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Home Inspections - Foundation Issues

In addition to their Articles dealing generally with the nature of their services, the real estate professionals will discuss different specific "Topics" of interest to buyers and sellers from time to time.  These articles are indexed in the Articles Library for your review.

Author, Edward Robinson is vice president of Professional Engineering Inspections, Inc. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Houston and is a TREC licensed real estate inspector in the Houston area. You may contact Professional Engineering Inspections's at (713) 664-1264.

Foundation Considerations

Arguably, the most significant component of the structure of a building is the foundation. As a result of the importance of providing a quality foundation, it is often the most expensive consideration in constructing a new home and is often the item of most concern when one is buying or selling a home. The foundation of a home is intended to provide a stable platform to support the components of the structure which rests on it. Due to the expansive soils in the Houston area, providing a foundation which is strong enough to support the structure of a home adequately while resisting damage caused by seasonal movement in the soil and still being within a reasonable cost is no easy trick and is one which consumes a significant amount of engineering consideration.

Consider the most prevalent types of foundations in the Houston area and what their significant differences are. The four most common foundation types in the Houston area are a concrete slab on grade foundation, a concrete slab on grade foundation having piers for additional support, a pier and beam foundation, and a block and pad foundation. The concrete slab on grade foundation supported by piers may be considered a hybridization of a pier and beam foundation with a concrete slab on grade foundation.

A concrete slab on grade foundation consists of a slab of concrete poured into a site built form which is partially submerged below the soil grade. It typically consists of a relatively thin flat piece of concrete in the shape of the building which is strengthened by grade beams cast into the foundation at regular intervals. This results in a foundation that resembles a waffle if viewed from the underside. Reinforcing for this type of foundation may vary significantly. The current, most popular method of reinforcing is to install steel cables across the foundation in a grid pattern. These cables are placed in tension after the concrete has had sufficient time to cure, placing the concrete in compression and thus providing reinforcing to resist damage caused by bending. This method of reinforcing is popular with tract builders who are seeking a cost effective method of fabricating foundations and can be found in most of the tract homes built in the last 20 years. Conventional reinforcing is used in most homes over 20 years old and in custom homes. Conventional reinforcing consists of steel bars and wire mesh placed in the foundation in a regular pattern to provide strength to the concrete in order to resist damage caused by bending. Concrete slab on grade foundation are the most common foundation type found in the Houston area due to the relatively low cost of fabrication.

Pier and beam foundations and block and pad foundations are very common in the older parts of the Houston area, and pier and beam foundations are becoming more popular in custom construction. Pier and beam foundations and block and pad foundations can be similar in appearance but vary significantly in performance. The biggest similarity between the two is that they are both foundation types that support the structure of the building off the surface of the ground, normally resulting in some accessible crawlspace below the foundation. The significant difference between the two is that a pier and beam type foundation provides support for the structure on concrete or wood columns set in the ground to a depth of 12 to 15 feet typically, depending on the soil in a given area; and block and pad foundations support the structure on blocks of concrete resting on the first few feet of soil at a maximum. The difference in the bearing depth of the supports results in significantly less movement in the foundation of a pier and beam foundation because the soil at greater depths is normally less rapidly affected by periods of wet and dry weather which results in drying or wetting of the soil. Since soil in the Houston area expands and contracts with changes in moisture content, this is a plus. The block and pad foundations are sometimes used because they are much less expensive to build since drilling and casting of concrete piers is quite expensive, and they can perform satisfactorily if properly installed and maintained. A significant benefit of these two types of foundations is the crawlspace they provide below the house. If there is sufficient crawlspace, it can be used to route ductwork and to run wiring and plumbing lines. This allows for easy changes during remodeling and, in the case of ductwork, can result in a more efficient air conditioning system. As part of purchasing a home, many problems can exist in the structure and mechanical/electrical systems at the crawlspace, creating a critical need for this area to be inspected.

Each type of foundation has its benefits and its drawbacks. If possible, one should consider these drawbacks and benefits against the cost of the house or construction. Although some types of foundation have more trouble with differential movement than others, most can be made to perform in an acceptable manner if properly installed and maintained.

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