structural engineering and foundation problems

Discussion in 'After Hours Lounge (Off Topic)' started by Leila Dougan, Feb 8, 2004.

  1. Leila Dougan

    Leila Dougan Screenwriter

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    I am close to buying a house however this morning I received the sellers discloser. . .

    From what I understand, here's the story:

    The house and surrounding neighborhood was built in 1997. Sometime thereafter it was apparent that there was something wrong with the foundations of many houses in the area, which was traced back to improper soil compaction. The problem affected several different builders in the area and 15 homeowners went forth to sue their builders. It seems the the builders opted to buy back these houses.

    The house I'm buying, I believe, is one of these houses. The builder repaired the house then sold it to the current owners in 2002. They had a full structural inspection done which said the house was in good condition and structurally sound. The current owners said they are not aware of any current problems.

    The report indicates that the following repairs were made in 2002:

    - The perimeter foundation for the house was underpinned using screw piers

    - Perimeter and several intererior positions were replaced and/or reinforced with grade beams

    - Perimeter sidewalk with adequate slope was installed to direct water away from the house to prevent the soil under the house from getting too moist.


    The report says repairs were made "in response to differential settlement of the foundation". It also says "For all practical purposes, there has been little or no settlement or movement of the house, and it can be described as structurally sound."

    The structure is warrantied by the builder until 12/07.

    Now my questions. . .

    Are these repairs adequate? Are they a temporary fix or a permanent one? Should this be 10 huge red flags or is this not that big of a deal?

    There haven't been any problems in the last 1.5 years, does this indicate that the solution was effective or is there still a great chance of the foundation having more problems?

    I left a message for the structural engineer to perhaps discuss this matter further and am waiting for a response. In the meantime, I wanted to know what everyone here would say

    Thanks a bunch!
     
  2. Jim_C

    Jim_C Cinematographer

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    Leila,

    I'm an architect and I have to say right off the top that it's near impossible for anyone to make a solid recommendation without seeing the work/damage first hand as well as soil test reports and some sort of history of the ground in that area, i.e. is it untouched earth or is it a constructed landscape. For example, here in Boston the Back Bay is all fill. It used to be swamp land until they ran out of room in the 1800's and filled it all in. That type of ground condition is very different than one with bedrock 50' below grade.

    >>The report says repairs were made "in response to differential settlement of the foundation". It also says "For all practical purposes, there has been little or no settlement or movement of the house, and it can be described as structurally sound."
     
  3. Leila Dougan

    Leila Dougan Screenwriter

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    Thanks Jim, I really appreciate the response.

    I, too, wonder why they did all the repairs if there was little to no settling. There are several other houses in the area with the special sidewalk (which I'm assuming is an indication of those houses haveing structural problems as well) but not all houses have this.

    The house is built on concrete slab. So it sounds that with all the repairs they did, there must have been some serious problems. Now that it's been retrofitted with piles and beams, does this mean that the foundation should resist major settling in the future? I understand that you have no way of knowing for sure.

    From what I know about the area, the land was probably untouched. That area of town has been growing tremendously and 7-10 years ago was not nearly as heavily populated so I think it was just empty land. I know that it wasn't a landfill, or marsh, or lake, or anything like that. Out here in New Mexico most of the land is just dry dirt.
     
  4. Jim_C

    Jim_C Cinematographer

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    No problem!

    It's hard to say whether there will be future problems with settling. If they drove the piles down to bedrock and the house is now in effect sitting on that bedrock then it's unlikely to settle much more. However, if the piles are being used as friction piles then there is the possibility there could be more settling. The difference between the two is that a friction pile isn't driven to resistance, it's driven into the soil and relies on surface area contact between the sides of the pile and the soil to provide load bearing capacity. It's not as solid as an end bearing pile but it can do the job. I've not heard of the term 'screw pier' but I can tell you that there are different terms for the same thing in different parts of the country.

    Talk with the structural engineer. He's going to know a lot more about the foundation design than I do, that's his specialty. A slab on grade is a very simple thing and usually doesn't have all of the grade beams and piles that you're describing, at least not back here in the eastern US anyway. However, I don't have any experience with building standards in NM so I don't know what typical construction is in that area.

    While I can't really give you any specific advice about this I can tell you that if it was me I'd be very hesitant to move forward on this purchase. I'm pretty conservative, though. Again, talk with the structural engineer. You might consider hiring your own structural engineer to get a completely neutral assessment of the stability of the house.

    Good luck and I hope that some of this helped. Sorry I can't give you a 'yes, buy it' or 'no, run away' answer.
     
  5. Kirk Gunn

    Kirk Gunn Screenwriter

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    From a purely non-technical perspective, I would not buy a house with such a questionable history. While it may be fine the 2,3,4 or 10 years you live there, resale may be tough because other people are very skittish about these things.

    Ex: When we bought our house, there was some question about the polypropelene water feed. While it was fine in our particular house, other houses in the neighborhood had problems in the past. We made the current owners replace the pipe with copper, which was a permanent fix.

    I'm not confident what they did to this house was a "permanent" fix since it was only done a couple years ago.

    Are you getting a great deal on it ? Did they disclose this before you put a contract on it ?

    Good Luck, buying a house is insanely stressful !
     
  6. Leila Dougan

    Leila Dougan Screenwriter

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    Thank you Jim (again!) and Kirk, both of your answers have helped immensely.

    From what I've read these screw piers (also called helical piers) are steel piers anchored into the bedrock. This is opposed to frictional piers that Jim mentioned above, which I've read are typically concrete and have a much larger diameter. In NM the bedrock isn't usually too deep and I've heard people say it's around 10ft. From what I've read, these screw piers are a pretty permanent solution but the concrete friction piers are not, especially in expansive clay. Of course all of this is needs to be confirmed by the structural engineer.

    I've also done more research and found that the problem in this subdivision is two-fold. The first, that I've mentioned, is the soil compaction. The soil is expansive clay, which apparently wasn't compacted at all. I realize that clay has a lot of problems even with compaction but I can imagine the problems are only that much worse when it's not.

    The second problem is that the foundation was not of high quality. Here is an excerpt from lawsuit:

    Case is Gene and Gina Gonzales, et al., vs. KB Home, et al.
    No. CV 2001-5871
    filed in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.
    Here's an excerpt from the complaint:
    "Sandia/Vinyard (the foundation subcontractor and the engineering firm) prepared the $6 million Shenandoah subdivision pads cutting corners from the 1992/1993 post-tensioned foundations to the less expensive conventional spread footings foundation for the problematic soils conditions (expansive clay/collapsive uncontrolled fill). Sandia/Vinyard engineered the same home pads in the adjacent Riverview Ridge subdivision using post-tensioned foundations, which are more expensive, but provide the consumer the best protection when problematic soils are present. Sandia pressured Vinyard for a March
    1995 report to make the pad sites cheaper in construction costs for sale to KB Home. By reducing the quality post-tensioned foundation to the mid-level 'conventional spread footing foundation' Sandia was able to maximize its profits by cutting out the quality (and more expensive) post-tensioned foundation. KB Home cut corners even more reducing the foundations to a 'monolithic foundation,' and then, cut our 50% of the structural engineer's required steel ("4 feet on center rather than 2 feet on center") with knowledge of the problematic soils. All of these so called "cost savings" were made with actual knowledge of the "problematic soils."


    Right now I'm leaning away from purchasing the house. But this means that I have to exclude all the homes in that area from my search because they all have the same problems. In fact, if I were going to buy a house there I *would* want one repaired, I think, because the unrepaired ones just sound like they're a disaster waiting to happen.

    If I talk to the engineer and get encouraging news I might go through with it but if I don't, then I'll just walk away and keep looking. And Kirk, you're absolutely right! Buying a house is very stressful and so far we aren't having much luck finding a house we like that isn't a)already on contract by the time we get to it or b) having problems. We made and offer on the house and the seller counter offered but we have yet to respond. So I have given no earnest money or signed any contract. I can walk away with no loss.

    I understand about buyers being skittish, just like I am! Hopefully though if I live in it for 5 years without problems, that will be some proof that the repairs were adequate. Only time will tell though.

    I just wanted to add, just in case it's important, that this is a single-story, 3bdrm/2ba house. It has a wood frame with a brick facade and that while some of the mortar between the bricks had cracked, the bricks themselves did not.

    At this point I'm fairly confident the foundation is secured. It's the wood frame I'm worried about. KB isn't known to build the best homes and I don't exactly trust their other repairs either. Perhaps they just replaced or patched the cracked drywall but didn't inspect or repair any broken wood beams?
     
  7. Jeff Ulmer

    Jeff Ulmer Producer

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    Getting the advise of a mechanical engineer is a good idea, as it should let you know what problems you may face down the road. Despite the shortcuts taken in construction (which you will find in almost every home in some form or another), if the repairs were done properly, you may well have a great house now. Every building will settle to some degree, the biggest issue being uneven settling, which will cause the foundation to crack, and could put undue stress on areas of the house not designed for it, but this has to be pretty severe to be serious.

    Any home purchase should include an inspection by a qualified building inspector, but it is their job to point out faults, many of which sound bad, but really aren't. You need to weigh the severity of the problems with the potential consequences, and if you decide to buy, use that to your advantage when making the offer. It's the problems that you don't know about that are caue for the greatest concern down the road.
     
  8. Jim_C

    Jim_C Cinematographer

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    I hate developers. That law suit excerpt could be used to describe the practices of countless numbers of developers in this country. I understand that people are in business to make money but to knowingly undercut quality to unsafe levels for the sake of a buck is infuriating. This is precisely why my addition will be built by either a small scale construction company or I'll do it myself.

    The neighborhood I live in was built all at once in the late 50's/early sixties. You wouldn't believe the high quality of constuction that went into these houses. You just don't see that anymore.

    [/endrant]

    Now, back to Leila's house issue. I have to point out that if they cut corners in the foundation then you can bet they cut corners in other locations. Perhaps they didn't use the right grade of wood for the framing, maybe the wiring is not up to snuff, maybe they used the smallest joist or rafter possible to span the space but will have unacceptable deflection, etc. etc. etc. The mortar joints cracking is most likely due to the settling of the foundation and the subsequent shifting of the structure.

    If you do go ahead make sure you get an extremely thorough and exhaustive inspection. Personally, I'd walk away but if you really want to live in this area then I think your right in wanting to have a house that's already been repaired.
     
  9. Leila Dougan

    Leila Dougan Screenwriter

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    Well, I just talked to my agent and told her we didn't want the house.

    There's just too much hassle involved and as a first-time homeowner I don't want to have to be overly concerned with something as serious as a damaged foundation.

    If the house was discounted it would be more attractive but since it's priced the same as other similar, non-damaged houses I don't think it's worth it.

    This subdivision was nice but there are others nearby that will be just as good. Those houses have been around a few extra years and built by a different builder who is known for better quality.

    In the end, I just didn't trust what KB did. If they couldn't manage to build the house well originally, how can I be assured they repaired it well? Of course only time can tell. I'll let someone eles who is more confident in this house take it. I'm sure I'll be able to find something else I like just as much.
     
  10. Kirk Gunn

    Kirk Gunn Screenwriter

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    Hang in there, I think you made the right move. While no houses seem to be on the market now, if you have a good realtor you will get notified early. We sold our first house without having a contract on another. Very stressful time since we could only rent-back for ~2 months.

    Fortunately our realtor found a house my wife loved the day it went on the market. We put a contract on it that night (before the sign was even put up). Problem was we were the second in line ! Luckily it all worked out as the first folks didn't want to close early....

    Don't worry - you'll find your dream house.
     
  11. Mike Voigt

    Mike Voigt Supporting Actor

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    You probably did the right thing. Dealing with foundation issues is at best a nightmare. At worst, it could cost you most all of any equity you have in the house...

    You'll find something better. Maybe you can have someone build it for you, that can be a pretty good deal, esp. if the subdivision is about to close...
     
  12. Jim_C

    Jim_C Cinematographer

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    I think you've made the right decision. There will be other houses. I know that's easy for me to say sitting here in my own house while you are out there searching. I remember the stress and frustration while we searched. It's not pleasant.

    Good luck!
     

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