Buying an Old Home with Cracks-5 Signs That You Should Be Worried

(April 29, 2015)

Last year, I spoke with a very nice gentleman who wanted to sell an inherited house.  He was ready to move on and asked, "Can I sell my home fast?"  That seemed to be one of his major concerns.  I, of course, responded, "Yes, you can sell your house fast for cash, too."  He said he was interested, so I scheduled a time to see the house.  When buying an old home, I have to bring my A-game for noticing potential issues.
The house was in need of updating, but the most serious problem was in the cracks.  This homeowner was extremely forthcoming, which I truly appreciated.  He told me about the cracking, when he first noticed it and where he knew most of the cracks were located.  Little did we know how extensive the issues were.
This homeowner knew that the cracks were a red flag and that selling the house to a retail buyer would be difficult.  It would be very difficult for a buyer to get financing on this house.  So we agreed on a price and also agreed to have a foundation specialist look at the house.  Even though I was buying a house AS-IS, I am no expert and neither of us knew if the cracks were cosmetic or the result of a larger issue.
As you can expect, it was the latter, a much larger issue.  A $35,000 larger issue, to be exact.  But, the homeowner who had asked, "Can I sell my house fast?", still did.  So, how does a homeowner who wants to sell a house know if cracks are a serious issue or not?   The good news is that all houses settle over time, so some cracking can be expected. 

Here are the 5 signs of a larger issue:

If the crack runs horizontally or diagonally along the wall, that can indicate a bigger issue, such as a foundation shifting or some water damage either in the house or in the soil under the house.  In our particular case, the foundation specialist believes that the dirt was not compacted properly and water penetrated the soil under the house, thus causing the foundation to crack, then the walls to crack. 
Good news-if it's vertical only, it's probably due to the foundation settling.  It might be a sign that it was created when the foundation settled after construction.  It could even be where the drywall seam is located.  Most likely, it's only cosmetic.
Bad news-if it's vertical and horizontal, like stairs, then the cement or grout is seperating between blocks, bricks or tiles.  This is usually seen in basements where the cinderblock foundation is visable. This type of cracking typically occurs when moisture has entered the soil and caused a change in how the foundation sits.  
Is it a gaping crack?
Another sign of a bigger problem is when the windows and doors don't close properly.  That means the foundation has most likely shifted and the walls have moved, too.  Cracking from the corners of the doors and windows is also an indication of a bigger problem.
Is there separation in the crack and is the wall uneven?  That often means that the foundation has shifted enough to pull the wall apart.  In the house described above, this was prevalant.  There was also quite a bit of cracking in the concrete slab subfloor, up to an inch difference from one side of a room to another.  We had to raise the part of the room that had sunk.
Do you see cracks that have been repaired?  To me that is a really big red flag.  That could mean that there is more damage than is visible to inspection.  It also means that there could be more damage to the house that has been hidden.  Fortunately, it pays to hire a foundation specialist if you suspect that there are bigger issues.  They know exactly what to look for and how to test for issues.
Luckily for me, the homeowner who sold his house to me was honest and upfront.  We were able to work out a deal that made sense for both of us.  Trust goes both ways.  While someone may want to sell a house fast, a buyer needs to do the proper inspection to make sure they know what they are buying.
During the foundation inspection and the subsequent repairs, I certainly learned quite a bit about foundation issues.  This was a great lesson and an even better reminder to do the proper homework.  I'm glad it worked out they way it did and even though it was an "AS-IS sale", it was nice to know what "IS" was.
inherited house
Jennifer Shenbaum

Written by Jennifer Shenbaum

Jennifer Shenbaum is a real estate investor based in Southern California. She is a veteran of the housing market crash of 2007. Best of all, she offers free remodeling ideas to all who ask.

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