Cracks: A Cause for Concern?

Most people immediately panic when they see cracks of any kind in a home, assuming the house is on the brink of collapse. While this may be the case in rare occasions, most cracks are not a cause for immediate concern.

You would think that houses settle most as they get older, but houses actually tend to settle most in the first several years after they’re built. Think of a new pair of shoes or a baseball glove that need broken in before they have “settled” into that place of perfect comfort. Once the house “breaks in” to the soil, so to speak, the settling typically mellows out and takes much longer to occur over time.

Regardless of the age of your home, you’re likely to see at least some minor cracks in places, and you should know the basics of how to determine whether they are normal or something to be concerned about. As a general rule, horizontal cracks – especially in foundation walls – are of greater concern than vertical cracks. This is because horizontal cracks often indicate lateral movement where the foundation wall is being pressed inward from soil pressure. As the soil surrounding the foundation swells with water, pressure is exerted on the foundation walls and horizontal cracking toward the center of the wall often occurs. This is one of the reasons why preventing water intrusion at the foundation is so vitally important. If the soil beneath the corner or center of a concrete block wall experiences heaving (upward force), you may notice step cracking, which, as its name suggests, resembles a stair case pattern along the mortar joints of the cinder blocks. If a large, jagged crack is present and wider at the top than the bottom, it indicates upheaval of the soil near the center of the wall. If the crack is wider at the bottom, it indicates upheaval at the corners.

It is common to see some small cracks on interior walls above the foundation. You may see them, in particular, near corners of doorways or windows, and often running more diagonally than straight up and down. This is usually not an immediate cause for concern, but you can follow the crack down and examine the underlying structure to see if any foundation issues exist that may require further evaluation or repair. If your roof is composed of trusses, you may see some cracks near the center of the ceiling/walls from a phenomenon known as “truss lift” where the top chords of trusses expand and bow out, pulling the center of the bottom chords up and away from the center of the house.

When cracking seems severe, checking your windows and doors can also provide some additional clues. If settling is significant, your doors and windows may be out of balance and especially difficult to open and close due to movement and shifting of their frames. You can usually see and not just feel this because uneven gaps may be visible – particularly around doors.

If you see cracks, or if some arise over time, don’t panic and assume your house is bound to cave in. In most cases, that’s not the most likely scenario. However, you should be diligent about periodically examining your home for any concerning cracks and should consult a qualified foundation contractor or structural engineer if any major or concerning cracks arise. When it comes to structural issues, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, but you should also understand that every house will settle over time and not every indication of settling is a sign of impending disaster.

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Author: hillinspections

I am a Certified Master Inspector (CMI) and the owner and operator of Hill Property Inspections LLC, the top-rated inspection company in the greater Johnstown, PA area, based out of western Pennsylvania. I specialize in property inspections and environmental testing services and have a passion for helping my own clients and other families in learning to properly maintain their homes. I’m also the owner of Hill Pest Control, LLC and a pest management professional committed to helping our clients rid their homes and businesses of unwanted pests. I am an Army veteran, former State Farm Insurance Agent, and real estate investor with experience in all facets of real estate construction, transaction and insurance. I am also the founder and President of the Southwestern PA Chapter of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI) and an affiliate member of the Cambria-Somerset Association of Realtors (CSAR).

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