What is going on with this crack? Who can fix it?
March 3, 2021 6:02 PM   Subscribe

My mother's house needs some sort of repair done to an exterior wall, but I don't know where to begin! Details inside.

My mother's house was built in 1979, so it's just over 40 years old, if that makes a difference. And we're located in Alberta, Canada.

About a year and a half ago, I noticed that there were a few cracks in the stucco on an area of one of the house's siding. I called a local stucco & parging company to get a quote and fix it. However, due to the appearance of the cracks, they recommended having the issue looked at by (I guess) a structural engineer or someone to make sure everything is ok structurally.

I was making plans to do that and then well, a ton of stuff happened and I forgot about the cracks until today! I'm not really sure who I need to contact to find a structural engineer or HOW to find one. They mostly seem to do big projects, I didn't know they'd come out to a residential house.

Here's an explanation of how the cracks look. I don't know any technical terms, so bear with me! Here are the photos of the areas in question: https://imgur.com/a/N6mrLZV

Only *one* exterior wall seems to have cracks. Just one. There is NOTHING on any of the other exterior walls. The wall that has a crack on it is directly to the right of the front door to the house. The wall only exists on the outside of the house (not sure how to describe it), it's like a privacy wall by the front door, maybe? Anyway, it makes more sense in the photos. The concrete steps have seemed to have separated from the exterior wall (as you might be able to see in the photos) by about an inch and there is a huge crack there. On the OPPOSITE side of that wall, there is very large rectangular crack along the bottom of that same wall. I'm not sure if it's very clear from the photos (the shrubs block the view, a bit). There IS a cedar shrub there AND a "little" invasive Maple that likely need to be removed, could they be contributing to this?

Now, I'm not sure if I am describing this properly, but what I noticed (and so did the stucco repair contractors) was that the crack ENDS exactly where the *actual* house begins. It appears as though the exterior privacy wall to the right of the front door is somehow... shifting? What is going on!?

From what I can tell, inside the house there are ZERO cracks in her basement. There haven't been any leaks, either. So I'm not sure... could it be the foundation? And, again, there are also ZERO cracks anywhere else on the exterior of her house. Just that weird privacy wall! There's nothing on any other wall outside!

Another issue I've noticed is that there seems to be a gap underneath the concrete steps to her house and the bricks on the pathway leading to the house that are closest to the front steps are starting to sink and are falling into that gap! It looks worse now than it did in those photos. I'm thinking that just for safety purposes that entire pathway needs to be re-done soon, anyway. (Pretty sure my dad built the brick pathway himself, naturally).I feel a bit bad as I've probably let the problem get worse over the last two years. I'm not sure if the two are connected, but I figure they might be.

What do you all recommend? Is a structural engineer the best place to start? Where do you find them? Are there any other tradespeople I should be investigating? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
posted by VirginiaPlain to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
I have had structural engineers out to check on things a couple of times, and they have had no problem with it. I pay for an hour of their time, they look at it and tell me what they think. I'm sure there are some who do this for residential clients and some who don't, but they definitely exist.

To find one, you might ask a local renovation contractor or home inspector for a recommendation (and if you don't know any of those, maybe ask a neighbor).
posted by primethyme at 6:24 PM on March 3, 2021

Is it possible that the privacy wall was added some time after the house was built? What happens at the top it? Does it support a roof covering the entrance area? With that much movement, my guess is that it doesn’t have a proper foundation under it.
posted by jon1270 at 6:29 PM on March 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: jon1270 It might have been added to the house after it was built, I'm not sure. I could see it being the last thing done, construction-wise. At the top, it supports the roof covering the area. The house is two-storeys and there's no room directly above that wall, if that makes sense. It's sloped.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 6:38 PM on March 3, 2021

Where I am, you'd want the advice of a builder with a specialty in 'building defects'.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:47 PM on March 3, 2021

I don't want to speculate, but I'd hire an engineer to have a look. Your best bet is probably to find a small firm or solo practitioner, which you can find in the local telephone directories if you still have any (start under "engineering services").

Alternatively, CEA has a search function for their member directory. CEA is biased toward large firms, but it's a place to start and if nothing else you can probably get a referral from one of them. Like, don't bother contacting WSP, but some of the smaller firms on there should still be helpful.

...if you really, really don't want to hire an engineer (you should hire an engineer) then an inspector can give you general thoughts for less money (but you may need to hire an engineer later anyway).
posted by aramaic at 7:09 PM on March 3, 2021

Yeah, that sounds and looks like the ground is moving quite a bit relative to the building over a relatively short amount of time. That moving isn't going to stop if you don't do something about it, and you're liable to have the cracking and separations extend and become bigger problems if you don't have somebody fix it.
posted by wotsac at 8:44 PM on March 3, 2021

Response by poster: wotsac I don’t actually think that the cracks are particularly recent. It’s just that I didn’t really consciously notice them personally until a few years ago until my moms house became my issue to deal with. My mother has said that she’s “always” noticed those cracks (to be honest, I trust her opinion on that). I was even going through an old photo album a few weeks and there’s a picture of the front of the house from like 25 years ago where I can kind of see the same cracks! They aren’t something that appeared suddenly overnight or anything. I’m not sure if that makes a difference.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 9:15 PM on March 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I had a crack in the (brick) wall of my old house between an upper floor window and a lower floor door. My insurance company paid and organised for someone to come out and look at it. They said that there had been movement some years ago, possibly decades ago, and that it was stable and could just be repointed. They suggested repointing a section rather than just the crack. (The crack had definitely existed for 10 years as it was documented when I bought the house).
posted by plonkee at 12:24 AM on March 4, 2021

Look up foundation repair companies for the space under the stairs- that looks serious to me (as someone with some minor construction experience). Even if the foundation is fine, that's a big hole for water and air to intrude into whatever is below.

You didn't take a high-enough picture to see that whole wall, but I can tell you it's not structural, looks like stucco and lathe over wood maybe? normally a cement foundation would be as wide as the upper part, 3-4 inches, but it looks much thinner.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:42 AM on March 4, 2021

They aren’t something that appeared suddenly overnight or anything. I’m not sure if that makes a difference.

It makes quite a large difference; in one of my forensic engineering classes they specifically taught a tips-and-tricks section that had info on how to roughly determine the age of a crack for this reason.

...if these have been stable for a number of years then it's quite unlikely anything newly terrible has happened, and they can just be re-pointed/sealed and see if there's been any water intrusion you need to deal with or voids to be filled (as, on preview, The_Vegetables points out above).

...if they are getting worse/spreading/moving, then that's the time to freak out a bit.
posted by aramaic at 7:48 AM on March 4, 2021

I wonder if the problem that caused this wasn't fixed when the brick pavers went in. They look at least flat if not necessarily level (where level isn't necessarily desirable). That argues for the problem predating them. To be honest, if it was me, I might just half-ass in the patches myself and see if they fail. But if you have to ask, and if you're going to be paying somebody to fix the problems, then having an expert in to evaluate is probably a good idea.
posted by wotsac at 9:21 AM on March 5, 2021

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