Settling happens naturally and can cause inconsequential cracks in the walls or foundation of a home. Sometimes, you even see these types of minor cracks in the driveway, sidewalk leading to your front door, or on your porch. The natural settling and movement of a home can also cause major foundation concerns, so how can you tell foundation settling apart from foundation problems?

How and Why Foundation Settling Occurs

Settling refers to the naturally occurring changes that happen to a home’s foundation over the years. Think of it as settling into an overstuffed couch; the longer you sit, the more you sink into the cushions. The same, or rather, similar effect happens to a home.

Over time, a home sinks (or settles) into the soil it was built upon. Weather conditions, soil composition, and climate can influence how much a home settles—but these factors are considered by the contractors who build homes to reduce the impact inevitable settling can have on a home.

For most, settlement goes unnoticed and occurs within the first few years after a home is built. For others, a substantial amount of settlement could occur within the first few years if the home was built during extreme weather conditions or there was improper soil preparation. This can be the case if the home was built during an unusually dry season or drought, only to be followed by a rainy season after construction is completed. The dry, shriveled ground the house was built upon, expands with the rain and causes the home to settle. Then, if a drought follows once again, settlement can reoccur. While the weather can’t be controlled, a quality constructed home will withstand these changes and after a few seasons of these changes, settlement usually ceases.

For those who experience ongoing settlement years after a home is built due to site factors, close monitoring is highly recommended to ensure “normal” settlement doesn’t take a turn for the worse.

When Normal Settlement Becomes a Foundation Problem

Excessive settlement that occurs after a home is built or ongoing settlement issues can be a threat to the health of a home’s foundation. The two major foundation problems most homeowners face are foundation expansion and foundation shrinkage.

Foundation Expansion

Foundation expansion is a more common issue for homes built using a brick foundation. Bricks naturally expand slowly over time but under the right conditions, particularly moisture exposure can expedite brick growth and cause major issues with the soundness of the foundation.

Foundation Shrinkage

Shrinkage is usually a problem for concrete foundations. During the curation process, concrete shrinks as it hardens—not just as it loses moisture but via the chemical process that occurs when concrete is mixed. This shrinkage effect leads to gaps between the foundation and the wall. Experienced builders calculate this into their build; however, shrinkage can be caused by a number of variables, not just the concrete to water ratio. The type of concrete being used, the aggregate type, exposure to rain, humidity, heat, and other conditions after the foundation is poured can also impact the shrinkage rate.

Telling the Difference  Between Foundation Settling and Foundation Problems

Identifying which cracks, gaps, or other issues are “normal” and which are not is harder than most people realize. Many of the cracks potential buyers see when previewing a home are harmless—but usually spark a concern that is brought up during a home inspection. Most settling of a foundation doesn’t leave a visible sign, but it can—usually in the form of small, thin cracks around doorways or windows. These cracks don’t get any bigger over time and are often missed with a look around a room. Some are so minor they are covered with a coat of paint.

That said, if a home has the following, you may want a professional to take a closer look at the foundation and home structure.

  • Severe Wall Cracks: Deep, long, and jagged gauges stemming from entryways at a 45-degree angle can be a sign of shifting foundation. These differ from the minor cracks mentioned above—these appear as if the drywall is being torn in half.

  • Sticking Doors and Windows: This is a primary concern if this is a new issue and is affecting multiple doors and windows. One or two aren’t usually enough to worry but if your whole home is affected by this issue, then it could be a sign the frames supporting the door or window is being twisted by the foundation shifts.

  • Cabinets Coming Off Wall: Loose or falling cabinets, gaps forming between your counter and the wall, or if you notice a sink, toilet, or plumbing pipes are loose then a warped foundation may be the cause.