Is that foundation level check, or foundation level analysis, really all you are expecting it to be?

There are quite a few Home Inspectors, Architects performing home inspections, and even Professional Engineers performing home inspections, that have been advertising foundation level analysis or foundation level check with the home inspection.  Some are even offering these for free with the home inspection or other service.  But is it really being performed properly?

[tab: What is it?]

A foundation level check or foundation level analysis is intended to determine if your foundation has been properly poured/constructed (Pier & Beam) and prepared during the build process, or if the foundation has moved out of its original level state since the original foundation pour/construction and/or homes completion.  This check or analysis is performed using a special type of level measuring device called an altimeter or more commonly called a “Digital Level Test Set” (along with other similar names).  One or more reference points are chosen in the home to use as a basis to determine if differences in the structures elevation have occurred.  The number of reference points used is mostly determined by the structure’s size as well as other factors requiring multiple points.  In most cases for residential structures generally only one reference point is used as typically only the floor at the slab level, or first floor for Pier & Beam foundations, is measured when there are concerns of just foundation movement.  However upper floors can also be checked for levelness for many different reasons.

Usually the reference point is near the center of the home but can be located elsewhere if valid reasons exist.  The test set is then placed at the reference point and calibrated to indicate a “0” level point.  Once set the reference point is set a measuring device that is connected to the test set is then carried around the home to measure other points on the slab or floor surfaces.  The reference point is then used to compare all other readings to determine if the foundation is level or has potentially moved out of a level state.  To properly perform a valid and useful foundation measurement it is recommended that measurements around the home be taken for every 30 Sq. Ft. – 100 Sq. Ft. if accessible and possible.  This basically results in measurements taken at the four corners of every small room (bathrooms, storage and laundry areas, etc.) and can be many more points of measurement in larger rooms to include the garage area as well as any porches and patios that were part of the original homes slab pour for slab foundations.  In a typical 3000 Sq. Ft. home with 2000 Sq. Ft. of first floor space, 450 Sq. Ft. of garage space, and front porch/rear patios totaling 200 Sq. Ft. you have 2650 Sq. Ft. of first floor slab area to measure.  That can easily require between 26 to 88 different measurement points based on 30 – 100 Sq. Ft. above.  There are other requirements to a proper procedure that can easily raise that to 36 to 98 different measurement points.

As each reading is taken it is then written down on a floor plan drawing which maps out the level differences around the home.  There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when taking measurements and many steps that also must be followed to compensate for known level changes.  A very good example of this is when the garage floor measurements are taken.  Most all garages have a 2″ or higher curb at the interior entrance door and the garage floor should be sloped slightly towards the overhead door.  These must be accounted for otherwise you will have drastic level reading differences.  Other examples inside the home are different thicknesses of tiles, carpet and padding to tile or wood floors, etc.  Even if you are reading a large tiled room and obtaining different levels you must now determine if the tiles were properly laid and level.  All of these factors can add additional readings and time to the process.  We will get more into that in the succeeding tabs.

So when should a foundation level check or foundation level analysis be performed and what value does it have?  Read on to the next tab to find out!

[tab: When and what value?]

It is an unfortunate fact that here in Texas foundations move due to many reasons but quite frequently because of our highly expansive clay soils.  I have repeatedly heard the phrase from foundation Engineers that “it is not a matter of if a foundation will move.  Instead it is a matter of when and how much it will move.”.  Obviously the hope is that when the foundation does move it does not cause enough stress on the home to cause significant damage indicators.  When it does display movement in small and insignificant amounts that is when the value of a previous and properly performed foundation analysis is gained.  Note that I did use the word “previous” meaning that the true value of this procedure is if you have a previous foundation analysis to compare the current one to.  You can look at it this way, you know foundation movement might have occurred because you never had those sheetrock cracks, sticking doors, etc., and now you are experiencing them.  In other words you had something to compare your suspicions to.  If you don’t have a properly performed previous foundation analysis to compare a new one to then how do you know where and how much a foundation actually moved?  How do you know that it was not just uneven tile from a bad tile job that is displaying that new foundation measurement difference?  So when should a foundation analysis be performed and what are the advantages at that time of doing it.

New Home Builds

When the concrete is poured for the foundation it is smoothed and evened with a bull float (looks like a buffing machine but is specially designed for this).  Once it has dried to begin framing, but no framing has been started, this is the best time to perform a foundation level analysis.  In the case of a Pier & Beam home the better time to perform this is when the floor joists have been attached to the support beams and the sub-floor has been nailed in place.  At this point the entire foundation can be mapped out at the 30 Sq. Ft. interval mentioned above.  At this point a device called a “Laser Level” can also be employed to make sure there are no dips and humps in the concrete surface which would indicate an improper floating job.  Having the analysis performed at this point ensures that there will be no undesired corrections here and there to the framing which can result in errors being magnified as each level of material is put in place.  This also provides an excellent reference over time if you suspect foundation movement at a later date.

If you do not have the level analysis performed immediately after these stages then the next best time is at the pre-sheetrock inspection.  This is just before the insulation is placed in walls and ceilings and the sheetrock is installed.  At this point the framing is still visible, there are no floor coverings in place (carpet, tile, etc.) and the actual room layouts are defined by the framing.  This is a good time to have it performed as you can still have the 30 Sq. Ft. per measurement adhered to but it will also be measurement points that would most likely be duplicated later down the road.  The only drawback to having it performed at this stage is if the foundation was not properly leveled, and good valid corrections were not made for its deficiencies, you would most likely have a difficult time getting the builder to make necessary corrections.  Making corrections at this point could be very expensive to the builder and they certainly don’t want to spend more money on the build process.

Beyond this point in a new home build the person performing the level analysis measurements must now deal with floor coverings, intended level differences, etc., etc.  If there are significant level differences you simply won’t get the builder to make corrections without a fight.  The use of the level analysis at this point is mostly for later in time if you think the foundation has moved.  It is still valuable for that later usage and should be considered regardless of what the analysis may or may not find.

Existing Home Purchase

When you are buying an existing home your Inspector should be advising you if they are finding signs of potential foundation movement.  If the movement was minor you might have missed those small cracks around windows and doors, in the mortar between bricks, etc.  However if the movement was more extensive you probably already noted it with all the cracks around windows and doors, shifting and cracking brick, cracks in the concrete foundation, unlevel floors, etc.  Either way at that point in time there is no real way to map where the foundation moved without a properly performed previous foundation level analysis with a diagram.  Performing a level analysis when buying a home won’t really tell you anymore than you can see with your own eyes, that is the foundation potentially experienced movement.  Any competent Professional Inspector, licensed Engineer, licensed Architect, or foundation repair company can tell you that without performing a level analysis.

The only real value of a properly performed and documented foundation level analysis of an existing home is if the home shows no real signs of excessive movement or if a previous analysis was performed that yours can be compared to.  If it shows no excessive movement then your level analysis can be used in the future if you suspect foundation movement.  As for a previous analysis what are the chances one was even performed or is available, or will be made available, to compare yours to?  If you have the money to spend on a properly performed foundation analysis immediately after you purchase a home then by all means do it as it can be valuable down the road.  If you must have one performed before you finish buying the home then have it performed during your due diligence option period when you can back out of the deal still or negotiate for issues noted.  After your option period, and before you close, having it performed will do little good for negotiating unless you determine that significant previous foundation repairs were not reported in the seller’s disclosure.

Having a properly performed and documented foundation level analysis performed does have its value.  But are you really getting one or is this “Free foundation analysis” or “Free foundation check” all just marketing hype just to draw you in?  Read on to find out!

[tab: The problems?]

Without a doubt the vast majority of these foundation level checks or foundation level analysis just do not follow any recognized or accepted standards for their completion.  As for these “Free” checks you can certainly be guaranteed they are not being performed to an acceptable standard.  As can be seen in the example with the 2650 Sq. Ft. of slab space to measure and check, along with other checks that are required as well as the documentation of the check/analysis, this is certainly not a 30 minute procedure.  Yet your “Free” and “Cut Rate” providers of this activity (I won’t call it a service for them) would lose money if they performed it properly.

The standard in use today, at least for Texas, is provided by the Foundation Performance Association (FPA) which is based in Houston, Texas.  The FPA is a non-profit organization that is comprised of Professional Engineers, Architects, Inspectors, and many other participants involved in all aspects of the residential and non-residential low rise building industry.  Their site is packed with foundation information including a standard for performing these foundation analysis/checks.  The FPA document for this is titled Guidelines for the Evaluation of Foundation Movement for Residential and Other Low-Rise Buildings.

It is important that you have this service performed properly for it to have any value or use both when it is performed and in the future!  When this service is performed as per a recognized standard it has the following significant advantages.

  • The actual output is a meaningful representation of the levelness of your foundation that can be trusted to be accurate.
  • The properly documented analysis can be used in the future to reproduce another set of analysis points which can then be accurately compared to the previous results to help determine if foundation movement occurred, where, and how much.
  • When performed by a professional with the proper training and experience this document becomes a powerful supporting document in any disagreements you might have.  For example if you have this performed prior to possession of a new or existing home and have a disagreement later it might well be the one piece of substantial data you need to back your case.  When performed and documented properly it is an almost irrefutable ally to you!

So how can you protect yourself to make sure you are receiving a useful analysis of your foundation?  Read on for important suggestions!

[tab: What to watch for?]

It is unfortunate that as a consumer you really are your only line of defense in making sure you get what you pay for!  No matter how much advice you receive you still need to perform your due diligence or you will be taken advantage of.  With that in mind here are some tips to help protect you if you choose to have a foundation analysis performed.

Nothing worth properly doing is free and this service is no exception to that!  When you see the words “Free foundation check” or “Free foundation analysis” there is always a catch and most times it is the service not being performed properly!  When performed improperly it has no real value or use and is generally only offered for free to catch your attention and draw you into using other services.  Many times the time spent giving you this “Free” service is made up by not taking the proper time to perform the other service you are actually being charged for.  As a result you are losing twice; once for the improperly performed “Free” service and another for the improperly performed service you are being charged for!

As strange as it sounds I will take a moment to defend the reputable foundation repair companies that do offer a partial level analysis for free.  If you check their offer, and they will even make this clear to you, that they will require a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) to perform a proper analysis and report before the foundation repair company will perform any work.  The purpose of their free check is only to determine if it is worth your time spending the money for the full analysis by the PE.  The reputable foundation companies will also accept a properly performed report from a PE of your choosing instead of their staff PE.

Watch out for the “Cheap” foundation analysis price.  As stated before this procedure when performed and documented properly takes time.  There are plenty of Engineers, Architects, Inspectors, as well as others, offering this as a stand alone service at ridiculously low prices.  Just as with “Free” the “Cheap” priced foundation check/analysis is most likely being performed improperly, not properly documented, or not reliable for future use.  “Cheap” is a relative term based on the going rates in your area.  To find out what “Cheap” is find out who the most reputable, trained, and experienced PE’s are in your area that performs this service properly and ask their price.  Most likely because of what they have to offer they are on the high end of price.  Call around to others and you will see everything from “Work for almost free” up to the best qualified PE’s price.  Always use a licensed, properly trained, experienced, and reputable PE to perform this service.  Use one that is highly experienced and performs these regularly.

Regardless of who you choose ask them what standards they are using to perform this analysis?  If they are not using the one referenced above then obtain a link from them for the standard or a copy of the standard.  Check the standard to make sure it is complete and substantially similar to the one above.  Check out the organization that is issuing the standard to ensure they are a recognized organization.  Ask why the PE is using the non-FPA standard instead of other standards available.  Any good PE will be able to explain in simple language and provide exceptional reasoning why.

You need to be cautious with the advertisements using the phrases “Foundation check” Vs. “Foundation analysis”, especially here in Texas.  Using the word “analysis”, performing it to a recognized standard such as the FPA guidelines, utilizing specilaized equipment such as the altimeter, and making any calculations or definitive statements regarding the levelness of any foundation falls under the Texas Engineering Laws and guidelines.  Only a properly licensed PE can do this in Texas.  On the other side use of the word “check” is nothing more than someone taking a set of readings and handing them to you without benefit of “analysis” or definitive statements on the condition of your foundation.  Anyone can do this and the results are generally useless both now and in the future.

One way or another you will be paying for this service.  To ensure honesty, integrity, and value of the service you should make sure you receive a full report to include:

  • The report should have a notation indicating what standards are being used to perform this analysis.
  • An accurate floor plan of the home in the level diagram.
  • The diagram should be drawn to a near accurate scale so that when the plotted measurement points are annotated on it they can be reproduced later in the almost exact spot as before.  Some of the more sophisticated PE’s are using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) and diagramming software to accomplish this.
  • A definitive statement/description regarding the condition of the foundation, level discrepancies, other visual indicators noted to support movement declarations, and this all should be on the companies letterhead with the PE’s official stamp on the report.
  • A recommendation for corrections to any unlevel conditions found.  When you pay a reputable PE to perform this service they generally add this as part of the report and fee.

Remember only you can make sure that the foundation level analysis you receive is worth the money you will be paying!  Regardless of the persons title or profesional license status you need to make sure that the product delivered is useful both now and in the future.

[tab: Links and References]

Foundation Performance Association – Guidelines for the Evaluation of Foundation Movement for Residential and Other Low-Rise Buildings

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