Some structural damage is swift and immediately apparent – rooftops collapse, foundation break and shift, or walls buckled and crumble. However, most residential structural damage is a slow and subtle process that eventually builds up into a serious problem. Signs of structural damage can go unnoticed for years as the process grows worse and worse. Hidden structure damage is a poor deal for home buyers who do not know what signs to look for, and a danger for long-term homeowners who may not notice the damage their own home is undergoing without a close inspection. If you are concerned about possible structural damage – particularly in an older home or after a natural disaster – here are several notable clues to watch out for.
The angles of a house should be level. Sometimes small amounts of structural damage are easy to miss with a quick look but can be seen when using a carpenter’s level. A level placed against walls and corners should show straight vertical surfaces. If the walls show an incline, they may be slowly buckling. Pay special attention to the base of any walls you test, since it is here that the foundation and floors will often press walls outward.
Of course, you may not always have a level handy to test out the walls in older homes. If you don’t have any tools handy, find a vantage point far from the house and critically examine the roof line. Sometimes the edge of the roof will look like it is sagging. A proper roof line is straight from one end to another. A sagging roof indicates serious structural issues.
Foundation and concrete cracks are very common. They do not always indicate a problem – slight cracks merely indicate age and the way the concrete has dried. However, some foundation cracks found in basements and crawlspaces can point to far more serious problems. Differentiate cracks by looking at their depth and size. Foundation cracks that indicate settling or shifting issues tend to be wide at the start and narrow as they move through the concrete. Serious foundational compromise shows up in larger cracks, finger-wide gaps much larger than typical hairline cracking.
While you are examining the concrete, take some extra time and look at major wooden posts and framework. When under lots of stress, wood may also crack or pull away from its braces, another indication that something is amiss.
Moisture in a house, particularly moisture near the foundation, can indicate structural issues or future problems caused by rot, mold, and concrete that has lost its strength. Check basement areas for any pools of water, wet wood or damp concrete surfaces that show moisture is easily trapped near the foundation. Sometimes moisture will not be present in the dryer months, but you can also check for soft or rotting joists that show moisture damage is a recurring problem.
Door and Window Issues:
If you are short on time or you cannot access the foundation level of the house, you can still search for key structural clues with a few simple tests. Move around the house and test all the doors and windows, opening and closing them fully. As structures settle and develop problems like slowly buckling walls or collapsing roofs, windows and doors stop fitting properly in their frames. They may refuse to close fully or they may get stuck easily and not open all the way. If this is a common problem, the house may need further inspection for structural issues.