How do I recognize serious structural problems in a house?

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The signs of structural distress in a house are often subtle and easy to miss unless you know what to look for. But once they are shown to you by your home inspector, you’ll wonder how in the world you overlooked them. Here’s ten suggestions for giving your next potential house purchase a careful scan for clues of structural problems:

1) The best place to start checking is from across the street. Big-scale defects that are not apparent when you are just a few feet from the walls are easier to spot at a distance. The two buildings in a condominium complex shown in the photo above, for example, are leaning significantly out-of-plumb, tilting towards each other. There were only a few cracks in the walls, because they had settled evenly, and the outrageous extent of their tilt only becomes clear from a long view. 

2) While standing away from the house, also check the ridge line of the roof and the fascia line to look for any noticeable sagging, which is a sign of damage, settlement,  or poor construction. It helps to hold up any straight-edged object, like a notepad, when you sight along the building’s lines. The sagging ridge line in the first photo below is likely due to removal of a horizontal structural cross-tie of some kind, such as a collar tie or ceiling joist with purlins, when the homemade dormer was added. The ridge sag in the second photo is more subtle, and likely due to lack due to lack of any horizontal bracing across the span.

3) As you walk around the exterior of the house, stop at each corner and look down the length of the wall with your face a few inches from the surface, searching for any areas that are bowing inward or outward.

4) Look for exterior wall cracks, especially ones that have opened more than 1/8”, cracks emanating from the corners of windows and doors, cracks that have one side higher than the other, and ones that show signs of having been repaired but have opened again. Take your time, and be sure to sweep your view up and down as you go along. 

5) Try to notice “artful” patching of serious cracks that attempt to conceal the problem.

    As you sight down a stucco wall, look for a change in the pattern of the stucco finish that would indicate a crack repair, as in the photo below.

6) Look for signs of building components that are moving apart, such as where a chimney connects to an exterior wall, lines where perpendicular walls meet, or where exterior decks or landings connect to the house.

7) Test the windows and doors to make sure they open freely. Cracked window panes can be a sign of a buildup of structural stress or movement in a wall. Also, any missing interior doorways should be checked carefully. When the frame is so out-of-square that the door no longer functions, sometimes the door is removed as a quick-fix, so you should be suspicious of any missing doors. The wood trim at the third photo below is buckling due to compression of the door frame. 


8) Feel the floors under your feet as you walk, both for any sloping areas and soft spots. If possible, have any background music or television sound turned off during the walk-around. This makes it easier to hear any loose floor tile or creaking floor boards.

9) As you examine the interior and note any floor, wall or ceiling problems, try to correlate them with your exterior findings. How do they line up? Does a crack running across a concrete floor, for example, align with any structural distress you observed in the exterior walls? In the photo below, a badly out-of-square door frame was above a damaged pier under the home.

10) Review your findings with a professional home inspector or engineer if you think you see signs of a big problem lurking in the structure. The significance of wall cracks in particular, unless they are gaping and ominous, is best left for a professional to interpret. A few minor settlement cracks should be expected, especially in an older home, and a pro can sort out the actual problems from the cosmetic defects for you.

    Also, see our blog post Should I buy a house with structural problems?

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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?

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? 

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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