A couple weeks ago I noticed that the flooring in the living room was getting gaps in it in a straight line right down the middle. Then the sink cabinet in the laundry room started to pull away from the wall, and the dryer began to take strolls whenever I used it.
I finally got nervous when the dogs were playing with their ball in the living room and it kept rolling toward them even when they weren’t touching it.
“I think the house is sinking,” I said to my husband, just after the bathroom door closed by itself and whacked me on the backside as I was looking in the mirror.
“Nah, it’s just the house settling,” he said. “It’s to be expected with a newly built place.”
I wasn’t convinced. So just to be safe, I looked through the phone book for a structural engineer and found one who offered free inspections. I figured I had nothing to lose and reached for the phone.
Jack, the structural guru, arrived two days later. He walked through the front door, took one look at the living room floor and said, “You’re sloping to the right.”
He then asked to see the basement. I led him downstairs and he immediately was drawn to the far wall. He stood there with his hands on his hips and said, “Hmmmm.”
His expression looked similar to that of someone who’d just been told he was overdue for a colonoscopy.
He walked over to the wall and ran his hands over two big cracks in the wall. Each crack started at the top center of the wall and then fanned out diagonally in opposite directions, all the way down to the floor. They were wider at the top than at the bottom.
“Do you know what this means?” he asked me.
“The house is doing some normal settling?” I answered hopefully.
He shook his head. “It means the two outer corners are sagging and pulling the house apart in two different directions.”
Visions of the house ripping down the middle and collapsing into two halves like a giant open-face sandwich immediately sprang to mind.
He then checked out the bulkhead. His expression displayed even more pain than the previous colonoscopy one. “Your bulkhead isn’t even attached to the house any more. There’s a big crack all the way around it and the bulkhead’s leaning forward, away from the foundation.”
“That might explain why there’s always a pond under there,” I said, mustering a weak smile.
I was beginning to get the feeling the prognosis wasn’t going to be good – that my trusty roll of duct tape wasn’t going to fix the problem this time. “So why is this happening?” I dared to ask. “The house isn’t even a year-and-a-half old yet.”
“It’s because whoever dug the foundation went beyond virgin soil. You have to put footings on virgin soil.”
I had no clue what he was talking about. Obviously my blank expression told him I didn’t. After all, the only definition of “virgin” I knew had absolutely nothing to do with soil.
“Virgin soil means when you dig the foundation, you dig only to the exact depth you want the foundation to be. You don’t go beyond that depth, you leave the soil completely undisturbed and untouched so the footings will have nice solid ground to set on. Did you happen see them dig your foundation here?”
I nodded. “But I couldn’t really see if the soil was virginal or not through all of the water. My dogs used to go swimming in the foundation hole.”
He groaned and shook his head. “After you hit water, it takes ages to get the ground ready for the footings. It’s a very time-consuming project. But a lot of contractors are in too much of a big rush to bother. Your foundation isn’t settling, it’s sinking. Pretty soon the sheetrock on your walls upstairs will separate. Your ceilings will start cracking. I strongly recommend helical piers to fix the problem.”
Again, I had no clue what the man was talking about. My brain was still picturing my ceilings crashing in on my head and the walls flattening the dogs.
“Helical piers are like giant steel corkscrews or augers,” Jack said. “We dig down underneath the foundation and put them under it, then raise or lower them to the appropriate levels. It’s like having a house on stilts.”
“Can’t we just squirt some sealer into the cracks?” I asked.
Jack chuckled. “Only after the foundation is stabilized.”
He then began to measure the walls and scribble notes on a pad. I knew the inevitable was coming…the information that would cause my heart, as I knew it, to cease beating. He was going to give me an estimate for the work I’d need.
If it was more than $87.33, I was in big trouble.
“A rough estimate for the job will be about $18,000 to $20,000,” he said. “I’ll e-mail you a detailed proposal, if you’d like. And I’ll also put in writing that the cause of the problem was your contractor’s lack of proper preparation.”
He wasn’t telling me anything new. Every problem we’ve had with our house has been due to our contractor’s lack of something (I’m tempted to say, “like a brain,” but I’ll be polite).
So now I’m sitting here hoping that winter will last until June or July. That’s because once the spring thaw comes and the ground starts to get soggy again, we just might have to turn into “mole people” to find the front door.