Q: I have settling issues with several cracks over doorways and two small areas on my outside bricks. I don’t know how serious this is or what to do. I was planning on selling my house this spring but now I am worried that fixing this will be a huge expense. I would appreciate some advice.
A: One of the first things I like to do when performing a home inspection is to walk around the home looking for cracks in the brick or stone that could likely indicate a foundation or settlement problem.
Brick and stone walls are naturally very rigid and will crack when under minor stress. When I see horizontal cracks above windows and doors, I then check to see if there is a steel lintel, an L-shape piece of steel used above a window or door opening to support the bricks above. If there is a steel lintel and it is exposed to the weather, it will start to rust. Rusting causes the steel to expand.
The expansion of the steel causes the bricks to lift and a horizontal crack forms. This is not a major concern. I then check for stair step cracks at window openings. This may be a sign of foundation settlement, which may or may not be a major concern. When a brick wall is under stress from foundation settlement, the cracking can be either below the window or above the window or both, but it is the window opening itself, which is virtually a hole in the brick wall, where the stress is relieved.
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I often use the example of cutting a hole in a piece of paper and then pulling on the paper until it tears. It will tear toward the hole in the paper until the stress from pulling is relieved. I usually find stress cracking at a window near a corner of the home. I then check the wall around the corner from the window for signs of settlement cracking. Here the crack might be vertical because the wall has rotated out and away from the wall.
I also check the trim at the very top of the brick at an outside corner to see if the wall has pushed the trim’s corner apart. This is a sign of corner settlement. Simple stair step cracking is common unless the wall has rotated from settlement. In my findings, the major reason for settlement cracking is dewatering of the soils and is found more often on homes on a hill or steep slope or where the downspout drains have been redirected away from the foundation.
Stair step cracking also forms in periods of extended droughts. If in doubt, contact a licensed and qualified home inspector to check the wall, foundation and soils.
You can find qualified home inspectors at the American Society of Home Inspectors at www.ashi.org. Be sure to interview anyone you call to ensure that they have prior experience in construction or engineering.