Healthy Houses: Recognizing Flawed Foundations

Healthy Houses: Recognizing Flawed Foundations

One of the biggest challenges that first-time homebuyers have is that they have no way to assess a home’s condition. Of course everyone can tell great condition and lousy condition, but first-timers above all go through properties with very little ability to evaluate what’s in-between.

Because of this, I’m going to start a series of blog posts teaching you how to look at property. This little bit of education will serve you well when you get to the home inspection stage, too, because knowing what the inspector is talking about will make his/her comments so much clearer.

Problems Start At The Bottom.

Let’s start with floors. Most houses or apartments are constructed on a base, which is technically called a foundation; often just a poured concrete slab set into the ground. Then a weight-bearing system is set up, which is called the subfloor. A typical subfloor might be set up with long, weight-bearing pieces of wood (beams) and smaller pieces of wood that lace on top of them (joists). Then a finishing floor, such as oak wood or eco-friendly bamboo planks, is set on top of that. Sometimes the floor composition depends on the intended use of the room. Bathrooms are often tile on top of a concrete layer, because who wants wood—which rots when it is exposed to water—in a bathroom?

Now that we have some vocabulary, let’s consider what can go wrong.

1. Cracked Foundation.

Picture a house like a wedding cake, with layer on top of layer... the worst possible case is that the entire bottom gets ruined. Accordingly, when you’re buying a property, you want to watch out for a cracked foundation. I have friends who fixed their cracked foundation but getting a construction company to lift up their entire house, fix the foundation, and the lower the house again. Needless to say, this was the opposite of cheap.

2. Mismatched Heights.

Another thing that can happen is that floors can be different heights. Let’s say the subfloor on one story is level, but then there are pipes that need to run under the kitchen floor that don’t need to run under the adjacent living room or hallway floor. The result is that the kitchen floor will be higher than the living room or hallway, and there will be a weird little step between the two. This isn’t a flaw, technically, but I can promise that if it annoys you the first time you see the home, it will really annoy you after you live in it for awhile.

3. Flimsy Finish.

A third possibility is that the floor finish material has problems. Bathroom tile, for example, might get chipped, or there might even be pieces missing. Wood floors expand when it’s humid and contract when it’s dry. This means that wood floors expand and sometimes “pop” in the summer, and contract and sometimes “shrink” or “crack” in the winter. So if you’re looking at a property in the summer, and the floorboards look a little shrunken, realize that that effect will probably only get worse in winter.

Floor finish problems are relatively cheap to take care of—if your old carpet is worn out, you can peel it up and lay new carpet. What you want to make sure of, as a buyer, is that there isn’t damage below. If you’re buying an old house, look near the base of the radiators to make sure that there hasn’t been a leak that would cause water to pool and rot the materials. Same thing with air-conditioner units, which can get drippy.

Disregard The Squeaks.

Now that we know a little about how floors work, should you be concerned if your floors squeak? I wouldn’t be—sometimes it’s just that the wood plank floor dips onto the joist when you step on it, like you’re smashing a coffee cup lid onto a bent paper cup of coffee. I don’t think most people can repair this well themselves, so your two options are to bring in a floor guy to tear up the wood and replace the subfloor—a big job—or to learn to live with it. For very specific spots where two wood planks are rubbing together, a little floor wax or baby powder rubbed onto the spot will do the trick.


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