing you'll ever buy in your life. It represents a HUGE investment and it can potentially ruin you if there are significant problems with it.

It's standard in the US, but if home inspections aren't the norm in the UK, I'd call every tradesman I can think of to inspect the roof, the electrical, the plumbing, the structural integrity, the foundation, etc.

We normally pay about $600 for a good inspection, and that includes a plumber who will put a camera down the pipes to the sewers to insure that you won't need to dig up your sewer pipe for repairs (OH! How I wish I had known!)

If you really, really like the house, put in an offer, contingent on the inspection.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:34 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's a good sign that the crack is one long straight crack, actually. That, plus the bouncy floor in that area means that it's likely you've just got a saggy joist that can be fixed by sistering (reinforcing) it. This kind of structural repair is not really a big deal in a house of this age, they are built to handle this kind of patching up.

Fixing the joist and then patching the crack is going to be much cheaper than adding a bath, yes. And you're going to have to pay for that structural engineer either way, because you do NOT want to add the weight of a full bath to the first floor of an old house like that without a consultation; you can set yourself up for some really nasty future structural problems.
posted by desuetude at 8:07 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If the crack in the ceiling is parallel to the floor joists, then the two issues may be related. However, there's a good chance that the two are not related. The crack may be indicative of a serious issue, or it may be inconsequential from a structural perspective. Your best bet is to consult a structural engineer.
posted by hootenatty at 8:42 AM on March 13, 2014

You really need a structural engineer to check this out. I lived in a 150 year old old stone cottage for 10 years, every summer a crack large enough to stick a pen in would open up from top to bottom of the bedroom wall, every winter it would close the size of it was based entirely on how dry the ground was. The engineer said the house was structurally fine, and old houses have cracks as they sink and move over the years. I currently own a 100 year old wooden house (this time in the USA) and it has random little cracks appearing in strange places, but has been checked out and is structurally fine. One of the joys of owning an older house, as you may soon discover, is the yearly going around and filling in any cracks that have gotten too big and are annoying you session.

The only way to be sure is to get the engineer to look at it. If this is your only worry about the house, then it might be worth putting in an offer and getting the inspection. Make sure you get a good structural engineer and not one that just does the OKing for mortgages, while some of them can be very good some of them just phone it in, you want some one that really knows what they are looking at so shop around.

Adding a new bathroom is crazy expensive, I moved a bathroom in my first house and it easily cost me AUD$10K and I probably 25% of the work to cut back on costs and I suspect would cost more than fixing up the cracked ceiling problem, unless it was caused by something really scary like sinking foundations.
posted by wwax at 10:04 AM on March 13, 2014

Please have someone look at it, that sounds a little like subsidence or structural movement.

Have a look at this: http://www.channel4.com/4homes/build-renovate/building-renovating-advice/subsidence-how-to-spot-treat-it-09-05-14
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 11:32 AM on March 13, 2014

Thanks all. We are going to put in an offer on the crack house today subject to survey. I will update when we get the results.
posted by hazyjane at 10:31 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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