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What is House Settling?

Jul 28, 2020 by Maurie Backman

Some homeowners think house settling is just a myth, but actually, it's very real. Often house settling isn't a problem, but in other cases it can result in serious structural damage, requiring extensive foundation repairs. Here, we'll review the signs of house settling and what to do if you're convinced it's happening to your property.

What is house settling?

House settling is the process by which a home gradually sinks further into the ground over time due to a shift in the soil beneath its foundations. In some cases, house settling is not a big deal, but it can lead to foundation damage, so it's important to recognize the signs of house settling.

Why do houses settle?

House settling comes as a result of improperly backfilled soil. If a builder removes too much soil to construct a home on top of it, and then compensates by filling in more soil after the fact, the potential for eventual damage occurs. Why so? Because the original soil has been disturbed.

Soil compacts naturally to provide a stable foundation for construction. If that base is tampered with too heavily and not compacted enough once it's backfilled, it can sink further into the ground over time, bringing the house on top of it down with it.

But that's not the only reason why houses settle. Tree roots near your home can disrupt the soil underneath it as well, causing it to sink. Floods, meanwhile, can weaken the soil underneath a home, leading to settling.

What are the signs of house settling?

Ever notice that your house creaks late at night? Some people will tell you that's a sign of settling, but in reality it could be anything from outside wind to your ventilation system doing its job. On the other hand, the following six signs should alert you to the fact that your house is actually settling:

1. Cracks in your walls and ceilings

A superficial crack in your walls could be caused by a poor paint job. But a deep, easily visible crack could be a sign that your house is settling.

2. A door or window that no longer opens

You may find that doors or windows "stick" during periods of high humidity. This isn't necessarily a sign of settling, especially if you can, without much effort, ease those doors or windows open and closed. It's when a door or window won't close at all that you should suspect settling. When houses settle, doors and windows can shift so they actually no longer fit in their frames, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to open or close them.

3. Uneven flooring

Because certain flooring material, like wood, can buckle and warp over time, a tiny slant in your floors may be present but not all that noticeable (until you try to place a marble on the floor and find that it automatically rolls away). But if your floors are starting to slant to the point where they're clearly uneven, house settling could be to blame.

4. Burst pipes

When a house shifts into the ground, its pipes can become twisted. But unless you make a point of inspecting your pipes, that's something you may not notice until -- bam -- a pipe in your home bursts. From there, it's natural to suspect house settling if there's no other obvious cause.

5. Cabinets pulling away from the wall

If your cabinets seem to be tilting or pulling away from your walls, to the point where you can see an obvious gap, it's another sign that your house is settling. Again, it all has to do with your home not being level, which happens as soil underneath your foundation shifts.

6. Cracks in your foundation

As your home sinks deeper into the ground due to shifting soil, cracks can start to appear in and around your foundation. But that's something you may not notice in your day-to-day life. Rather, you're more likely to notice wall cracks or a crack in your doorways, ceilings, and flooring. Along these lines, if you notice moisture on your basement walls or a musty odor coming from your basement or crawl space, it's also a sign there's a structural problem with your foundation.

Is house settling dangerous?

House settling is not always dangerous. If it happens gradually over time, you may not even realize it's happening. It's when house settling happens quickly and causes foundation damage that you need to worry.

If you notice the above signs of house settling, it pays to have a foundation repair expert come out and assess the situation. Remember, mild settling is normal and should not impact the structural integrity of your home, but if you are having a foundation problem, it’s important to address it early on, before it gets worse.

What's the difference between settling and subsidence?

Subsidence is the sudden sinking of the ground's surface. It's usually caused by mining or fracking activities, though it can also be caused by weather events, like earthquakes. Subsidence can occur at any time once a home is constructed, whereas settling tends to happen soon after construction is complete and can last for a good three years post-construction.

Ultimately, though, the result is the same: Whether your property is subject to settling or subsidence, an extreme case could result in costly foundation damage -- damage you'll need to address.

If you're worried about subsidence, it could pay to get a geological survey before moving forward with your home purchase. That survey will help identify issues with the soil and surrounding land your property is on.

Can you prevent house settling?

Generally speaking, there's not much you can do to prevent houses from settling, as it's a natural process. But if you're buying a home and are worried about a foundation problem, it pays to have a thorough home inspection to identify potential issues from the start. It also pays to have a land survey done before you buy your home, as it could uncover grading issues that could put your foundation at risk.

Also, pay attention to the way water sits on your property before completing a purchase. Too much pooling around your home could be a sign that your foundation will eventually encounter problems if it hasn't already.

The bottom line on house settling

Most houses settle over time, and normal settling won't necessarily wreck your home's foundation. If you're seeing some signs of settling and are worried about a serious foundation issue, it pays to call in a repair expert or structural engineer to assess your home and recommend solutions. But as long as you get the all clear, house settling shouldn't be something you lie awake at night worrying about.

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