I have cracks in my sheetrock and cracks in my brick, are these signs of normal foundation movement?

So you’re buying a home and have seen yourself, or have been told, that there are cracks in the brick and sheetrock.  Maybe there are also cracks in the tile and other signs of potential foundation movement.  Are these signs of normal foundation movement?

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I was involved in a bulletin board post this weekend from a first time home buyer who noted large cracks in the sheetrock ceiling, cracks in the brick outside, and the ground outside is dry, cracking, and pulling away from the foundation.  The Home Inspector declared the condition as normal settling and supposedly gave the home a clean bill of health.  You’ve got to be kidding me right??

To begin with we need to understand that not all sheetrock, brick, tile, etc., cracks are a result of foundation movement.  There can be many other reasons that these conditions occur.  I won’t go into those reasons but for the purposes of this Blog we will expect that foundation movement occurred because the Home Inspector said it did and declared it “normal settling” of the foundation.  We also need to understand that not all detectable foundation movement (showing the typical signs) indicate that a foundation is bad.  It only takes a very slight movement of the foundation to start displaying some of these movement signs.  Next we should look at the generally accepted definition of “normal”.  This definition is the same between the large dictionaries in use today.

“Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.”

The word “normal” is used to describe something that should be, that is right or correct, and is a standard that is expected to be.  In fact by using the phrase “normal settlement” the Home Inspector is specifying that the foundation is expected to move normally and cause signs of foundation distress.

Oh Boy look at that, another term we need to understand and that is “foundation distress”!  I’ll bet if you search this phrase you won’t find it in any widely used dictionary.  That’s because it is a typical engineering term and who better to provide a definition that a reputable Engineering Association?  In Texas we have an Engineering Association that deals specifically with foundations and they are called The Foundation Performance Association.  They have graciously defined the word “distress” in their “Homebuyers’ Guide For Foundation Evaluation”.

Distress: Cracks or separations in drywall, exterior veneer, foundations, grade beams and trim, door and window misalignments, and noticeable distortion in framing. These are some of the more common forms of distress that occur in a residential structure subjected to differential movement. Also referred to as negative phenomena.”

Well now, look at that.  The bulletin board poster listed signs of foundation distress and in this definition they are deemed to be “negative phenomena”.  Now how do negative phenomena equate to anything “normal”??  Home’s should be built to last a long time!  Part of that building process is a proper foundation design, proper preparation of the foundation site to help prevent the possibility of movement, and the proper maintenance of the conditions around and under the foundation.  Saying that observable foundation movement is “normal” is no better than stating that a catastrophic failure in a 3 year old air conditioning system is “normal”.

I continually hear the term “normal foundation movement” used over and over by real estate professionals when describing the signs of foundation movement.  The only “normal” foundation movement is that which you can not see through distress indicators and you can not measure with advanced testing and inspection equipment.  Foundations can move ever so slightly and never be detected as they don’t cause any problems when they move.  If the foundation movement is detected then it is not normal.  A more appropriate word for detectable foundation movement would be “common”.  It is common to see foundation movement here on our expansive soils.  But the word “common” is more appropriate since it does not imply an acceptable condition.  I certainly don’t know about you but I don’t buy an expensive home just to expect it to move and cause even more cosmetic damage that I have to continually repair, let alone major movement causing major damage!

So whenever you hear someone claiming that those signs of foundation distress are “normal” then I would highly suspect anything else they might be telling you about the home.  The use of “normal” in this way is only an attempt to sugar coat the findings and help convince you to buy that home without having further reviews by Licensed Engineers or even a reputable foundation repair company.  If you see signs of “foundation distress” you should always check them out further before you purchase that home!

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