The St. Louis Drought of 2011 and the effect on homes

2011 will be remembered for having a wet spring and being the 4th hottest summer of record (calculated by having the highest average temperature). What is significant from a property and real estate viewpoint, however, will be that we have had little or no rain since the middle of June. We have been watering our lawn during that time and really do no want to see the next water bill.

Here are two scenarios from homes I looked at around the first of September 2011:

Scenario 1:

This home was a foreclosure and had been vacant for some time. The contract was written by the buyer after the site visit by the buyer and a very experienced real estate agent. I was asked to do the building inspection five days later. In that time, large cracks had developed in the foundation, brick above the foundation and in the interior wall of the bedroom. This would require five piers to correct that problem.

Scenario 2:

This home had been purchased by the homeowner about one year before. While some minor cracking was noted over the winter, in the past month daylight could be seen through the bedroom wall. A large foundation crack and brick stair step cracks had also developed on the same corner. Again four to five piers will be needed, in addition to the brick and plaster repairs.

This type problem will become more frequent due to the drought we are having and could get much worse unless we have some badly needed rain. It seems, we have had several droughts over the past several years. Although, they may not all last as long as the 1999/2000 or the 2006/2007 droughts they can and have had a significant impact on some of our foundations. No one is exempt. Last fall, I was putting up the Christmas lights just before Thanksgiving (yeah I know it was early but the weather was nice). I came down off the ladder and low and behold there was a stair step crack in the front of my house. It was caused by the six week dry spell we had in late September and October 2010. Three piers later we had the foundation stable again.

Drought conditions or extended periods without rain, such as we are experiencing, can cause the clay soils in this area to shrink and crack. You can see this as cracks in the ground around the home. The soil pulls away from the foundation. Similar conditions can occur below the footings if the dry spell is extended. This can cause the soil to shrink away from the footing, whereby the footing is left partially unsupported causing it to settle and thereby crack. This may appear as new cracks or re-cracking at previously patched cracks. Each situation will be somewhat different in its reaction.

You should also be aware that this condition is magnified if large trees are located near the foundation. The root system searches for water and will dry the soil out quicker and to a greater depth.

One other point worthy of note is that the cracks in the ground become a source for basement seepage at the first hard rain.

When problems such as this are found, have them evaluated by a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) who specializes in foundation problems and can give an unbiased objective opinion on what should be done.

About the author:

Gerry is a licensed Professional Engineer in four states; Missouri, Illinois, Colorado and Kansas. He first began his home inspection career in 1976 and has been active in ASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors) since 1978. In fact, Gerry’s membership number in ASHI is 87 compared with most of the memberships numbers which are in the 1,000’s. Gerry has performed over 16,000 inspections. Gerry can be reached by email at gloesch@bpgwi.com or by phone 314-249-8370.

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