While many homeowners don’t know what’s in the crawl space beneath their home — and some might not even realize they have a crawl space — it’s possible that moisture or standing water could be lurking there, waiting to put a dent in their home’s value.
In fact, 37% of homeowners have incurred financial loss due to water damage, though not all can be chalked up to water in a crawl space.
Top real estate agent Alison Harris of Savannah, Georgia, says that having water in a crawl space is “certainly not uncommon” in her area, where elevation is low and homes are built not far off the Savannah River. However, she said, due to a variety of factors water in a crawl space can affect any home regardless of location.
We researched advice from construction and crawl space pros to get the down low on crawl spaces. The result: a comprehensive guide on addressing your crawl space before your home hits the market.
- What causes water to enter a crawl space
- How to find out if there’s water in a crawl space
- How much it costs to fix
- Whether insurance covers water in a crawl space
- What a homeowner needs to disclose to potential buyers
- When you should deal with the issue, and when you should sell a home as-is
How do I know if my home has a crawl space?
Typically, homes are built on one of three types of foundation: basement, crawl space, or slab. While it’s easy to tell if a home has a basement or not, the difference between a slab or crawl space foundation is a bit more nuanced.
A crawl space is basically just what it sounds like: a small buffer (usually between one and three feet tall) between the soil and the ground floor of a home. The logic behind building on a crawl space foundation is that it allows many of the home’s inner workings — think heating and cooling, electrical, plumbing, insulation, and the like — to be accessed by crawling underneath. This makes doing maintenance on a home with a crawl space much easier than on one sitting on a solid concrete slab.
Whether a home has a crawl space depends on a variety of factors including the home’s natural environment and local zoning laws. Harris says that in Savannah, you can roughly guess whether a home might have a crawl space depending on the neighborhood it’s in and when it was built. To gauge whether a home has a crawl space or not, just have a look and see if the first floor is relatively flush with ground level, or if you need to go up a couple of stairs to access the front door.
A little poking around may reveal an access hatch in the home’s exterior (keep an eye out, as it’s often covered with weather stripping), though it can also be located inside a home, even hidden in the floor of a pantry or closet.
What are the sources of water in a crawl space, and what effects can it have?
Writing for the Minneapolis StarTribune “Home Inspector” column, Silas Murphy-Ellis (who owns a home inspection company in Portland, Oregon) writes that there are numerous ways for water to get into a crawl space, including gutter and downspout issues, a downward sloping of the ground towards a home, or soil around the house being over-saturated. In all of these cases, the water comes from rain or snowfall.
But there’s also the rare possibility of a natural spring below the home sending water gurgling upwards, which is pricier — though not impossible — to deal with, and will most probably require the installation of a sump pump.
Practically speaking, the moisture from the water in a crawl space can damage a home’s foundation, as well as bring pests, mold, and even higher energy bills. It can also cause warping and cupping of the floorboards above.
Know what you’re dealing with so you can make confident and informed decisions
Harris says that warped or cupped hardwood floors are a “sure sign” there’s water underneath the house, and suggests that if a would-be seller has reason to suspect there might be water in the crawl space, the first thing they should do is to get a regular home inspection right away.
“It’s kind of like bulletproofing the transaction,” she says. “They can do a full once-over on the property and tell you everything that needs to be done – you know, soup to nuts. And it’ll let you know if you have a major crawl space issue that needs to be remedied, how severe it is, or if you don’t have one at all — because sometimes it’s easier just to know so you’re not living in fear.”
Not only can it be easier for sellers to make good decisions when they have a full picture, but they can also more confidently negotiate contracts and ultimately ask more for the house. This is especially true if there’s an inspection report with invoices showing that repairs are complete or that no repairs are necessary.
“We don’t recommend a pre-listing inspection for everyone,” Harris says, adding that she judges it on a case-by-case basis depending on when the home was purchased. “If it was bought within the last two to five years, we can imagine that another home inspection is probably just going to be a punch list. But if we go in and there’s very obvious issues like the hardwood floor is cupping — which is a major red flag — then a full inspection is a good idea.”
If my home doesn’t have hardwood floors, can I check the crawl space myself?
If you’re comfortable with getting down and dirty, and potentially meeting some creepy-crawlies, it’s possible for you to have a look inside the crawl space for yourself — provided there’s enough clearance.
“I’ve gone into crawl spaces before, but I’m kind of savage when it comes to stuff like that,” says Harris. “I wouldn’t do it for a client, because obviously there’s liability there. But going into a crawl space isn’t as scary as it seems.”
You’ll want to look out for standing water, but there are other more subtle signs of excess moisture to look out for. Efflorescence, or white crystalline or powdery salt deposits on the walls is one signal that there’s been too much water in the crawl space in the past. Additional giveaways are mold or fungus growth, mineralization, and moisture on the soil or vapor barrier. You’ll also want to check any metal fixtures for signs of rust.
If you don’t have the constitution for crawling around in a dark, enclosed space, or if you would like a trusted professional’s opinion, it may be best to find a good home inspector to come in and have a look.
Who you gonna call?
There are a couple of different vendor types who deal with crawl spaces. The obvious choice would be foundation specialists – businesses which specialize in drying out crawl spaces. However, it’s possible to save a significant chunk of money by turning to an unexpected source.
“Here we have subterranean termites, and our pest control people can come in and put down a vapor barrier for a whole lot less than a person who specializes in encapsulating crawl spaces,” Harris says. “So I can get a vapor barrier installed for $600 sometimes from the termite guy, where it would be thousands and thousands if I went to a crawl space specialist, and it really essentially does the same thing.”
There are signs that you do want to spend the extra money and go to a foundation specialist. If the floorboards are already warped, it indicates a more serious issue. In addition, the pest control professional will usually let you know. While they’re able to put down a vapor barrier, or a vent to help circulation, anything more complex will probably require a specialist.
Leading national pest control companies do include crawl space vapor barriers and vents among the services they offer, but if you prefer to support local businesses, a referral service such as PestWorld.org can help you locate a specialist nearby. And if you’re looking for a local crawl space specialist, Basement Systems is one of the most popular matchmakers out there.
How much will it cost to dry out the crawl space?
The cost of drying out a crawl space, and making sure it stays that way, can vary wildly depending on location and the precise services required. Harris says that in her market, the problem can be solved for as little as $600 if pest control puts down a simple vapor barrier, or as much as $15,000 if the space needs a full encapsulation, including sump pump installation, by a crawl space specialist.
We turned to HomeAdvisor for a rough online estimate, listing mold and mildew, dampness, discoloration or rust, white deposits on walls, and buckling or bowing walls on a hypothetical residential home in Flushing, New York. Based on 4,000 self-reported answers by HomeAdvisor members, most homeowners spent between $2,117 and $6,612, with an average cost of $4,340. The lowest reported cost was $600, and the highest $11,900.
As the numbers suggest, the most expensive fixes, which would likely include sump pump installation, are the exception rather than the rule. (If a sump pump is required, professional real estate agents say not to be too put off by it — having one can actually be an advantage when selling a house.)
And then there’s the $10,000 question: Will homeowner’s insurance cover the cost of waterproofing a crawl space? Harris says not to get your hopes up. “Most flooding and water events in houses are only covered if it’s a one-time event,” she says. “If it’s a long-term problem, it’s generally not covered.” Of course, the surest way to find out if water in the crawl space is covered by your homeowners insurance is to call and ask.
Pro tip: Get multiple quotes before deciding a course of action
Harris strongly suggests getting a second opinion before embarking on a potentially costly repair. Case in point: she recently had a pest control professional say that they squishy wood, a moisture problem, and other issues in a crawl space. Her professional instincts kicked in.
“That didn’t track with me,” she says, “because we’d already had a home inspection done, and that would have definitely come back on a general inspection.”
So she had a second termite inspector have a look at the crawl space, who found no issues at all. “It turns out the first guy was just trying to upsell the homeowner for a $3,000 treatment that was completely unnecessary,” she says.
Negotiate a deal to sell a home as-is
If a would-be seller doesn’t have the time or capital to invest in repairing a crawl space, it’s absolutely possible to put the home on the market in its current condition – “all you would need to do is adjust the price and disclose it,” Harris says.
While it’s important to check the law of the state you live in, Harris says that in Georgia it’s fine to disclose a problem such as water in the crawl space on the seller’s property disclosure statement (consult our comprehensive list of all 50 state’s disclosure forms). A note can then be made providing a credit at the close of the sale, or the price can simply be adjusted accordingly.
It’s also possible to sell the home to an investor, who would then immediately resell it. Don’t know where to find an investor? It’s easy to get paired up with one by just answering a few questions on the Simple Sale platform, our robust network of real estate buyers. We make the introduction to a cash buyer in your area, and you’re under no obligation to take the offer.
How much to disclose: Too much is better than not enough
While it may be tempting for a seller to simply ignore the problem, it’s always better to be forthright, honest, and disclose anything that may be an issue – and not just for legal reasons.
“It’s better to give more information than not enough, and always be very truthful,” Harris says. “If you disclose something and it doesn’t surprise the buyer – well, first of all we wouldn’t be breaking the law – but we also have a much better chance of keeping the deal together. The buyer will have made an offer with all the information, so they’re not going to get a big surprise and try to renegotiate the price with you later.”
Preemptive measures against water in the crawl space can be worthwhile — sometimes
For those looking to do something ahead of time to prevent water coming into the crawlspace ahead of an intended sale, installing French drains can be an aesthetically pleasing way to keep storm runoff from getting close to the house and entering the crawl space.
Another idea combining form and function is cultivating plants to naturally soak up some of the extra rainwater. This list of water-absorbing plants is a great start, and you can boost efficacy by choosing plants indigenous to your region. This can prevent soil erosion and make water drainage more efficient. This list of 34 plants native to north America can provide some ideas.
The EPA also recommends rain gardens as a means of soaking up rainwater and preventing it from entering the crawl space. Essentially, a rain garden is a bowl-shaped depression in the ground which can be landscaped with lovely — and absorbent — flowers and shrubs. They can be made in 5 easy steps — and, according to the EPA, in addition to being beautiful, they can filter pollutants from runoff, as well as provide food and shelter for butterflies, songbirds, and other wildlife.
Professional landscapers can take more acute measures, if necessary. “You can also re-grade your lot,” Harris says. “Basically, what you want is a gentle slope of the dirt away from the foundation of the property, and you want to make sure that the flower beds don’t build up too high.”
“Overall, the investment can be worth it – we’d look at it on a case-by-case basis,” she says. “Most landscapers would bring in a grader, it would cost a couple of thousand dollars – and then you’d be replacing landscaping and grass when they were done, so it wouldn’t be a minor undertaking. But it may be less than the damage that water could cause over time.”
You don’t need to get on hands and knees
There’s no need to flounder around trying to fix up or sell a home with water in the crawl space. Expert agents have years of experience dealing with home issues from top to bottom, and can provide you with sound advice as well as refer you to trusted professionals so you don’t get hung out to dry. Turn to a trusted agent to help you sell your home quickly and with peace of mind.
Header Image Source: (Terry Vlisidis / Unsplash)