Older house's settling needs to be investigated

Inspector's Eye

July 07, 2002|By Dean Uhler

I got an e-mail from a couple who are looking to purchase a 100-year-old home in Roland Park. They are concerned about a "pronounced" drop of 3 to 6 inches over 10 feet in the floor of the second-floor master bedroom.

They wrote that the drop began where the room extends from the main body of the house over a porch. They said the porch underneath and the ceiling appeared to have no drop. There was also a drop (in a perpendicular direction) in the hallway on the first floor.

They were told that "old homes settle" but have never seen a home in this price range with drops like this. They are concerned about making an offer even with a contingency, and they asked how common is this; is it a big concern; and is there a remedy? They also wanted to know what else to look for if they see an older home with similar drops or other unlevel areas.

A noticeable drop in the floor of the front bedroom is very common in houses where the bedroom extends out over the front porch. The condition is usually not indicative of structural failure and falls within the category of settlement.

Bungalow or craftsman-styled houses built in the early 1900s often have this trait. Those houses were all built with a deep front porch across the front of the house, and many of them have the front second-floor bedroom projecting out over the porch, ending in a shed dormer in the porch roof.

Two things probably contribute to the typical front bedroom floor drop-off in those houses.

The first is the location of the front first-floor wall under the middle of the bedroom, instead of under the bedroom wall. This causes the floor to take an odd shape as it ages and sags under the load.

Wood-frame floors always sag to some degree. That is one aspect of the catch-all term "settlement." Normally, the middle of the floor sags the most because the floor joists are supported at their two ends -- similar to the way a plank over a trench sags in the middle when you walk across it. With the sag in the middle, the floor drops from each end toward the middle.

However, in a house where the middle of the front bedroom floor is located over the front first-floor wall, the floor is supported across the middle and doesn't sag there. The floor still sags, but there are two low areas instead of one -- each is halfway between the middle of the floor and the two ends.

The two low areas create a hump in the middle of the floor, and drop from there toward the two ends. This always happens in those houses, and it is usually just an inconvenience. For example, a waterbed with a rigid box frame couldn't be placed over the hump without some major shimming.

The other thing that may contribute to the drop off is porch settlement.

The front porch does not have the same foundation as the house; often the front edge of the porch is supported by four masonry piers. Those piers may be more prone to settlement, of the subsidence variety, than the house foundation. Check the condition of the rain gutter and downspouts on the porch roof, and the soil surface grading around the porch. Excessive water in the soil around the porch may contribute to settlement.

To gauge the severity of porch settlement, if any, look at the condition of the walls in the front corners of the front bedroom. If the front of the room is dropping due to porch settlement, the plaster will crack there.

Recent or large cracks would suggest relatively significant, continuing settlement, and would be cause for greater concern than old cracks. Severe settlement should always be investigated. If you observed that the bedroom floor has settled 6 inches over 10 feet, that is severe.

The settlement in the hallway sounds fairly typical of old houses. Settlement is often pronounced along a hallway wall across from the bearing wall. But, if it is severe, it could indicate failure of a beam or other structural component.

If you decide to buy this house, or another like it, a home inspector with old-house experience should be able to provide reassurance or recommendations for repair or further evaluation.

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