Buying Your 1st House: Structural Concerns

Straight, plumb and true?
Straight, plumb and true? | Source

Perhaps nothing in a first home purchase is as intimidating as the thought of any structural problems or damage. Here are some things you should watch for:

Visually examine the lines of your prospective new home for straightness, plumb, level and trueness. Any sag or ripple in a roof line, foundation or grade wall out of vertical, sloped steps, racked doors or windows, sagging ceilings, or dipping floor boards or trusses can be clear indication of a structural problem or long-term settling or movement. A carpenter’s level or a plumb-bob string can be of great help in assessing the trueness of the lines of a home.

Look for gaps. Any unexpected or unusual openings, voids, cracks or misalignment of sidewalks, floor slabs, steps, door or window openings, wall joints, etc., may point to problems of movement, settlement, structural failure, or the possible intrusion of wind, weather, water or pests.

Check basements, crawl spaces and any areas partially below grade or flush with grade for signs of water intrusion, pests and mold. Basement walls that feel inordinately cool to the touch may be water-saturated. Inquire about the waterproofing and integrity of any basement or below-grade walls that appear freshly painted or recently paneled. Inquire about insulation throughout the entire building envelope.

Any cracking, movement or loss of mortar from masonry walls is cause for concern. In particular, stair-step cracking — in which a continuous crack runs from brick joint to brick joint in stair-step fashion — can indicate differential movement of sizable portions of a masonry wall, and may require substantial reconstruction or repair.

Check the floors of any large spaces, particularly in older homes, for sagging, dishing, or creaking or movement under loading. (A marble placed on any seemingly dished floor can make a quick diagnosis.) Bob lightly on the balls of your feet to test the springiness or bounce of floors. A springy floor may be structurally sound and strong enough to perform well for decades, but it will tend to bounce under one’s steps and will transmit noise.

Be sure that doors and windows move freely in their frames, with no binding, and under minimal effort. Doors and windows that stick and jam can indicate frames that have swollen, settled or racked. Cracks that rise from the upper corners of door fames, portal openings and windows usually indicate differential settlement of different parts of the wall.

Finally, look for the telltale signs of pests that can do structural damage (or become home nuisances): ant trails, mouse droppings, shredded paper from chewed insulation, frayed wires, fine sawdust from boring insects, and residue from the nests of wasps and bees. While these may not be severe enough to cause structural concern, they may still require substantial attention and expense to eradicate.

Should you find anything of concern, find an architect, structural engineer, contractor or building inspector that can give you deeper insight into any problems and the likely solutions required. It's always better to spend a little more time and energy inspecting a home at the outset, than to spend considerable time, energy and money fixing problems later on.

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