How can I tell if a wall is load-bearing? Which walls can I take out?

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

It’s always possible to remove a wall, or part of a wall, in a home. It’s just that some walls are more expensive—sometimes way more expensive—to remove than others. And the expensive walls to remove are the load-bearing ones, because some sort of structural element, usually a beam, has to be installed to transfer the weight, that is now sitting on the wall you want to remove, to an adjacent support point.

   A wall is defined as load-bearing if it is supporting some portion of the roof or ceiling in a home, and determining for sure whether a wall is load-bearing requires an evaluation by a construction professional or an engineer. But there a few guidelines that can help you figure identify load- bearing walls with reasonable accuracy. Poke your head up in the attic and do the following:

•• Look for trusses. Most trusses only require support at the two ends of their span at the exterior walls; so a home with a truss roof would rarely have interior bearing walls. However, if you see a truss that has an end inside the exterior perimeter walls, then there may be a bearing wall underneath it. 

•• Look for where the ceiling joists lap. An older house with a roof that is constructed with rafters (instead of trusses) will have horizontal ceiling joists to support the drywall ceiling of the rooms below. The ceiling joists rarely span all the way across the home, and they will bear on an interior wall, with one rafter slightly overlapping the next one side-by-side at the bearing point. The wall under this lap is a bearing wall, but it often buried under insulation.

    If the house has purlins and kickers, the bottom of the kickers wil be over a bearing wall, as shown in the diagram and photo below. For more on this, see our blog post Why is there diagonal bracing at the roof rafters in the attic?

   These two checks are meant for preliminary evaluation only. We still recommend that you consult a construction professional or engineer before tearing down any interior walls or ceilings. There are sometimes secondary engineering issues that may need to be worked out. 

    When a homeowner takes out the ceilings in a living room, for example, to expose the roof rafters and create a dramatic cathedral ceiling, there’s a new problem that must be solved: the ceiling joists act as a stiffener (by triangulation) to keep the roof rafters from splaying the tops of the walls outward where they bear. Alternate stiffening members must be installed, such as rafter ties or collar ties. Go to our blog post What is a collar tie? for more details.

   There are also electric receptacles and switches, along with plumbing, that may be in the wall to be removed that have to be considered. Sometimes removing the plumbing or electrical is a straightforward job, especially if the removed material is at the end of a run. But, if the pipes or wiring are in the middle of a transfer of electricity or fluids to other points in the home, the work becomes more complicated.

   You should also be prepared for the possibility of a few minor cracks around the area of a removed wall, even one that is not load-bearing. This is because, although a wall is not designed to be load-bearing, it still ends up transferring some of the weight above it to the ground; and, when you remove the wall, the load distribution shifts and the structural members adjust a little. Any cracks that occur will happen in the first few months after the work is done and, once repaired, should not happen again.

   We are always willing, during your home inspection, to take a few minutes to check on the load-bearing status of a wall you want to make disappear, and discuss what the wall removal process entails.

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To learn more about exterior walls and structures, see these other blog posts:

What is the average lifespan of a house foundation?

What causes vertical cracks in fiber cement siding planks?

What causes raised white lines of residue on a block wall that are crusty and crumbling? 

What is the difference between soil subsidence, heave, creep, and settlement? 

How much ventilation is required for the under-floor crawl space of a home? 

 What causes stair-step cracks in a block or brick wall?

What causes a horizontal crack in a block or brick wall? 

How can I tell if a diagonal crack in drywall at the corner of a window or door indicates a structural problem?

What causes the surface of old bricks to erode away into sandy powder? 

What are the pros and cons of concrete block versus wood frame construction?

Should I buy a house with a crawl space? 

Why is my stucco cracking?

There's cracks running along the home's concrete tie beam. What's wrong? 

What would cause long horizontal lines of brick mortar to fall out?

How do I recognize serious structural problems in a house?

What is engineered wood siding?

Should I buy a house that has had foundation repair? 

What is a "continuous load path”?

Should I buy a house with asbestos siding?   

How can I tell if cracks in the garage floor are a problem or not? 

What do you look for when inspecting vinyl siding?

Why is housewrap installed on exterior walls under the siding? 

How do I recognize serious structural problems in a house?

Why did so many concrete block homes collapse in Mexico Beach during Hurricane Michael? 

How can I tell if the concrete block walls of my house have vertical steel and concrete reinforcement?

Should I buy a house with structural problems? 

What are those powdery white areas on my brick walls?

What causes cracks in the walls and floors of a house?

How can I tell if the exterior walls of a house are concrete block (CBS) or wood or brick?

What are the common problems of different types of house foundations? 

• What are the warning signs of a dangerous deck?

How can I tell whether my house foundation problems are caused by a sinkhole or expansive clay soil?

        Visit our EXTERIOR WALLS AND STRUCTURE page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles. 

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