A Buyer’s Guide to Home Foundation Repair (And How to Avoid It)

Home foundation repairs sound pretty scary, especially to new homebuyers, but they shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for instant panic. As with any home problem, there are various levels of severity when it comes to foundation issues. Some problems can be repaired quickly, while others can wind up being a large expense to homeowners.

If you’re considering — or have recently purchased — a home that has foundation issues, there are some underlying factors that you need to be aware of. We spoke with Cory Brandt, a real estate agent in the Seattle, Washington, area with a background in engineering, and researched common problems to help you pinpoint the severity of your home’s foundation issues and give you the knowledge you need to move forward.

A crack in bricks, showing that your home foundation needs repair.
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What do you need to know about foundation repair?

Common indications of foundation issues

If you’re house hunting or have recently purchased a home, be vigilant in your visual examination of the property. Watch for the following problem indicators.

Cracks

Cracks in the interior drywall or exterior brickwork are the most common clue that there may be foundation problems. But not all cracks are created equal. Some require merely an easy, cosmetic fix, while other, wider cracks show that a portion of the foundation is not supported correctly.

Brandt says, “Look for whether the crack is horizontal or vertical. A horizontal crack is generally very concerning because that means the house has shifted significantly. A vertical crack is pretty common. But is a vertical crack spaced evenly all the way through, or is it a bigger opening at the top or bigger opening at the bottom? A bigger opening at the bottom means that the house is sinking in the middle; a bigger opening at the top means it’s sinking at the edges.”

Leaks

Water intrusion is a symptom of a larger foundation problem. Moisture near the corners can be caused by the foundation sinking. Dampness on basement walls could be caused by improper waterproofing. And, of course, a break in a plumbing line within the foundation slab could lead to water puddles and floor sagging.

As a homebuyer, you’ll want to look carefully for any discoloration that may have been caused by water damage. Take special care to check for mold or peeling paint around baseboards.

Bowing and settling

No home is completely level; it’s simply impossible. In common building practice, if foundations are level within 7/10 of an inch, that’s considered a passing grade. That said, if there’s noticeable bowing of the walls or settling of the floors, you can guess that the foundation is out of alignment and will need repair.

When you’re looking to purchase a home, check that all walls (including basement walls and chimneys) are level. You can also use a large marble to determine whether the floors are level. Take note of how the doors and windows are closing, since those large openings are usually where foundation pressure is revealed. Do they stick? Are there any gaps? Don’t forget to check the garage door!

A crack in the wall above a tile floor showing home foundation damage you should repair.
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Common reasons for foundation issues

Whether you’ve just purchased or you’re about to purchase a home, you’ll want to be aware of the drainage and soil around your home. Ignoring these two things could lead to problems over time; in fact, most foundation issues don’t begin to present themselves until the ten-year mark or later.

Drainage

Improper drainage is a major factor when it comes to foundation problems. Excess water and poor grading can lead to the erosion or consolidation of the soil upon which the foundation sits.

“The first thing I tell my buyers is location, location, location, and the second is drainage, drainage, drainage,” Brandt says.

“When we see foundation issues, many times it’s a drainage issue.”

When water running off the roof is not controlled through downspouts or gutters, it can seriously undermine the foundation. As a result, the foundation settles around the house.

For you as a homebuyer, that means you need to take stock of all the ways that water is (or is not) directed away from the foundation. Are there proper downspouts in place? Have the gutters been regularly cleaned and maintained? Does water pool near the house after a heavy rain?

Soil

In addition, the soil itself will play a role in the foundation’s viability. Ground that has not been properly compacted will inevitably settle over time. Also, foundation problems can arise as a result of using soft soil that tends to retain moisture or has the propensity to expand and contract with weather conditions.

Ideally, the soil beneath and around a home’s foundation should consist of rock or loam (a sand, clay, and silt mixture). Sand and gravel can also work well in some climates. Peat, clay, and silt make for dangerous foundations when used alone.

Soil tests can cost between $300 to $1,000, depending upon the complexity of the job. If you suspect that the home you’ve purchased or are interested in buying may have faulty soil, it might be in your best interest to order a soil test. That way, you can work with an engineer to come up with a long-term solution.

A masonry expert doing some home foundation repair.
Source: (LuYago / Shutterstock)

What do you need to do about foundation repair?

Before you make an offer

If there are known foundation issues on the seller’s disclosure documents — or if you’ve uncovered some questionable cracks, leaks, or bowing before making an offer on a house — then you have little cause for concern. At this point, you’re probably only looking at a simple conversation with the seller. Perhaps they already have plans in place to fix the foundation, or maybe they intend to lower the home’s price to accommodate the repair costs.

However, some sellers may try to downplay your concerns. If you experience any pushback from the seller, you may want to invest in a specialized foundation inspection done by a licensed structural engineer, which will run around $600.

If the seller will not fix the foundation problem, and you still want to make an offer on the house, you’ll need to consult with your real estate agent about making an offer that will account for necessary repairs. The following foundation repair estimates from Home Advisor can guide you into a reasonable offer.

  • Cracks: $200 to $800
  • Leaks: $2,000 to $6,000
  • Settling: $1,000 to $3,000 per underpinning pier
  • Bowing: $350 to $1,000 per steel reinforcement strip

Keep in mind that many mortgage loan companies will not close on a home with foundation problems. If you want to move forward with an offer, you’ll likely need to show that you can come up with the cash for repairs. Talk with your lender about the possibility of bundling your mortgage with a rehabilitation loan if you’d prefer to do the work after closing.

Also, make sure your real estate agent puts in a strong contingency with your offer that will allow you to back out of the deal if the foundation problem is worse than you anticipate. But as Brandt says, “Problems don’t always have to be a problem. Sometimes you can convert a problem to your advantage.”

After you offer but before you close

Some foundation problems are not uncovered until the home inspection stage. If that happens to you, don’t worry. Your formal offer should include an inspection contingency clause that will allow you to either negotiate repairs with the seller or back out of the deal with a refund of your earnest money.

When the seller receives notice of a foundation problem, they may or may not be willing to pay for repairs. If they do, you’ll want to ask for documentation that proves the work was done by a licensed contractor. If the seller chooses to leave the repairs up to you, you may need to renegotiate your offer based on the estimate for repairs (see above). Your real estate agent can assist you in these negotiations.

You’ll also want to talk with your mortgage lender to see if the foundation problems will affect the loan in any way. Don’t wait until closing; now is the time to inform yourself and take action!

Hopefully, the necessary foundation repairs won’t be a dealbreaker. But if you cannot come to a favorable agreement with the seller, it might be in your best interest to continue your house search elsewhere. Your real estate agent can help you get your earnest money back and locate other properties.

After you close

If you uncover foundation problems after you already own the home, make repairs your top priority and worry about who should pay for it later. If foundation repair is delayed, additional problems can arise, including mold, insects, and plumbing issues. Also, the problem could get worse, which will compound the amount of work and expense required to fix it.

In addition, you will want to review your home inspection and the seller’s disclosure statements. If you feel that something was missed or intentionally left out, you may have grounds for a legal suit. Consult with a real estate lawyer to see if you’ve got enough evidence to build a case. Your real estate agent can help you locate a lawyer who specializes in these types of disputes.

While foundation problems should always be taken seriously, they don’t have to keep you from your dream home. Watch for potential foundation issues at every stage of your home buying process in order to give yourself the best chance of solving problems quickly.

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