Would this house turn us into Tom Hanks and Shelley Long?
September 20, 2006 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Is this house worth pursuing?

My wife and I have been looking at houses, and made an offer on one this past weekend; the offer was accepted, and the deal was on, pending inspection. Yesterday, during the inspection, our inspector discovered a largish (say, 3' x 1.5') hole in the concrete floor (the hole is in a closet underneath some stairs; the lighting situation makes it really hard to detect unless you're crouching in there with a flashlight looking for holes). Looking down into the hole, you can see an open space at least 8 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep.
After seeing that, we noted that the concrete floor in the main area had several large cracks radiating outward from where the hole would be.

We immediately called our realtor and said the deal was off. A while later, she called us back and said that the sellers were offering to A) pay for the hole to be filled and for the floor to be re-sealed, and B) have a structural engineer examine the house and sign off on its structural integrity (the house does lean a bit; and the garage has a definite slope). A one-year home warranty would be added. Further, she said that because of swampy soil (there's a creek nearby), house foundations in this part of south Minneapolis sit on steel pilings that go down to bedrock, so, while it's not good that the house sits above mini-Carlsbad Caverns, it's not as big a deal as it could be. It's a 70-year-old house, she says, and most of them aren't going to have a structural engineer saying that tehir foundations are good.

So we're not sure what to do; a big part of our dilemma is emotional/subjective (after all this, we certainly don't have the burning love for the house that we did a few days ago), and that's beyond the scope of AskMe. But objectively, we want to know if this sort of thing can be repaired once and for all, or if the repair would be a one-time fix that would eventually be undone. And we don't know what having all of this foundation work would do to the resale value of the house when the time comes for us to re-sell.

I'd love any thoughts or suggestions from people with house buying/selling/repairing experience.
posted by COBRA! to Home & Garden (24 answers total)
 
A 70 year old house doesn't sit on steel pilings. At most back then for a home they would use timber but even that would be doubtful. It would have been expensive to do then and was typical only for larger commercial buildings where land values were high.

OTOH, if it has been around for 70 years in a swampy area without major structural problems then I would say it is safe. The hole may be there as some sort of sump. If you are serious about the house, it does bear more investigation. Minneapolis is not a karst area where you would have to worry about sinkholes.
posted by JJ86 at 7:21 AM on September 20, 2006


Friends of my family used to live in Columbus, and there was a hole in their basement concrete floor, and they used to always joke about how there was a body buried under there. Turns out, there was a body buried under there. So, if I were you, I would make sure there were no bodies under the house before I bought it, because that's creepy.
posted by amarynth at 7:29 AM on September 20, 2006 [3 favorites]


We immediately called our realtor and said the deal was off. ... Further, she said that because of swampy soil (there's a creek nearby), house foundations in this part of south Minneapolis sit on steel pilings that go down to bedrock, so, while it's not good that the house sits above mini-Carlsbad Caverns, it's not as big a deal as it could be.

Keep in mind your realtor is interested in making a sale. Anything she says should be taken with a grain of salt.
posted by malp at 7:29 AM on September 20, 2006


I assume you mean an unintentional hole; a place where the 3' x 1.5' section of concrete floor has fallen raggedly into a larger underground subsidence area?

Run, don't walk, away. It's a ticking timebomb. The creek is eating away the ground under that house. The ground is falling down into that sinkhole. The house is not collapsing, yet, because of the concrete slab; as soon as the slab cracks, the house is going to fall apart, with you inside. Eventually, the house is going to do this.

About the realtor and steel pilings: HA HA HA. Ask her to give you a signed document stating that the house sits on steel pilings and to guarantee you the full purchase price if it does not. She won't do it. She's lying to you. (The realtor knows less about the house than you [you just had an inspection done, which she did not] AND she has a financial interest in lying to you. This is not a trustworthy individual.)

How long has the house been on the market?

You might be able to spend $$$$$$$$$$ to keep the house from falling apart, but I would guess the costs would exceed the value of the house. The seller is entirely conscious of this - that's why they're immediately offering to pay $$$ to fix up things temporarily if you'll take the house of their hands.
posted by jellicle at 7:33 AM on September 20, 2006


There are always more houses. Looking for a house is like trying to get married (quickly!) while single - there's a lot of heartbreak. You pine for the ones that got away. You think you'll be able to overlook flaws because of all the other great attributes a house has. (I know he smokes and has termites - but he'll stop for me! because we're in love!)

Flaws in a house, like flaws in a person, rarely go away. Usually you get more over time. And there are always other fish in the sea. So keep looking.
posted by GuyZero at 7:43 AM on September 20, 2006


Thanks for the advice so far. Just to clarify a few things:

A 70 year old house doesn't sit on steel pilings.

A few architects I know up here did say that pilings were pretty common in Minneapolis houses in the 30s; they suggested that the original survey for the property should say for sure.

The creek is eating away the ground under that house.

Well, by "nearby," I meant "within half a mile." The creek in question is 6 blocks away. The ground might be swampy because of the creek, and something's definitely eating a hole, but I don't think it's actually the creek doing the eating.

How long has the house been on the market?

About 40 days.

The realtor knows less about the house than you [you just had an inspection done, which she did not] AND she has a financial interest in lying to you. This is not a trustworthy individual.)

I definitely don't trust the seller's agent as far as I could throw her, but at this point I don't necessarily think that our realtor is out to screw us-- she originally supported our decision to walk, until the seller started offering all of these fixes and assurances. It's true that it is in her interests to get us to make our deal sooner rather than later, but she does know that if she doesn't get a commission from us on this house, she'll get one on another (unless she pisses us off and we leave).

So, if I were you, I would make sure there were no bodies under the house before I bought it, because that's creepy.

Didn't see any, but, then, I couldn't see the entire hole. Noted.
posted by COBRA! at 7:44 AM on September 20, 2006


What jellicle said. The house will eventually be lost to the sinkhole, whether the floor gets resealed or not.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:45 AM on September 20, 2006


Having bought an 80 year old house in the last year, my best piece of advice is to run away from structure that has any obvious structural flaws. There are always flaws that will turn up later, so you might as well avoid what you can.
posted by stormygrey at 7:53 AM on September 20, 2006


Leaning houses are bad news, and filling the hole is not a permanant solution. I would walk away from this one, but if you still want to pursue it, I would INSIST that you are able to pick the inspecting engineer, and that he (she) reports to you and not the sellers. Also, a one year warranty, is little more than seller rolling the dice in hopes that the place stays upright for another 365 days.
posted by lobstah at 7:59 AM on September 20, 2006


That hole is a portal to financial and emotional hell. Don't buy the house.
posted by Melsky at 8:02 AM on September 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


May want to check terms of home warranty - at least in the one I have, it doesn't cover structural defects. Typically these are geared more towards appliances / heating / cooling / plumbing / minor electrical.

Also, as with all the home warranties, if it does offer to cover structural repairs - make sure they don't have a cap on payouts for individual problems. They may say they cover structural issues, but then only offer to remedy the problem up to $1000 which, chances are, may be pretty bloody useless.
posted by Mave_80 at 8:04 AM on September 20, 2006


Oh, extra thoughts - this is a "full disclosure" situation. By law, the seller must not lie to you when talking about the house. You should ask the seller personally (not any agents) what they know about the sinkhole.

The story might go something like this:

--the house started leaning
--the seller got concerned
--they hired someone to take a look
--the someone created that hole through the slab, in an inconspicuous place in the closet, to take a look at what was happening with the foundation
--the someone reported back to the seller
--the seller is now selling the house

If that's how it went, you are entitled to the report that the seller got when the previous guy did his investigation.

There are only two options, right? Either the seller is *flabbergasted* to discover this mysterious hole in their closet, which they've never seen before; or they knew about it. If they knew about it, you're entitled to know what they know.
posted by jellicle at 8:09 AM on September 20, 2006


My house came with a 5 year foundation warranty. It's now 6 years later and the foundation repair estimates range from $10-25K. Owning a house has convinced me that people who work with and around real-estate are very, very often corrupted.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

-Upton Sinclair
posted by elderling at 8:12 AM on September 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


t's true that it is in her interests to get us to make our deal sooner rather than later, but she does know that if she doesn't get a commission from us on this house, she'll get one on another

In other words, she'll still get paid, but her hourly pay will go down significantly.
posted by malp at 8:12 AM on September 20, 2006


until the seller started offering all of these fixes and assurances.

If it were me, I'd kind of wonder about this. You'd think, with all their quick willingness to make all the fixes and assurances, the seller would have filled that hole and sealed the floor before putting the place on the market. Even while they were living there? Were they hoping you wouldn't find it or pointedly ask about it where they'd be legally obligated to spill the beans? Are they selling because of this? Have to wonder. I'd walk away.

Be careful with your own realtor, too. Did you sign a contract with her representing you strictly as a Buyers Agent?

Quick story: I was using an agent that had been a co-worker in a different industry for a few years, all along he indicating that he was our agent, etc. Right before we filled out the paperwork for an offer, he presents us with a contract saying he wasn't our Buyers Agent at all. After I left the office, I got a real estate lawyer for the transaction and from that point on, "our" realtor became a useless cog, if not a hinderance and bother, for negotiations.

If she is your Buyers Agent on contract, all the better. If not, she's simply a mode for making appointments to look at, driving you to listings, handling basic paperwork and that's it.

But after the advice here, you do decide to go for it, right now is a good time to engage a real estate lawyer on your behalf. There will be paperwork and a lot of discussion as far as who selects the structural engineer to evaluate the building and which contractor should do the work.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:13 AM on September 20, 2006


This is what I was going to write: For me it would probably come down to why the hole is there. If it's unitentional no chance. If it's intentional (who knows why) I might consider it provided: the structural engineer (chosen by you) comes first - while there is still a hole, in addition to coming after it is filled. I'd still be gunshy though - there are going to be other houses.

On further reflection: NO. Not worth it.
posted by true at 8:15 AM on September 20, 2006


As far as the rapid response about the hole goes, the buyer will likely have to fix it for whomever buys it. Unless, of course, some fool comes along who'll buy it without getting a home inspection. And those fools exist. And the seller doesn't disclose the problem b/c the buyer didn't ask the right question.

I bought an 80yr old house with a foundation problem... the basement walls parallel to the driveway (on both sides, these are close packed houses) were bowed in. My home inspector found it and explained to me that the reasonable solution was steel pilasters, sunk in the basement floor and tied to the floor joists. The seller agreed to do it and I bought the house. No big deal and problem solved.

OTOH, this house sounds like it has a big deal problem.
posted by jdfan at 8:19 AM on September 20, 2006


Grrrrracias, everybody. After further discussion, we're definitely passing on the house. And the family debate has moved to keep/fire the realtor.
posted by COBRA! at 8:23 AM on September 20, 2006


The stream you know about is six blocks away. I wonder if there's an underground stream which you don't know about. Some sort of process is causing the erosion directly beneath the house you had inspected. The land around the house is swampy. I don't believe this is a process you or the sellers can stop. Also, what would they fill the hole with? Dirt or gravel? If so, what will keep it from eroding? Cement? How long would it take for the cement to dry and what are the implications of that?

The floor is cracking elsewhere in the house? How many other voids are beneath it?

Run! This is not a house with which to saddle yourself.
posted by onhazier at 8:25 AM on September 20, 2006


the structural engineer (chosen by you) comes first - while there is still a hole, in addition to coming after it is filled.

Really important! There is no point hiring someone to inspect after it is all covered up. What you need is a properly designed solution, properly implemented.

It seems to me that letting the seller do important work before a deal closes must guarantee bad solutions and bad workmanship, but I don't know what happens in practice.
posted by Chuckles at 9:19 AM on September 20, 2006


This sounds like a money pit, literally. You can fix the symptom of the problem (the hole) but unless you fix whatever caused it in the first place you're looking at constantly have to maintain a building that will continue to be structurally compromised.

Also, when you sell this house you're going to have to put these issues on the disclosure agreement. I can't imagine that many people would want to take the risk, so this house would probably be VERY difficult to sell if you should ever decide to move.
posted by Ostara at 9:25 AM on September 20, 2006


If there really is a major problem with subsidence due to an underground stream a structural engineer won't be able to do much except tell you about the structural integrity. For a home, a building inspector should just as easily be able to tell you if there is a problem. If you want to know what is going on under the surface, hire a geotechnical engineer. I realize you've made a decision already but a geotechnical investigation would be more likely to provide you with useful info in this case as well as potential solutions.
posted by JJ86 at 9:27 AM on September 20, 2006


My first instinct is to tell you to walk away. I might wait for the opinion of the structural engineer, but I would hire one yourself as well to give an unbiased opinion. This kind of thing sounds like bad news to me. In 10 years you'll have a $50K repair on your hands.

Owning a home requires a certain amount of resigned attitude. Something will always require fixing. Sometimes it's a bigger deal than others (the ever increasing slope to the addition on the back of the house vs. a leaky toilet) but there is always something. It's maddening. It requires acceptance.

I had a bad experience with the home warranty that our seller so kindly threw into the deal. It seemed like the language was written so that nothing important was covered. We had a sewage leak in our basement due to tree roots and the fact that the house was empty for a few years before we moved it. We had guys out to snake the line (apparently the home warranty didn't cover sewage), but $300 later, they discovered that the problem was at the utility level on the street. WSSC came and took care of it after that. Make sure you read the fine print of any warranty to know that you're getting what you pay for.
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:55 AM on September 20, 2006


Some of the most terrifying horror stories I've encountered have been based on similar premises, by the way. I'm thinking particularly of Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model" and "The Rats in the Walls;" Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves;" and worst of all, all those creepy holes in the Silent Hill series of console games.

Gah.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:53 PM on September 20, 2006


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