What is the difference between a structural defect and a cosmetic defect?

Monday, June 25, 2018

“Hey, would you be sure to look at that crack in the wall of the back bedroom near the ceiling?” This is the kind of request we often get from customers at the beginning of a home inspection. Structural problems are right up there with roof leaks at the top of their list of big issues they hope we won’t find. Often enough, the crack is just cosmetic and not structural. But what makes a crack slide from cosmetic over to structural?

    We like the definition of structural defect used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for their Ten-Year Protection Plans: “The actual physical damage to the designated load-bearing portions of a home caused by failure of such load-bearing portions that affects their load-bearing functions to the extent that the home becomes unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unlivable. Load-bearing components for the purpose of defining structural defects are defined as follows: Footing and foundation systems; beams; girders; lintels; columns; load-bearing walls and partitions; roof framing systems; and floor systems, including basement slabs in homes constructed in designated areas containing expansive or collapsible soils.”

    That’s a lot of legalese, but it hits two key points: 

  1. Defect is in “load-bearing portions of a home.”
  2. The defect causes the load-bearing components to become “unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unlivable.”

    The HUD definition further clarifies what is NOT considered a structural defect, which includes damage of non-load-bearing components such as roofing, drywall and plaster, exterior siding, stone, brick or stucco veneer. Here is where it gets complicated. While these components are not load-bearing, they are often the areas where symptoms of structural problems behind them become visible. A hole punched in a bedroom wall does not indicate a possible structural defect, but a long, open crack in the same wall requires further investigation. Also, this is a standard for an insurance claim and we have to point out structural problems that are progressing towards “unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unlivable.”

   The photo at the top of the page, of the stair-step cracks in a retaining wall under the porch and utility room of a home, shows clear signs of structural distress, with a large crack and part of the wall rotating outward. The concrete slab above it was observed moving away from an adjacent wall. and—curiously—the outside trim of a doorway directly above the slab, shown below, was buckling under the pressure of what appeared to be clay soil “heaving” after several days of heavy rains.

    Cracks are not usually this dramatic, and many are simply cosmetic ones due to changes in humidity or temperature in a home. During the first two years of a home’s life there is also a certain amount of normal settlement and small cracks appear. If repaired, they usually do not reopen, since the structure will stabilize after the initial settlement.

    We use a standard gauge for determining whether a crack is structural: if you can stick two quarters side-by-side in the crack and one side of the crack has shifted up from the other one, it is likely a structural problem. Nearby further signs of distress will help to confirm the evaluation. Also, keeping an eye on it over time to see if it continues to move is another indication of a developing structural defect.

    It’s worth noting, though, that defects do not just fall into the two categories of structural and cosmetic. A double-pane insulated window that has lost the inert gas and began to cloud over is more than just a cosmetic problem, for example, because the insulation rating of the window was lost when the gas escaped.

    The question we sometimes get from an annoyed realtor when we point out a structural defect is “Well, do you think it’s going to fall down any time soon?” The answer is rarely yes, but it has happened. A cracked wood beam across the living room of a 1950s modern home that supported two large areas of roof at a recent home inspection was sagging noticeably recently, with a significant opening at the bottom of the beam. It was clearly creeping towards collapse. 

    But usually, the answer is “no, no time soon, but if not repaired it will likely continue to get worse and progress towards failure later.” Structural problems tend to pick up speed if ignored.  Water gets inside a crack in a wall, for example, and begins to rot the wood framing, which opens the crack further, which allows more water entry and rot, and so forth. Dust and debris lodge in the bottom of the crack and keep it from closing even after conditions that caused it are reversed. So it is always a good idea to determine the cause of a structural defect and fix it as soon as possible after it is observed.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

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 and HOME INSPECTION pages 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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