Common Repairs for an Old Sagging House
LESLIE: Terry in Delaware has a foundation question. What’s going on?
TERRY: Well, I have a home; an old farmhouse that I live in. We’ve dated it back to about 1896. And we have determined that there were at least four chimneys in this house at one time. Two of them still remain in the walls, with no support. I believe it’s actually causing my foundation to actually sag because that’s where our sag is occurring. And my question is if I remove the weight, stop the foundation from sagging any further and basically just shore it up by putting in a new foundation, is it going to be OK for me to go ahead and then just sister my joists so that I can relevel the rooms that have sagged? And, basically, I’m hoping that it will stop the problem without me having to completely relift the house and relevel everything.
TOM: Terry, this is sounding very complicated.
TERRY: (laughing) Yes, it is.
TOM: Couple of questions. First of all, you say that the chimneys have no support yet they … yet you feel they’re impacting your foundation. Why do you say that?
TERRY: Well, because they’re inside the walls in the upper floors …
TERRY: … and there is nothing in the lower floors that would be supporting them.
TOM: Yeah. Well, let me tell you something. That’s really not that unusual. My house was built in 1886 and there used to be a chimney over the kitchen. And the area underneath that chimney is where you had the stair to the basement. And every time you went down the stair to the basement, you’d look up and there was this big, fat like 3×12 – maybe two of them on the sides, so say it was 24 inches by three inches thick. It was like a platform and on top of that, guess what? The whole chimney was built. And it was sitting on these wood planks up through the roof. So shorter chimneys being supported by wood was not so unusual. If those chimneys are not being used anymore, they can be disassembled. It’s a bit of a messy job. Obviously, knowing what gravity does, start at the top and work down. (chuckling)
Now, in terms of your foundation, are you seeing buckling or anything in the foundation? Because that could have a different set of circumstances.
TERRY: Actually, what it is, is it seems like the mortar is turning into dust.
TOM: OK. That’s very common and that mortar … those brick joints have to be repointed. The mortar between those joints will dry out …
LESLIE: So it’s not they’re compressing from the weight of the bricks.
TOM: No. Not at all. That’s really, really common. Deteriorated mortar joints like that are very common in an older house and they have to be repointed from time to time. So that’s a special job for a mason.
Now, in terms of the sagging, again, with a new house … I mean, sorry, with an old house, very, very common to have saggy floors and saggy ceilings. Typically, you had long spans with joists that weren’t thick enough or wide enough to do that without sagging. Generally, you want to repair it from a cosmetic basis only. You don’t want to try to prop them back up because then you’re going to cause other incidental damage. You can cause ceilings to crack, walls to … walls to break, pipes to come apart, wires to stretch and break and so on. So you want to treat that as a cosmetic repair. If it’s a ceiling that’s sagging, then that can be firred out and then re-drywalled so that it’s nice and flat. If it’s a floor, there are options depending on what kind of floor you want. You can use a floor leveling compound to kind of level that out or it could be done with carpentry as well.
But I think these are all separate issues that need to be attacked separately. In the beginning of your question, it sounded, Terry, like you were tying it all into the foundation and I don’t think that’s the case here. I think this is just an old house that needs a little bit of work and each one of these things can be handled individually. Which means you don’t have to do them all at the same time.
TERRY: Well, I’ve got to tell you, I’m really happy to hear that because I had … redone one of the down … the downstairs bathroom; completed gutted it. And I sister joist (ph) and I ended up doing hangers to level out the ceiling with new studs. And I was hoping that I wasn’t going to have to just tear all that right back out again.
TOM: Not at all. Not at all. Sounds like you did that the right way. You just have to do that room by room.
TERRY: Great. Thank you very much.
TOM: You’re welcome, Terry. Thanks so much for calling us at 1-888-MONEY-PIT.