Beyond the obvious function of giving your 4 walls a place to sit and holding them down with bolts and other anchoring systems, your home’s foundation is responsible for much more. A concrete foundation may contain a grounding electrode to protect you from lightning strikes and power surges. Slab foundations can serve as the finished floor and provide insulation and hydronic heating. And perimeter foundations hold up your house and help keep moisture and pests out of your crawlspace or basement.
But taking the time to periodically check your foundation for a few common issues may help you catch potential problems early on. Here are 4 simple foundation checks you should do right now.
1. Check your grading
Take a walk around your house and see whether the top few inches of foundation are visible above the surrounding soil. Ideally, the earth around your house should be graded to drain water away from the foundation. This helps prevent dry rot of your structural framing and
keeps burrowing pests and termites from finding convenient concealed entry points into your basement or crawlspace.
Built-up soil, compost, or overgrowth around your perimeter walls can cause serious problems.
Remove excess topsoil, overgrowth, and debris from around your foundation. Try to create a slope that directs water away from your foundation. Resist the temptation to stack firewood or start a compost heap adjacent to your foundation — those areas should stay clear and visible. Since termites and pests like cover, keeping the top few inches of foundation exposed makes your house less inviting to intruders.
2. Check for cracking and settling
Anyone who’s ever walked down a sidewalk knows that concrete cracks.
Most homes built in the last several decades have reinforced steel bar (rebar) holding all that concrete together, so superficial cracks shouldn’t affect the structural performance of the foundation. Similarly, concrete slab foundations may crack as the material expands and contracts with variations in temperature and humidity. Most of this nonstructural cracking is nothing to worry about.
But extensive cracking and cracks that continue to widen to more than 1/16 of an inch may indicate a more serious issue.
If a home has suffered from inadequate drainage or poor soil conditions, you may also find evidence of rotation (when the house rotates off the foundation) or settlement. If one of your foundation walls has started to settle or turn, don’t panic.
There are many remedies available. Talk to a structural engineer or contractor about repairing, reinforcing, or replacing the section in question. In many cases, a full foundation replacement is not the only option.
If you’ve ensured that it’s a small, isolated crack, you might be able to seal it with caulking or epoxy products.
Talk to a structural engineer or building contractor to evaluate widening cracks or signs of overturning or excessive settlement.
3. Check for moisture
If the area under your house is constantly damp, moldy, or muddy, you probably have a moisture problem. Water in the crawlspace will accelerate the deterioration of wood framing and the humidity will find its way into your home. Do some detective work. Is there an obvious spot where moisture is getting in? Look for plumbing leaks or areas that are particularly wet. Humidity is linked to respiratory problems, allergies, and pests, so it should be taken seriously.
Make sure ventilation openings haven’t been covered up or obstructed. If the dampness is merely rising out of the dirt in your crawlspace, a vapor barrier may solve the problem. But if liquid water is seeping up from the ground, or coming through your foundation walls, a drainage system or sump pump may be the appropriate solution.
4. Check for outdated seismic or wind resistance
In many locales, older homes were built to much less restrictive standards than we have today. In some cases, that means the structural framing isn’t adequately anchored to the concrete foundation. Look for bolts and hold-downs attaching the framing to the structure. If you don’t see them or they are few and far between, your home may be a good candidate for a seismic or wind resistance retrofit.
The structural demands placed on your foundation are tied to local conditions, including the severity of wind and snow in your area and the likelihood of seismic events. Don’t just start adding bolts — you may end up wasting money and effort in ways that don’t actually strengthen your home! A local structural engineer can advise you on the best use of your resources based on your geographic area, local code requirements, and whether your house even needs strengthening at all.
Your home’s continued structural integrity literally depends upon the integrity of your foundation, so take the time to make sure yours is safe.