What is foundation settling and how can it affect your home?

September 11, 2020

Learn about foundation settling and how it can affect your home

A brick and concrete foundation settling

While we generally consider houses to be stationary structures, it isn't uncommon for them to do a little moving as they situate themselves and their foundations in place. This is what is known as "settling" and it can often be a problem for new and old homes alike. But what is foundation settling and how can it affect your home? Why does it happen, and how can you tell if it's happening to you? Settle in and read on - we'll tell you everything you need to know!

What does "foundation settling" mean?

If you've ever been alone in your house late at night and heard mysterious creaking noises in another room, you might be tempted to think your house is haunted. Regardless of whether or not that is the case, your house is more than capable of making such noises without the aid of ghostly guests! 

More often than not, such noises can be attributed to something called "settlement" or "settling." In general, this term describes a variety of natural processes that cause a house or structure to gradually sink into the ground over time. This is a fairly common process that a house can go through and has a lot to do with the soil beneath it, as well as the local climate.

How does settling happen?

To illustrate how settling happens, let's look to gardening for an example. If you've ever dug a hole to plant a seed, you'll notice that the ground is much harder and more compact when you initially plunge your shovel into it. After you've planted the seed and covered it, you could easily press your finger into several inches of the freshly-disturbed dirt. This is called "backfill" and can be incredibly problematic if done incorrectly when building a home.

There are a number of reasons a builder might have to backfill during the construction process. For example, if you're going to lay your foundation on an uneven plot of land, soil may have to be removed from one spot and added to another to level it. If you take our gardening example and expand that to a house, you can easily see how the weight of something so large could gradually sink into soil that isn't tightly compacted. Over time, gravity, rainfall, and foot traffic all work together to slowly compact the soil.

Dirt and soil are made out of millions of tiny particles, so in any given volume of dirt, there is a lot of empty space - space that can be filled as pressure is applied. Even if the soil beneath your house has been properly compacted, there are other things that can weaken the underlying integrity. For example, tree roots can push soil around beneath your foundation, eventually causing cavities that your foundation may begin to sink into. If you don't have proper gutters to guide rainwater away from the house can also disturb the soil, causing your house to settle much faster than it normally would.

Just as an overabundance of rain and water can cause issues beneath your home, so can an extreme lack of water. In regions that have dry climates, or climates that may be susceptible to long periods without rain, droughts can cause a kind of settling to occur. As the ground loses water, the soil begins to shrink, causing your home to slowly sink to fill in the new gaps. 

How long does it take for a house's foundation to settle?

While you may have a sinking feeling, you certainly won't feel your foundation settling - fortunately, it's a slow process. That having been said, some settling often takes place within the first year after a new home is built. Although it isn't as common, it can sometimes take a decade or more for the signs to make themselves obvious.

Of course, this all depends on a large number of factors, such as the preventive steps taken by the homebuilder, the amount of rain, the type of soil, the construction materials, and so on.

What are the symptoms of foundation settling?

When a house applies pressure to the soil beneath it, a lot of things can go wrong if too much settlement occurs. Foundations, walls, floors, and even ceilings can crack as the weight of the house twists and warps concrete and wooden boards alike. 

If your house was built correctly, and the foundation set on stable soil, any settling you may experience should be minor. As such, the signs and symptoms aren't likely to be obvious and you may not see anything at all. 

If it is more severe, the signs and symptoms are often simple to spot. Of course, this does require taking a little time to periodically inspect your home, both inside and out. As you can imagine, the stability of your house, and every part within it, relies on your foundation being level for accurate measurements and placement. When that foundation begins to shift, all of those measurements slowly begin to fall out of alignment. That's why you should look for the following:
  • Cracks in the concrete foundation
  • Cracks or uneven portions of your floor
  • Cracks in your walls, ceiling, and drywall
  • Doors and windows that stick or don't shut properly
  • Broken, cracked, or damaged pipes, plumbing, or electrical conduits

What can you do about foundation settling?

Unfortunately, once you are likely to notice the major signs of serious settling, there isn't much you as an individual can do without the aid of professionals. That's why it's so important regularly inspect your home and foundation for the signs and symptoms outlined above. 

Steps can you take to prevent settling

Beyond looking for early signs of damage, it's important to look for precursors to settling. By spotting factors that could cause your foundation to settle, you can often take action to prevent it. 

For example, look for dry, cracked soil if your area has gone a while without rain. If you notice dry soil, you can water it several times a day to maintain the moisture levels. Just make sure you follow any water usage guidelines your community may have put in place during a drought. 

Alternatively, if you have received a lot of rain, look for signs that water is washing the soil away from beneath your foundation. If you think there may be a problem, you might need to consider installing gutters that can direct the flow of excess water away from your foundation.

Finally, avoid planting any large trees or shrubs with large, extensive root systems near your foundation. While smaller plants and landscaping methods can often shade your soil and help keep the moisture levels stable, giant roots will eventually be a problem. 

How to fix a settling foundation

If settling has caused major issues in your home, all is not lost, although the solutions are likely to require professional help. There are a number of methods professionals use to repair sinking or settling foundations, such as "steel push piers," "helical piers," or "hydraulic lift slab piers." While each of these solutions work a little differently, the end result is intended to lift or "level" your foundation, and essentially returns your home to a flat, even position. 

Additionally, there are methods where certain materials can be added to the soil beneath the foundation to provide added stability. Microfine cement grout is one such solution, which involves injecting a specialized liquid into certain strategic areas. The liquid fills the gaps between loose soil, expands, and hardens to prevent or mitigate further settling. Of course, this takes a skilled technician to evaluate and implement, but it can be effective depending on the soil.

Does homeowners insurance cover foundation settling?

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

A crack in a concrete foundation after foundation settling

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Read more: Apart from settling, your house isn't likely to move that much - unless you have a mobile home! Check out our blog and learn how insurance works with mobile and manufactured homes!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

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