Foundation Damage from Buried Debris

Whitney writes: I recently bought a home and found out that the entire lot is backfilled with cinder block, brick, tiles, asphalt, and metal, which is causing damage to the foundation. Also, a large section of land keeps washing away due to all the buried debris buried. What can I do?

Steve Bliss, editor of BuildingAdvisor.com,  responds: Sorry to hear about your problem. Building on filled land like yours can lead to a host of problems. In most cases, the fill is poorly compacted, leading to excessive settlement. This can cause structural damage to the foundation and the house it supports. Organic material, such as stumps, in the fill can cause similar problems as the material decays over time.

There are certainly technical solutions to your problem, but they are expensive. The solution may require excavation and replacement of the defective fill with proper compacted fill. It also may require specialized repairs, such as “underpinning” of the foundation. I would get suggestions and estimates from at least three companies that specialize in foundation repair. Also you may want to get an independent opinion from a geotechnical, civil, or soils engineer with experience in residential foundation repair and soil stabilization (to control the erosion).

If you don’t know how to find this type of engineering professional, I’d suggest contacting a couple of local architects who can recommend local engineers that they have worked with. Your local building inspector may also be able to provide you with leads.

I don’t lightly suggest that people contact lawyers to solve problems. However, given the amount of money at stake in your situation, I’d strongly recommend at least an initial consult with a lawyer with extensive experience in real estate law.

Real estate laws vary a great deal from state to state. However, most states now have pretty strong disclosure laws that require sellers and real estate agents to disclose known defects in real estate transactions. Proving that the seller and/or real estate agent actually knew about the defect can be the sticking point. It’s also possible that the developer who originally built on the filled site may be partially liable for repair costs. Only a lawyer could help you sort out these complex issues.

Mike writes: I purchased a lot that was owned by the city I live in. Years ago the city used the lot as a dump for tree stumps, chunks of concrete, brick, and cut logs. The builder discovered the fill when excavating for the foundation. Since he could not build on top of this, he had to dig much deeper and use much more material, which ended up costing me more than $10,000 out of pocket.  The city did not disclose that the land had been filled with trash when selling the lot.  The lot is in a development with about 12 other houses in it. I believe that junk cleared from the other lots were dumped into mine, then graded and planted with grass.  Any advice I can get would be great — is there legal action I can take? Or am I going to have to bite the bullet?


Steve Bliss of BuildingAdvisor.com responds:
A filled site can usually be built on if the fill material is suitable to carry the required load, was properly compacted when filled, and does not contain any toxic materials or organic material such as wood (which will rot and leave voids). Unfortunately, this is rarely the case with filled sites which can hide a lot of sins and, like yours, be planted over to look just fine to the casual observer. A soil or geotechnical engineer  would need to take test borings at number of locations to establish the suitability of such a site.

Clearly the town should have disclosed the condition of the soil when they sold you the land, and they were probably obligated to do so under modern disclosure laws in most states – that is, if they were aware of the problem. In the bad old days, “Let the buyer beware” was pretty much the rule in real estate transactions. The trend has shifted toward making the seller of real estate more responsible to inform the buyer of known defects. Even with such laws on the books, however, it may be difficult to prove that the seller knew of a defect. Other issues to consider are the cost of bringing a lawsuit – typically well in excess of $10,000, and the fact that the seller is a municipality. Can you sue a city in small claims court? Again, this varies by state  as well as the maximum amount of a claim in small claims court.

To determine your specific rights in your state,  and the best strategy for resolving your dispute, you would need to talk to a lawyer — many will speak to briefly for free and tell you whether you have a snowball’s chance in heck. Laws on disclosure of defects vary from state to state, and “defects” in land are most likely treated differently than defects in an existing building.

Bottom line, I’m sad to say, is that you may need to bite the bullet. Hopefully, you got a good deal on the lot and the $10K bite is not so bad.

See related Q&A’s:
Building on Filled Land  
Soil Washed Away Under Foundation

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