In new construction, it’s common to hear that a house needs time to settle. What does this mean and how long does it take? The foundation, wood, and soil beneath any home goes through some degree of shifting due to environmental changes such as loss of moisture over time and the weight of the home. All types of buildings experience settling. Here’s a more in-depth look at what’s happening as well as how to distinguish normal settling from something more serious.
The condition of soil is critical to the stability of a building. Done properly, a builder digs into the ground until reaching undisturbed earth, known as “virgin soil.” To level off the site where concrete is to be poured for the foundation, builders may bring in loose soil that must be compacted to fill hollow or uneven areas. If the soil isn’t compacted enough, compression from the weight of the home may create foundation problems. The amount of clay present and the weight of the house are also factors in how much a house will settle over time. Clay-based soil is prone to expansion and contraction due to temperature and moisture changes, which can lead to further settling. Also, if the backfill of dirt around a foundation is not adequate, too much water can seep into the foundation, causing further problems.
Wood and Concrete Factors
Both lumber and concrete dry over time, meaning that they shrink from their original form. How much and how quickly all depends on the types of concrete and wood used in construction.
Weather and Seasonal Changes
A house typically goes through an entire season of weather changes to finish settling, which is usually around a year, perhaps two if the first year was milder than normal. Dryness, humidity, and rainy seasons all have an impact on soil.
Normal Changes You May Notice as a Result of Settling
Common settling changes can include hairline cracks in the walls near the ceiling, small foundational cracks, and air gaps where you feel either the loss of cool air in summer or warm air in winter. Hairline cracks can be patched up by you or the builder. Small foundational cracks should be filled in to prevent the intrusion of pests or water. Air gaps can be fixed with a spray foam or sealer. These are normal settling changes that can easily be fixed.
Settling Changes That Are a Red Flag for More Serious Problems
Sometimes homes don’t settle properly and need further attention to prevent serious damage. Here are some of the more concerning changes to watch for.
Horizontal cracks in walls, particularly if larger than 1/16th of an inch could indicate a problem. If there are cracks in the same spot of the interior and exterior, then there is likely a foundation issue that needs to be addressed. Vertical cracks that are two to six inches long and less than 1/16th of an inch are often normal settling cracks.
Countertops or Baseboards Separating from Walls
When the counter or baseboards separate from a wall, this can indicate a more serious misalignment in the home due to shifting.
While small foundation cracks are normal, they still need to be filled. But anything wider than a penny could be structural and should be fixed immediately and monitored to prevent more serious damage and expensive repair.
Uneven Surfaces and Misaligned Doors and Windows
A sloping floor can be a sign of a cracked foundation or rotted floor supports. Other damaging settling signs include uneven countertop surfaces, doors that don’t match up to the doorframe, and windows not matching up to their frames.
Water Pipes Leaking or Bursting
Water pipes shift along with other parts of the home. Check pipes regularly to prevent leaking and bursts. If you do experience a pipe burst, check for other signs of misalignment in the home that can indicate a settling issue.
What Should a New Construction Buyer Do About Settling Concerns?
Most builders have some type of repair package that is either included with your purchase or offered at an additional cost. Also check your purchase agreement carefully to understand what is under warranty and what isn’t. Work with the builder first to see what repairs can be made. If you do suspect foundational issues, always use a foundation expert to assess the issue and recommend mitigation.
Real Estate Term of the Week
The process by which a home gradually shifts over time, causing noticeable cracks or air gaps that should be repaired. More serious types of settling include large foundation cracks, uneven surfaces, structural separations, and misaligned doors and windows.