Beware Expansive Clay Soils

Will writes: I have purchased a home on clay-type soil. No soil samples were taken, and my foundation has moved severely — severely enough to have eighth-inch cracks in every room and the tile has popped loose. I started having these problems within the first 4 months of living in the home. We moved in just 2 weeks after the home was finished from new construction. At one point, the ceramic tile has “teepeed” roughly 2 inches above the level of the rest of the tile. My doors also don’t shut or latch. All of this is said to be “normal movement” from the builder. All of my neighbors have the same problem. All of these homes are 3 years old or less. What is your take on my situation?

Steve Bliss, of BuildingAdvisor.com, responds: Sorry to hear about your situation. There are many types of clay-rich soils, some of which are suitable for building on. However, it sounds like you might have a home built on expansive clay. This type of soil expands a great deal when wet and can cause the kinds of problems you are experiencing.

While a few sticking doors and nail pops (in drywall) may result from wood shrinkage in the framing during the first year of a new home, or from minor settlement of the soil supporting the structure, the problems you are describing are definitely not normal.

Also, while small concrete-shrinkage cracks are normal, a foundation that has “moved severely,” that indicates a serious structural problem. Large cracks or movement of foundation components along with the cracking and movement of interior finishes all point to serious problems with the foundation.

While it is possible to build a stable building on expansive clay soils, special materials and techniques are required. Techniques may include treating the clay soil, removing the soil, special reinforcement of the foundation, or supporting the foundation on specially designed piers that penetrate to good soil or bedrock.

I would immediately start documenting the problems with dated photos and written descriptions. Measure cracks and displaced building components monthly to see if they are still moving. A crack that is growing or a structural component that is actively moving or tilting is worse than a stable crack or displacement.

Next, I would hire an engineer (soil, geotechnical, or civil) with experience with residential foundations to take a look and document nature of the problem and his recommended repairs. A couple of hours of an engineer’s time will be money well spent.

Also, given the scale of this problem, I would talk briefly with a lawyer before presenting your findings to the contractor. The lawyer can tell you what your legal standing is – i.e., what sort of legal leverage you have to force the builder into making the necessary repairs if he refuses to do so voluntarily. The lawyer can advise you on the most effective way to present your concerns to the builder. Whether or not legal action is feasible or cost-effective will depend on your state laws and the specifics of your case in terms of timing, contract language, and express and implied warranties.

Working together with your neighbors with similar problems could be an effective approach. I wish you the best of luck in getting your home properly repaired.

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