Level with me, I can take it
November 26, 2006 2:08 PM   Subscribe

My significant other and I are having an ongoing arguement about leveling our 80 year-old house.

The wooden structure is up on short brick posts, and they have all sunk some, to varying degrees. There's a perceptible sag in the middle of one of the outside walls. Doors don't close well, and if you should drop a handfull of say, gumballs, in a room, there's an exciting chase to round them all up. Myself, I say that this is just one of the joys in owning an older house, but he feels that it is imperative that we level it before we so much as replace a light-switch plate. I fear that this will cascade into a home-improvement nightmare, with walls cracking and god knows what all else. Anyone out there have a similar situation? Did you go ahead and level? What are the benefits/dangers to leveling versus doing nothing?
posted by thebrokedown to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
Surely you can find some middle ground in finding a structural engineer and consulting with him/her on the pluses and minuses of leveling the house just before you go buy that switchplate.
posted by rhizome at 2:16 PM on November 26, 2006

My brother had his 2 bedroom house levelled on Friday. It cost him $1500 (AU). Some of the stumps (posts holding up the house) had extra concrete to about one foot added. Windows and doors now close well which they didn't before. There are cracks in the walls, but there were cracks in the walls. He's going to sand and repaint directly.
posted by b33j at 2:26 PM on November 26, 2006

If you can find a professional to do the job I'd think this would be a good idea. Ask about them having insurance, do a good job finding the right person and all should be fine. The problems will probably get worse and worse until fixed. (of course saying you need to do this thing before replacing a switch-plate is a bit overkill)

when I first saw leveled I thought "knocked down".
posted by edgeways at 2:54 PM on November 26, 2006

If you can do it or get it done the house must be leveled before you do other work. I lived in a 100 year old house and fortunately it was level. I would think that making the house level would be the very first thing that you would do. I do not imagine how you could live with it being that far out of level. None of the door frames or windows work properly I would think. Anyway... level first would be my suggestion.
posted by JayRwv at 3:02 PM on November 26, 2006

Houses can survive for years without being leveled. One room of our house has a spongy springy floor and quite the gravity well where round things would collect. The basement underneath is a forest of screw jacks to keep things stable. It has been like this probably for the better part of 30 years and could last like this just fine for decades more.

The real way to tell is to talk to a house inspector or a structural engineer and get their opinion. Generally speaking, if you are going to level a floor, you will find a joist or joists that are sagging, raise them up slowly over the period of several weeks using screw jacks and then put in sister joists to help them keep their shape. We have not done this because all the wiring runs along the joists that need the most help and along the sill where sisters would be tied. To do this job requires pretty much taking down all the wiring as step one.

The process or cause may very well be different based on the construction and foundation of your house.

In the meantime, we've found it easier just to be accustomed to a non-level floor. From looking at dozens of houses of similar age and condition, ours is hardly unique in its Batman-Villain hideout cant to the floor.

Unless a structural engineer says to panic (OH NOES!), you can save up for this work over years.
posted by plinth at 3:08 PM on November 26, 2006

I asked my husband, who has been working on our 80+ year old house ever since we bought it six years ago. He said that if the sag is based on an outside wall, that it very well could be a foundation issue and should be checked out.
posted by Lucinda at 3:21 PM on November 26, 2006

neither of you are qualified to make this decision. find someone who is.
posted by sophist at 3:29 PM on November 26, 2006

I concur with the recommendations to find an expert, but I would add: my parents had a 100 year old house that they levelled. The sash windows operated correctly for the first time in ages, but some of the doors needed to be readjusted because they had been 'fixed' so that they would open when the house was saggy.

Yes some of the drywall cracked, but only along the joins, and nothing that a few hours with filler wouldn't fix. If you're planning to repaint sometime, then it's not an issue.

Again, ask an expert, but I'd not be so concerned about wiring, because you're probably only talking +/- an inch or two, and unless the wiring has been installed brand new, it will have slack.

The whole place 'felt' sturdier after the levelling work, the floors weren't so bouncy, and there was less creaking and groaning as the place cooled down at night.
posted by pivotal at 3:44 PM on November 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Of course, you realize that the verb "level" has two different meanings which could apply here.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:12 PM on November 26, 2006

This is really a pretty simple and basic home maintenance issue for an older house. Restumping/reblocking/levelling is a pretty well known issue. You probably don't need to do anything soon, if you can live with it you can proceed to live as you are for many years yet. But it will eventually have to be done and will improve the resale value of the hosue, so you may as well bite the bullet and get it done now (if you can afford it) and enjoy a level house now.

Also, if you are going to renovate at any time, this job should be done first. Get the foundations right.

The stumpers will come in and replace every single block with a concrete stump from 750mm under ground up to the bearers. They generally do this with a lot of car jacks and lot of hard yakka. But it should only take a few days to do. The results will last longer than the previous job (so at least 80 years) without a worry.

Access is the only problem, stumpers are troglodytes and can crawl around underneath, but they need about 3 feet clearance under the house. We didn't have that so they went through the floorboards. Since we were replacing ours anyway this wasn't a problem, but apparently they can do it neatly if they have to.

If you're lucky there will be no visible impacts at all. We had a few minor plaster cracks, which are common, but very easy to fix. It's rare for much more than this to happen, though disasters have been known with door frames ruined. Our concrete front verandah was now also about 15 cm below the front door step, that is how much they raised the front of the house.

Our house cost AU$12 000 to fix, for five rooms, about 90 square metres. It was worth it, we couldn't have done the floorboards and a bunch of other stuff without it.

We're on thick clay ad have had a long dry period, so if the climate returns to something approaching normal, it will be interesting if we have any problems with cracking subsequently.
posted by wilful at 4:34 PM on November 26, 2006

Ah the soils of the hub-city.

Having grown up in Lower Alabama, and playing toy gun war for years with the other dirt children, I can picture the underside of your house like the back of my hand. I also studied a little geology at a university to remain unnamed in the great state of Mississippi, where I had the joyous task of maintaining a poorly built, quickly subsiding fraternity house.

The old houses where I grew up were all in various states of settling, it's the nature of the geology in the region. Most, if not all houses in this pier type had wooden blocks under certain piers to shim them up. Someone had actually crawled under there and added a few boards (I'd say treated lumber is the best way to go in the Aughties). For any piers that are crumbling away use screw jacks anchored to treated lumber 2x8's cut into 2 foot lengths (top and bottom). Chances are when used properly, these offer more lift power than old brick and mortar anyway, though they do not have the side to side strength of a brick pier so don't rely on them for the long run. Replace the old piers with new ones.

Eventually, these fixes too will subside and you will have to re shim, add new screw jacks and re-pier. Those glorious antebellum homes are out there doing the same thing, it's just what you do with soil like you've got. If you still feel like your home is substandard, head over to Natchez, take a tour of a grand home and take a couple of marbles along. Drop a marble on the floor and watch it roll out the front door. You are never going to have a totally level floor in an old home in Hattiesburg.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:30 PM on November 26, 2006

You guys have all been great. We're still thinkin' on it, but thanks for all of the food for thought.
posted by thebrokedown at 6:08 PM on November 26, 2006

"Of course, you realize that the verb "level" has two different meanings which could apply here."

I was just coming in here to beg them not to level their old house, but now that I see it's the "make level" definition and not the "raze" definition, my panic has subsided.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:27 PM on November 26, 2006

I had a heart palpitation as well at the word "level".
posted by redsparkler at 9:27 PM on November 26, 2006

Look at it this way:
  1. Unless the house is demolished first, it'll have to be done sometime - now or later, by you or a subsequent owner
  2. Any work you do now - sheeting, windows, cornices/skirting, even maybe painting - will be "wrong" if the house is subsequently levelled, because it was fitted to suit the sagged shape. Cornices and skirting may pull away from the wall/floor/ceiling, windows & doors jam, sheeting may crack &/or pull away from corners/floors/ceilings/window & door frames, etc, etc. It's gonna happen anyway when the house is levelled, but at least it won't be happening to your newly-renovated rooms.
If you plan to live there for a while and renovate it to any extent, get it levelled first. Unless you need massive foundation work, you may be surprised how cheap it is to have done. Certainly worth getting a quote on, and cheaper than renovating everything twice...
posted by Pinback at 10:05 PM on November 26, 2006

You should find out if it is a continuing problem. Maybe it wouldn't be the best solution to level it but at the very least you should stabilize the problem. Stabilization would require nearly the same work as leveling although there are some less intrusive methods such as "in-situ soil stabilzation".

If there has been a history of fixes such as modifying windows or doors and moulding, or fixing the inevitable plaster cracking then it probably would turn into a major rehab job to level the house. It really depends on how much you want to spend and what your desires are for the long term. Do you want a fully renovated house? If so then take care of the problem ASAP.

I assume you bought the house as a "fixer-upper" and didn't buy without knowing the full extent of problems?
posted by JJ86 at 6:36 AM on November 27, 2006

I'm currently renovating a 100+ year old house. The center of the house sunk about 4-6 inches due to a rotting pillar in the basement. We put a jack next to it and are raising it an inch or so a week. When it is near level we are installing a steel post. It hasn't been a big deal. But we gutted the interior, so weren't too concerned about cracking plaster.
posted by hilby at 9:54 AM on November 27, 2006

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