What is with the seams in my ceiling?
December 13, 2005 8:31 AM   Subscribe

I need some advice about house structure/frame problems. I don't know if it is foundation or what. But we are having issues with seams in our ceiling and walls. I have no Bob Villa in me at all.

We live in a historic 1920's high tudor in Dallas. It's a beautiful old home with a pier and beam foundation. The area of Dallas we live in has a known problem with being on black clay which causes shifting to occur in houses and sidewalks.

Anyhow, we are having the typical problems that these old houses in this historic conservation district have, such as the diagnoal seams running up from doors and doorways. I called a foundation expert out to our house, and they came and tested it. According to the foundation guy, I have an excellent foundation with no sinking at all. He said that there will be displacement because of the black clay that is inevitable. So, I know that I will have to get it fixed every few years or so with new paint.

But here is my question. I am getting these things in the ceilings that I call seams. Obviously my attic has the big 2x4s or whatever running across it, and it looks to me like that in some rooms, those are pushing against the ceiling. So in two rooms, I have these nice two-inch wide lines going from one side of the room to the other where the ceiling is being pushed down farther. These are like every 3 feet or so. The celiing isn't cracking; there isn't anything protruding through, it just looks like a speed bumb.

If the foundation is fine, and there is no sink in the flooring, what is the deal with these things in my ceiling? I, unfortunately, have no handyman abilities. I'm the kind of guy who always pays people to come fix stuff, so I am woefully inadequate in both describing and attempting to fix the problem. My only guess it was a foundation problem, but that doesn't seem to be it. My wife was there when they came, and they tested the height of all the floors and the floors are remarkably level. So if the flooring is even, why does it look like my attic is caving in (in a couple of rooms)?

The only thing I can think of is that the previous owners had the water heater lifted up into the attic a few months before we bought the house, and I am wondering if that added weight is bowing the supports up there. I can live with the seams in my house, but I want to make sure the damn thing isn't going to collapse in on someone sleeping in my guess room.

So, I guess my questions are the following: Does anyone have experience with this kind of thing? Does anyone know why this is happening? And, as I said, I call people to come fix my problems, who do I call? The foundation companies have been useless.
posted by dios to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
Is the ceiling in the room lathe and plaster or plaster board? Or has it been modernized to sheet rock?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:41 AM on December 13, 2005

Response by poster: Damn. See, I don't even know enough to answer that question. I'm pretty sure it is not sheet rock because it doesn't look that way to me. I'm not sure I know the difference between lathe and plaster and plaster board.

But I will try to check tonight if that effects the analysis.
posted by dios at 8:44 AM on December 13, 2005

Best answer: If the bowing is under where the water heater now resides, I would certainly suspect that. A decent sized heater, full of water, could weigh 500lb (50 gal * 8lb/gal + 100lb hardware).

When the former owners had it moved up into the attic, the joists in the ceiling should have been strengthened -- either by having them replaced with wider ones (going up from 2x4 on edge to 2x6 on edge, for example) or by having them "sistered" (effectively nailing another joist on the side of the existing one to make them thicker -- think turning a 2x4 into a 4x4).

If that didn't happen, and the bowing is under the heater's new location, then you probably have some settling as a result of the new weight.

Is it a problem? Only a structural engineer can tell you for certain, but your local building codes should also cover this. When the heater was moved, it probably should have been done to code. In most locations, you can call the city's building code department anonymously and ask questions like this -- "if I were to move my water heater of size x into my attic, what code compliance issues might I face in a 1920's house?" They're there to answer this sort of question.

If it looks like everything was done to code, then pull the permit and make sure it was finalled (i.e. inspected and signed off). If it was, you're probably okay and it's just the normal "effect" of lath and plaster against the ceiling joists. Our house (1912) does this too. Consider it character, or have someone come in and rip out the old plaster and put sheetrock on the lath instead. Expensive, messy, time consuming, and ultimately pointless.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 9:03 AM on December 13, 2005

Best answer: Another thing to check is how the water heater is set up up there. Is it just set directly onto the beams? Are there cross beams under it? Are the cross beams (if they exist) laying flat (on the fat side) or on end (on the narrow side)?

The water heater is very heavy and the weight really needs to be distributed across several beams. If it isn't already it should be set on a couple of 2X4's set on end lying across several beams. I know you said you weren't handy but you could probably handle making a simple wooden box to set the tank on.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:07 AM on December 13, 2005

Best answer: Oh, the outcome of my question really deals more with the severity of the problems. There could also be some additional moisture/humidity issues that go along with the bowing of the ceiling, but I don't think you would have that on a lathe and plaster ceiling.

Plaster board is old fashioned sheet rock, like what is found in most modern homes. Lathe and plaster is where the builders nailed up thin strips of wood (lathes) to the beams and wall studs and then slathered on a layer of wet plaster that dried in place. If your ceiling is plaster board then it will just look flat between the attic beams. If it is lathe and plaster, you will see the back side of the lathes and the plaster that was squished up between them 80 years ago. If it is sheet rock you will see the flat, brown paper covered back side of the sheets.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:23 AM on December 13, 2005

Best answer: dios, I have this exact problem in my 1905 house--the ceiling bowing out where the joists are. I was freaking out about it big time until a friend who's an expert in home construction pointed out that it was just that the previous homeowner had done a shitty job taping and mudding when he installed new drywall. The bowing out I though I was seeing was just the tape seams from the drywall. Any possibility that's what's going on in your house?

How long have you owned the place? Did the previous owner (or you) do any remodeling?

You mention the house is post and beam construction. Are the beams supporting the home (probably found in the basement) in good shape? Because the beams are usually in contact with moisture, they do rot out and need replacing. It's pretty easy to test whether their time is past. Just try hammering a screwdriver into the base of a beam. If there's very little resistance, the beams probably need to be replaced. I suppose folks you could check with this would be a well-qualified home inspector or structural engineer.

I bought my old house last year and spent the first six months living in it worried that it was about to fall down around my ears. Sources that educated and calmed) me are:

Renovating Old Houses: Bringing New Life to Vintage Homes (Even if you're not planning on doing anything to your place, this helps you understand the construction and systems of your home.)

The forums at That Home Site.

House blogs like House in Progress--run by a Mefite.

A subscription to Angie's List, so I could avoid crummy contractors.
posted by Sully6 at 9:39 AM on December 13, 2005

Best answer: I would also be concerned about the inevitable failure of the water heater. I've experienced a few failures in garages with little consequence (squeegee some water out the door or down the floor drain), but the potential for a failure in the attic is frightening. For this reason, it seems many municipalities require the unit to be installed in a water tight pan with drainage of some sort (maybe to a plumbing vent or to the exterior through a wall, I don't know).
posted by namret at 9:57 AM on December 13, 2005

Response by poster: Many good thoughts. Thank you. I guess I will call some general contractor/construction guy to come shore up around the water heater and make sure it is to code.

Thanks for the thoughts.
posted by dios at 10:08 AM on December 13, 2005

Why is the water heater in the attic? If at all possible, I would put it in the basement where it belongs. At best, nothing happens. At worst, it either floods your house from top to bottom or falls through the ceiling and kills you.
posted by electroboy at 12:56 PM on December 13, 2005

Response by poster: Heh.

Cause 'round here, we don't have basements, electroboy (as a general rule). Some houses do in this is part of the country, but the majority of them don't. It is quite common around here to lift the water heater into the attic instead of wasting a closet for it. In these old historical houses, closets are a premium.
posted by dios at 1:05 PM on December 13, 2005

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