Can a drought cause damage to your home's foundation?

August 12, 2020

Learn all about droughts and how they can damage the foundation of your home

Cracked and damaged ground during a drought

Hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes - Texas is known for its fair share of natural disasters. But while the effects of a hurricane are immediate, the damage done by droughts is much less obvious. Droughts hurt crops and make wildfires more likely, but how do they impact you and your property directly? Can a drought cause damage to the very foundation of your house? Today, we'll discuss droughts, how they impact your home, and what you can do about it!

Droughts in Texas

Droughts are an insidious weather phenomenon; unlike other severe weather events, such as a hurricane, it can be difficult to know when one is coming or when it is over. They are something that builds over time, but can still be incredibly destructive. 

One of the worst droughts in Texas' history took place in 1950, which decimated farmland and had a massive impact on agriculture in the state. Recently, another severe drought took place between May 2010 and July 2015, with the worst part taking place in late 2011. 

Although Texas has been relatively drought free since the last one ended in 2015, record-setting heat and low rainfall have contributed to increasing drought conditions across the state. As of August 1st, 2022, less than 3 percent of Texas remains free of drought. 
Droughts can be caused by a number of different factors and impact our communities, businesses, and lives in different ways. Prolonged droughts can have devastating economic consequences, especially in the agricultural industry, and they increase the likelihood of fires. 

But beyond the large scale damage, droughts can have a much more personal and direct impact on individual Texans. The effects of a severe drought aren't just limited to farmland - they can reach right up to your home, or more specifically, beneath your home. 

How soil is affected by a drought

In order to understand how a drought can impact your home and the foundation beneath it, you have to know a little bit about soil. 

While the concrete slab beneath your home is referred to as the foundation for your home, what lies beneath it is just as important. By and large, houses are built on top of some kind of soil (as opposed to solid rock), but not all soil is the same and different varieties react differently to weather conditions and events. 

So what are the different types of soil? Without digging too far into geology, you can divide soil into three basic categories based of the particulate size and mineral composition: sand, silt, and clay. More often than not, the soil beneath your house will be some mixture of the three. As you can imagine, some types are better suited for construction than others.

When you have soil that is high in sand, rainwater easily drains through and out without causing any major changes. However, when you have a soil that is mostly clay, water tends to become trapped within the granules. The result is that clay-heavy soil can often expand significantly as it fills up with rainwater. This is what is known as "expansive clay" and unfortunately, it is everywhere in Texas. 

How droughts can damage your home's foundation

Now that we've got a better understanding of what's beneath our feet (or our homes in this case), we can take a look at how that can affect your home's foundation. As we mentioned, problematic soil such as expansive clay can swell and grow as the moisture content increases. But just as it grows when water is abundant, it can shrink when it is scarce.

Droughts cause soil to shrink

After long periods of time without rain, the water within clay begins to evaporate causing it to shrink. As it does, it creates cavities or gaps between the ground and your foundation. Over time, your foundation can crack as gravity pushes the weight of your home down into the newly-created gaps.

This process is very similar to "settlement" or "settling" and has the same sort of negative effect on your foundation. While some amount of settling is normal, a drought can cause it to happen at a much faster pace and possibly to a much greater extent. 

Lots of rain right after a long drought can be bad too. The expansive clay will tend to quickly absorb the water and swell in a short period of time. This rapid change in soil shape beneath your foundation can easily cause cracks.

Identifying drought damage to your foundation

Once your house has begun to settle and the cracks begin to appear in your foundation, affordable remedies become few and far between. Professionals may have to come out and essentially lift portions of your foundation back into place. There are a number of methods, but the two most popular are known as "slabjacking" and "piering" (sometimes called hydraulic jacking). As you can imagine, nothing about these options is cheap or simple. 

So how can you tell if your foundation is suffering from drought shrinkage? Even without professional help, you can inspect your slab and your home for a number of signs and symptoms, such as:
  • Small cracks in the concrete foundation, steps, or even nearby sidewalks.
  • Cracks in the the exterior walls, bricks, or siding.
  • Cracks in the interior walls, crown molding, or plaster.
  • Doors and windows not seating properly in their frames.
  • Uneven floors.

If your foundation is uneven, it stands to reason that portions of your floor might be uneven as well. However, this isn't always so easy to spot. If you have a bubble level (also known as a spirit level), you can place it on the portion of the floor where you suspect there is a slope. However, such a slant may be very gradual and take place over a large distance, making it more difficult to spot with standard level. 

That's where a marble test can come in handy. It's a simple idea, but can be quite useful for spotting subtle inclines in your home that shouldn't be there. Simply place a marble, or any other small round object, on the floor and see where it rolls and settles. If it doesn't seem to move in any particular direction, you're probably fine. However, if it begins to roll, you might have issues with your foundation. 

Beyond looking for damage to your home, you can take a look at the soil itself. You can perform a simple inspection by walking around the perimeter of your house and looking for gaps between the soil and the bottom of the concrete foundation. Of course, this may be easier said than done if you have a lot of landscaping work done. However, if you're able to get a good look and you notice signs of shrinkage, there are a few things you can do to try to prevent it from getting worse. 

How to prevent drought damage to your foundation

Fortunately, this kind of foundational damage does not take place overnight. If over time it begins to look as though you are in the midst of a drought, there are things you can do to mitigate shrinkage and potentially prevent the damage if you act early enough.

The best way to make sure that a drought doesn't do damage to your home is to keep the soil around your house sufficiently hydrated. You can do this several times a day by running a soaker hose or drip hose a few feet away from the foundation, allowing time in between for the water to thoroughly soak into the soil

During times of severe droughts, local governments may place restrictions on the amount of time and hours of the day that you are allowed to water. That's why it's important to be efficient when watering and make sure that there isn't significant runoff. Watering with multiple short cycles rather than a single long one can help you get the most out of your water usage. 

While you don't want large trees with extensive root systems too close to your foundation, having shrubs around the soil can help shade it and prevent evaporation. Furthermore, a good mulch can help keep the soil's moisture content from dissipating so quickly.

Does homeowners insurance cover foundation damage? 

Homeowners insurance covers damage to your house caused by "covered losses," which are specific causes of damage. Normally, this includes things such as fires, tornadoes, vandalism, theft, hail, and so on. If your foundation is damaged by one of these sources, your homeowners insurance policy will likely cover it. 

However, for most property and homeowners insurance policies, damage due to drought, natural shrinking, settling, and soil expansion are not considered to be covered loss. Unfortunately, this means that damage to your foundation due to a drought is most likely not going to be covered by insurance. That's why it's so important to learn how to identify signs of shrinking and take the steps outlined above to mitigate damage to your home. 

Bricks cracked and damaged as a result of a drought

For more information on covered losses, home insurance, and property insurance, request a free quote online or reach out to one of Germania's trusted agents today!

Read more: When Texas summers turn up the heat, our electricity bill is soon to follow. Fortunately, there are a few tricks you can use to save energy and money. Read our blog to learn more!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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