Little Lucy knows how important a foundation is. When she began horseback riding lessons, her Dad told her about them. “Lucy,” he said, “this is the time to build a good foundation. You have to learn the basics. The basics are the foundation of horseback riding. You want a strong, firm foundation in all that you do.” So Lucy went off to get the basics down and build a strong, firm foundation. The foundation of your home is just as important. It’s literally the most important part of your home. It is the base, what everything else rests on.
The foundation determines how your home heats, cools, settles, and resists the elements over time. It determines how stable and durable the house really is. Homeowners often forget this vital part of the home. Foundations are forgotten about, neglected, and go unnoticed for years. That is, until there’s a problem.
Once there’s a problem, what is a homeowner to do? Fix it themselves? Hire a professional? Ignore the problem and hope it magically goes away?
Depending on your experience with construction, tools, and available time, going the DIY route may not be impossible. But is it the smartest way to go? Let’s discuss your foundation type, the symptoms of the problem, and determine if DIY or a professional is right for you. One thing is sure: The problem will not fix itself or magically go away. We have yet to see that happen!
What Kind of Foundation do You Have?
Foundations are built to withstand the elements. For example, homes built in Michigan must meet code requirements for those cold, snowy winters. Foundations must meet requirements to ensure safety and ability to withstand freezing water, expanding and contracting soil, and more. This is typically done by digging below the frost line and allowing heat to penetrate below ground to mediate freezing water from contracting. Engineers also grade soil and landscape according to code to protect the foundation.
Step one in determining how to deal with foundation issues is to identify what kind of foundation you have. Does your house sit on top of a basement or slab? Or is there space to crawl/walk under the house? If there is a vent or access door on the exterior of the house, you have a crawlspace or basement under the house. If not, it is a slab foundation.
Houses with a crawlspace are sometimes DIY possible whereas only professionals should repair slab foundations. Basements may lend themselves to minor DIY projects like grading the landscape to promote drainage. Otherwise, a professional should do basement foundation repairs due to risk of structural failures, required specialized equipment and training, and injury to self.
Symptoms of Foundation Problems
Next, what are the signs that your foundation is in need of repair? There are some key signs to see if a foundation needs attention. These include:
- Visible cracks in the foundation
- Cracks in brick structures (i.e. step cracks in the mortar joints)
- Windows and/or doors with gaps or do not open/shut properly
- Cracks in the interior walls
- Sagging, cracked, or slanted floors
- Water leaks in the basement
- Cracked or bowing walls in the basements
- Leaning or tilting chimneys
Remember, these are just symptoms and not necessarily the problem! If you take the time to patch a cracked interior wall without checking the foundation, you may have wasted time and money. The issue may be the foundation and will lead to more wall cracks if ignored. In other cases, the symptoms may look minor but are signs of significant foundation problems.
Get a Professional Opinion
Now that you’ve identified the symptoms, what’s next? No matter who you are, a professional opinion from an honest source is crucial at this point. Most foundation repair companies offer free inspections and estimates, and most do so honestly. This is the most logical next step because a professional can assess your foundation with specialized equipment and expertise. They will also be able to see if any symptoms are a sign of foundation failure. A professional also knows about the stringent building codes a home must meet.
Ask the professional questions about the symptoms, problems, and what’s involved in the repairs during the visit. Be honest about your budget, what’s vital to do, and get their opinion about if DIY is feasible. Take notes and ask for a full report so you have the facts to refer back to.
Also ask if any of the identified problems mean the foundation is not up to building codes. A common mistake homeowners make is trying to DIY a code violation. In these cases, the work may be covered under warranty from the original contractor, or covered under your home insurance. Bottom line is that most, if not all code violation fixes are not possible to do on your own.
Further, when homeowners attempt quick material fixes to these problems, the results are easy for a trained home inspector to spot and report to potential buyers. Foundation issues, structural problems, and water damage are the among the top reasons buyers walk away from a house sale. The DIY route may end up costing you more money and affect the value of your home.
DIY vs Professional Foundation Repairs
Now that you’re sitting with a full report of your foundation and recommendations by a professional, you know the full story. You know how the foundation is doing and the causes of the symptoms you identified. It’s time to assess what could be a DIY project and what should be left to the professionals.
Take into consideration what the professional said about your DIY goals, underlying problems with the foundation, and if those problems violate any building codes. Decide if you are qualified to make the needed repairs and have the right equipment.
Are the problems in the middle areas of the home and not the perimeter? Symptoms around the perimeter of the home may indicate problems with the exterior walls not sitting on the concrete footing or slab correctly. You do not want to tackle this problem on your own.
Do you have a crawlspace to get to the problem? Remember, DIY repairs should not be done with slab foundations! A DIY repair may be possible if you have a crawlspace and are experiencing:
- Sagging floors in the middle of the home, and not around the exterior walls due to unsupported floor joists
- Sticking doors in the middle of the home and not near the perimeter/exterior walls
- Interior wall cracks due to unsupported floor joists
These jobs are typically due to the foundation settling and not major foundation problems (but still check that estimate report and your notes).
Consider the possibility of injury. There are countless stories of DIY jobs that ended in injury and additional damage to the home. If there are electrical wires, plumbing lines, or other hazards where the repair is needed, proceed with caution! It’s important to determine if you are qualified to handle such things. Extensive construction experience, experience working with concrete, and hydraulic engineering are almost always required.
And last, there’s the warranty. What if things don’t turn out right? Or the crack in the wall returns in two months? Time to break out the spackling again, or ask for help? Foundation repairs come with a guarantee that DIYs do not. Be sure to ask about this when getting your free estimate.
There may be hope and opportunity for the experienced DIYer in need of a new project. No matter the issue, technical knowledge of concrete, load bearing physics, and experience in construction are absolutely necessary. If you fit that description, you could potentially address some of the more minor foundation issues. Before deciding, though, get a free estimate from a professional. Then figure out what way is best for you, your home, and budget.