As weird as it is to think about a house moving after it’s been built, settling is something that all buildings do. It’s not something most of us would notice on a day-to-day basis, but over time, the impact of a house settling can lead to some changes, which you do need to be aware of, especially since some of those changes can impact the structural integrity of your house. That said, how long does it take for a house to settle, and what are the signs you should start to be concerned?
If you pay attention to certain indicators and repair the things that need fixing, your house will be just fine. To ensure that outcome, you’ll need to know what those signs are and (generally speaking) how long it takes for a house to settle.
We dug deep, spoke with the experts, and will lay it all out for you — from how long you should expect it to take, when to watch for these signs, to the signs themselves and what they mean — and, of course, what to do if you spot them. You’ll be able to rest easy knowing whether that crack is a problem that needs a professional fix right away, or if you can get away with applying a little plaster and paint yourself.
What does it mean when a house settles?
This is when different parts of a house (the foundation, the wood, and even the soil underneath) shift due to environmental changes, such as wood or concrete losing small amounts of moisture over time, or the weight of the house compressing the soil it sits on.
All buildings do this. Sometimes it’s noticeable; sometimes it’s not. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is famous because settling resulted in its recognizable tilt. Don’t worry, though — your house is unlikely to settle in such a dramatic way.
Why do houses settle?
There are several factors that determine whether a house will settle and if so, how much settling it will do.
If the soil beneath the house is loose or contains a lot of clay (which expands and contracts), then the presence of the house and its weight on the soil will cause it to sink into the ground. All three factors (density of the soil, quantity of clay in the soil, and weight of the house) impact how much the house will sink over time.
It’s obvious how soil density and the weight of the house contribute to settling; both affect how much the soil will compress over time. The quantity of clay in the soil matters, too, because clay will dry out more than other materials, making the soil more compressible.
Wood and concrete
When houses are built, the lumber and concrete are fresh, and as they dry over time and the water in them evaporates, they shrink. Different types of wood will shrink differently, as will different blends of concrete, with factors such as mixture proportions, constituent materials, and drying environment playing a part.
As the house sits through all four seasons or an annual weather cycle, the changes in climate will also cause small changes in the house. Extreme weather conditions can accelerate settling, as can the general humidity of the area.
If your home was built during the dry season and then the rainy season arrives, the additional water and humidity can cause the soil to expand or shift. Similarly, a house built in the summer is likely to settle when winter arrives with its colder temperatures and possible snow.
What happens to the house itself when it settles?
When a house has settled, you may notice some small changes. However, they aren’t necessarily an indication of major problems. Just make sure you fix them as soon as you spot them to avoid bigger issues.
You might notice some small hairline cracks where the wall meets the ceiling that you’ll need to patch.
You can patch them yourself, or your builder might offer to fix them as part of maintaining your house’s cosmetic appeal after settling.
Small foundational cracks
You might also get some small cracks in the foundation. Make sure you fill these in as soon as you spot them so they don’t turn into a bigger issue by introducing water or pests (like termites).
Air gaps might be produced between the insulation and the walls or siding of your house, which can make it harder to heat and cool your house. These can easily be filled with spray foam or another sealant, either by yourself or your builder.
How long does it take for a house to settle?
A newly constructed house should be finished settling after a year, or possibly two if the weather is unusually mild for the area during the first year. Houses typically finish settling after experiencing one entire cycle of typical weather for the area.
However, houses can experience additional settling in the future. As Volodymyr Barabakh, Cofounder & Project Director at Fortress Home, explains:
“Flooding can exacerbate settling, particularly if there has been settling previously. Homeowners who have experienced settling in the past should make sure that there are drainage systems to protect foundations from excess water.”
So if your house has experience settling and is in a flood-prone area, check that your drainage systems are protecting your foundation from future settling issues.
What are some indications that a house isn’t settling correctly or that the settling is a problem?
While a building settling is normal, sometimes a house won’t settle correctly, which can result in structural issues or damage. There are several signs you should check for regularly that will let you know that your house isn’t settling as it should.
Not all wall cracks indicate structural issues with your home. Some level of cosmetic cracks can simply be a part of the settling process.
Settling cracks will be vertical, between two and six inches long, and 1/16 of an inch in width.
If the cracks you’re seeing are horizontal or wider than 1/16 of an inch, that could indicate improper settling.
If you’re seeing cracks inside the house that exactly match (mirror) cracks you’ve noticed on the exterior, it’s usually an indication of a foundation issue you need to address.
Doors or windows stick or become hard to open and close
Sticky doors and windows are not a good sign, especially if they are interior doors, as they often indicate structural issues.
If your doors aren’t locking smoothly, it could be due to the locking mechanism no longer lining up correctly due to settling. Fixing the immediate issue can be as simple as sanding the door down to fit or replacing it, but that doesn’t treat the underlying structural issue.
While you’re inspecting your doors and windows, look for stress cracks in the surrounding walls, which are usually an indication of foundational shifting. If you see any, have the cracks professionally inspected to assess their severity.
Windows are pulling away from the sills, or walls are pulling away from window frames
When checking for windows pulling away from sills or walls pulling away from window frames, look at the point where they connect. If you see gaps between the window frames, trim, and wall or caulking that is uneven or pulled apart, your house is settling in a way that is damaging itself.
Cracks in your foundation
A hairline crack (one less than a penny wide) is not necessarily an issue. Hairline cracks in your foundation often form during settling, and while they should be repaired quickly, they aren’t necessarily a sign of bigger issues to come as they cannot let water in and are generally simple to fix. However, do not ignore them as they can grow and become structural cracks.
A structural crack tends to be uneven, wider than a penny, and can cause serious damage to your home over time. Structural cracks are fixable, and sooner is better (and cheaper!).
As Ryan Rodenbeck, a single-family-home specialist in Austin, Texas, tells his clients:
“In Texas, they say there are two kinds of homes — there are homes that have foundation problems, and there are homes that are going to have foundation problems.”
Because of how common foundation issues are in Texas, foundations that have been repaired often come with long-term or lifetime warranties, providing more protection in the event of additional problems than a foundation that has yet to have any issues. Ask your agent if this is also the case where you are buying.
Counters are separating from the walls or cracking
Just like windows, which were put into place before the house started settling, counters can separate from the walls or crack due to the house shifting. This might be a more obvious and easy-to-spot sign that your house is settling in a way that is throwing itself out of alignment.
The house might not be level anymore
Sloping floors might seem like a minor nuisance you can ignore or leverage to your advantage for a game of at-home bowling, but don’t ignore them!
Uneven floors can result from a mediocre repair job, but if you haven’t had your floors repaired recently, it’s time to worry about more serious issues, such as rotted floor supports or a cracked foundation.
The same applies to uneven counters, door and window frames, and ceilings.
Leaking or burst water pipes
When your foundation moves, it forces everything to move along with it, including your pipes. Check your pipes regularly to ensure they aren’t leaking or about to burst. If you can see that the pipes are leaking because they are no longer aligned correctly, this could be due to settling, and you should fix them before they burst completely.
Rodenbeck advises his clients to pay special attention to their piping, even before they leak or burst, because:
“If it’s PVC piping then if it’s not a big raise, your plumbing is going to be okay. But you always want to have that checked because if you don’t have the plumbing checked and there’s a leak in the pipe, that leak will cause the foundation to shift and the [foundation] warranty will be voided.”
Baseboards pulling away from walls
Baseboards should stay aligned with the walls, even through the settling process. If they’re not, something has gone wrong and you should check for other serious indications of settling issues, such as leaking pipes, uneven floors, and foundational cracks.
What can you do as a buyer?
If you’re buying a new construction home, there are several things you can do to protect yourself from any future house settling issues.
Plan for repairs with your builder
Ask your builder about what repairs they will make (minor and major) as the house settles. Many builders have a package of repair services that they offer (included with your purchase price or at additional cost) to buyers that cover likely issues in the area. As they worked with the foundation and are familiar with the soil and cement composition, as well as the typical environmental impact, they will be able to guide you as to any issues you are likely to encounter.
Check the gutters and drains
Make sure that all the gutters and drains are directing water away from the house, and that the ground slopes away from the house. The last thing you want to do is exacerbate the settling process by dumping water on the foundation!
Talk to an expert
If you need repair work done, talk to an expert about getting your foundation leveled and stabilizing the house. While you might be able to handle minor repairs like hairline cracks and air gaps yourself, it’s best to let an expert take care of foundational issues that could cause long-term issues and destroy the value of your home.
There are steps you can and should take to protect your home from any damage related to settling, but keep in mind that the settling process itself is rarely due to any neglect or shortcuts by the builder or previous homeowner.
“Although settling can be caused by the soil upon which a foundation is laid not being compacted correctly, instances where this happens are rare. Rather, the issue lies with the soil quality itself, and the interplay between the type of soil a foundation is laid on and the wider environment.”
Settling is a normal process for a house, one that can reoccur due to environmental factors — so just because your house isn’t brand-new, it doesn’t mean you should stop looking for these signs. If you own a home, keep an eye out for signs of settling, especially the ones that indicate structural damage.
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