That Sinking Feeling
How to figure out if your home is sinking or sliding.
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By Dwight Barnett
Scripps Howard News Service
Q: My home was built in 1954. For several years now I have heard a cracking, popping sound in the two back bedrooms. I ignored it because I didn't know what it was.
Recently, however, I had painters at work painting the back bedroom. The painter pointed out stair-step-like cracks in the ceiling. He said my house was settling. I read about a house sinking. Could my house be sinking? If so, what can I do about it? I went outside and I noticed the back basement windows are closer to the ground than the front basement windows. I have only detected cracks in one of the back bedrooms. Basement walls are blocks. What action should I take? _ W.C., Detroit.
A: Your home could very well be sinking, but much more likely the cracks in the plaster ceiling are the result of wood shrinkage. The builder may have used wood lath strips to hold the plaster in place. The wood strips dry out over the years and shrink. This minor movement breaks the bond between the wood and the plaster, causing the plaster to crack.
Stair-step cracking on a ceiling is a common problem that can be repaired. Repairs usually involve cleaning out the cracks with a knife or the point of a trowel, then patching them with a plaster patching compound. The painter needs to apply a sealer to the repaired joints prior to painting the ceiling.
If your home is sinking or settling, you will notice cracks not only on the ceiling, but also on the walls near windows and above interior doors. Doors may not shut or work properly, and windows may be hard to open.
Cracks will be noticeable in the basement block as well, as in the exterior brick, block or stone. A home with wood, aluminum or vinyl siding may not reveal the settlement problems on the exterior. However, the openings around exterior doors and windows may show signs of settlement.
Look for a V-shaped opening next to the door or window frame. If the frames have been caulked, the caulking will be pulled.
If you suspect settlement, you need to have the home inspected by a professional home inspector listed with the American Society of Home Inspectors or a qualified structural engineer.
Settlement can be stopped by installing piers at strategic points around the foundation.
(Dwight Barnett is a master inspector certified by the American Society of Home Inspectors. Questions may be addressed to him at
PO Box 14091
Evansville, IN 47728
Or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.