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Vol 3:4 How crooked are you?

I’ve never had very good balance. Oddly, this gives me a superpower – I can detect the slope of uneven floors, however slight. I didn’t think of this as a superpower until a colleague of mine asked me to consult on a house she was preparing for market in the Whyte Ridge neighborhood.

After touring the home I delivered my report, wrapping it up with “but the wild card, of course, is how potential Buyers are going to react to the slope.”

Everyone stared at me blankly.

“What slope?” my colleague asked.

“The slope that begins at top of the foyer stairs and runs all the way through the kitchen to the back of the house,” I replied.

They continued to look at me as if I had just spoken to them in a foreign language. I wasn’t sure what else to say. How do you describe the color green other than by saying that it is green?

I wasn’t terribly surprised that the homeowners weren’t feeling the slope – adapting to the environment is one of those things that humans do automatically and well. But my colleague not feeling it threw me off a little bit and made me question if I was perhaps becoming just a little too sensitive.

Weeks later, when the house made its debut on the market, my colleague got in touch, excitedly, to tell me that many appointments had been made to view it. A few days after that, however, she called back to report that despite all of the interest, no offers had been forthcoming. I asked her what sort of feedback she had received and she said – wait for it - “everyone mentions the slope.”

You’d think she would have led with that.

Over the past few months I have been in dozens of homes I would consider “newer” – homes built in the 60s, 70s and 80s - and even in the 80s homes, my clients and I encountered more sloping floors than not, as many as 75% I would guestimate. Several times we walked away from homes that would have been contenders had they not been crooked. Not because a slope is necessarily a harbinger of more shifting to come, or of impending water problems (although it could be) but because there usually isn’t a whole lot that can be done to correct crookedness once it’s settled in.

I know what I’m talking about.

I raised my children in a century-old crooked house that I loved with all my heart. Except for the fact that it was crooked, which was always the fly in the ointment. We even jacked that house up off of its foundation – all 2 stories and 2500 square feet of it – so that we could replace a sagging main beam. The prize at the end of that that necessary and extraordinary intervention, was a cracked crooked house, with a fantastic new main beam. Fortunately, our crooked house never became a leaking one.

So, what is the deal with all of these crooked houses? Why are there so many of them here in Winnipeg? What causes a house to shift and become “crooked?” Can this be prevented? Can it be remedied? What is the connection between a shifting foundation and a leaking foundation?

The more I research these questions, the more I realize how much there is to know. What I’m going to be touching on in this article is just going to be a primer but the good news is that a primer is all you really need. The preventative measures a homeowner must take to protect against uneven shifting is the very same they must undertake to protect against leaking and can be summed up in two words:

Water Management.

Considering how significant the consequences of poor water management are, it’s shocking how few homes show the evidence of water management at all. My guess is that people just don’t realize how important it is and that taking care of a foundation is like flossing - the time lag between cause and effect means that you have to take it on faith that it’s doing something of vital importance to you. At least with our teeth, we are the ones who will inevitably live the consequence, and learn to take better care.

The Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals estimates the average Canadian will own 4.5 to 5.5 homes in their lifetime, so when it comes to living the consequences of poor water management, it is often an owner somewhere down the line that pays the price.

The prime directive of water management is a straightforward one - keep water away from the foundation.

The Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (CAHPI) reports that over 90% of basement leakage problems are caused by surface water (rain or snow) collecting around the foundation. Surface water plays a key role in the uneven settling of foundations as well.

Here are 3 compelling reasons why this is:

  1. Water that is directed to your foundation will find its way into even microscopic cracks and crannies, where it will freeze and thaw as we cycle through our seasons, endlessly contracting and expanding, widening the crack or cranny just a little bit every time. Water is a crackmaker.

  2. You know what else is a known crackmaker? Tree roots. And tree roots are attracted to water. If water being is directed toward your foundation, that’s the direction the roots of nearby trees will start to grow. Ack! And just in case you think that tree is too far away to be a threat, consider this: a tree’s root system is at least as large as its canopy.

  3. Winnipeg is one of only a couple of places in the world where the soil contains a particular kind of clay deposit – “Manitoba Gumbo” it is often called. Clay reacts differently to moisture than the soil around it and is often the culprit when a house settles unevenly, creating that slope in the floor. Picture that the soil under your home has a deposit of clay gumbo on one side. Furthermore, it’s the side that has a negative slope, under the deck, where you never look. With all of the water that is being directed toward this part of the foundation, the soil surrounding it eventually swells up but more so the clay deposit - the house is being pushed against, but not uniformly. If you're lucky, like I was, the shifting doesn't produce cracking that makes the foundation vulnerable to water.

The 4 main elements of good water management:

  1. Maintain a positive slope all the way around the periphery of your foundation so that water naturally drains away from the house - 2” up for for every foot out is what Kelly Baziuk of Welcome Home Inspections advises. Avoid having structures like sheds built right up against the foundation. In the case of decks, screw rather than nail down the boards closest to the house so that these can easily be removed every other year and the slope checked on and attended to. Use quarter-down gravel to build up the slope where you will not be planting, and top soil where you will. Window wells require special treatment, with many experts recommending lightweight clear plastic covers to keep water out of the well.

  2. Think long-term when planting trees. Consider how large its canopy is expected to get and choose its location accordingly.

  3. Keep eavestroughs in good repair, clear of leaves and other debris and have minimum 6’ extensions extending out from each downspout, and

  4. Keep a tube of all-weather caulking handy and periodically check to make sure that every breach of the foundation wall – your HE furnace exhaust pipes, etc… is completely sealed against moisture.

The last word goes to teleposts. Have you ever noticed that they are threaded like screws? That’s because that’s essentially what they are – big screws strategically placed in the basement of your home to support it’s structure.

Many of the homes I toured these past few months were exhibiting the kind of slope that might have been remediated by the adjustment of the teleposts, namely a hump over the main beam. Adjusting your teleposts is a slow process involving quarter-turns over days and weeks. If you are unfamiliar with the process, it is best to get some expert advice before proceeding.

Do you have any questions around water management? Let me know and I will ask Kelly Baziuk, CAHPI-certified home inspector to weigh in on them. Do you have any stories to tell around shifting or leaking foundations and what you did about them? I would love to hear them.

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