When You Need An Engineer To Look At Your House

Sometimes you need an engineer to look at your house, when you purchase it, when you are living in it, or when you are selling it.  So, let me go through this in three sections:

When You Are Purchasing A Home

You normally don’t need an engineer to look at a house you are purchasing.  A home inspector is better, because the home inspector looks at the whole house in a general approach.  An engineer is more specialized.  However there are exceptions, and here we go:

  • When there appears to be foundation settlement.  This can be seen by sloping floors, diagonal cracks in the walls (usually coming out from corners of windows and doors), and cracking in brick masonry (usually stair step cracks).  If you have to have your foundation repaired after you move in, it can be EXPENSIVE.  It’s important to pay an engineer to look at this, not a foundation repair company.  A foundation repair company has an incentive to recommend repairs even if one isn’t necessary.  You don’t want that.

    An engineer should not make any money from the repair.  Make sure the engineer isn’t getting some sort of “referral fee” from the foundation repair company.  One company offered me a 10% referral fee for me as being part of their “special partner” program.  You don’t want that.

  • When there is sagging in the floor.  You’ll see this in the kitchen if you have a granite counter top.  Also, look at large rooms, like the family room.  Cracking in floor tile is an indicator.  Fortunately, fixing floor sagging isn’t usually too hatefully expensive if there isn’t too much of it.  However, I’ve seen a couple houses where it is extreme.
  • Floor slab cracks.  In the construction business there is a saying, “there are two types of concrete cracks, that which is cracked, and that which is going to crack”.  Concrete cracks, and it’s OK.  However, if you see cracks over 3/16″ of an inch wide (from the National Association of Home Builder’s Standards), you should have an engineer out.  Garages typically have problems, because they are often poured over fill dirt, and there is usually settlement.  That is expensive to fix, so you don’t want that.
  • If there are retaining walls over 4 feet high on the lot.  Failing retaining walls are also expensive to fix.  Timber retaining walls, especially the ones made by used rail road ties, have a very limited life.  You don’t want to get stuck with a failing wall.  The worst case I’ve seen cost the owner in 6 figures to fix bad retaining walls on his lot.  Well that wasn’t the worst case.  A colleague of mine dealt with one where the house almost went down a hill after the retaining wall failed.  The only reason it didn’t was that he recommended to the builder that he put the foundaitons on helical piers immediately.  A couple days later the wall failed, and house stood up in the air on steel piles.  Not something you want, is it?
  • When the home inspector recommends it.  That’s a catch all, but there could be other issues.
 When You Own A Home
Ok, the house you are in has a problem.  Here’s some specific items:
  • You are seeing foundation settlement – see above for the signs, and I’ll be doing a blog post on that too.  Get an engineer before you hire a foundation repair company.  For one thing, you could be wrong about it being foundation settlement, a more simple repair could be all that is needed.

    My favorite story on an unneeded foundaiton repair was on a house I looked at more that 10 years ago.  The floor was out of level in the room above the garage.  A foundation repair company recommended $30,000 worth of repairs.  However, it just didn’t look like foundation settlement to me. I checked the elevations of the floor, and it was sagging towards the middle.  That’s not foundation settlement, the floor joists were too long and were sagging.  The repair needed was to put a beam underneath in the garage and a couple of columns.  Maybe 2-3 thousand dollars to repair.  Worse than spending $30,000, the homeowner would not have fixed the problem!

  • Sagging floors – see above.  

  • Unusual cracking in your walls that are growing.

When You Are Selling A Home

If you have anything above that has happened in the last section, and you have lived with it, or even if you have repaired it, you may want to hire an engineer to take a look at is going on.  The home inspector for the buyer is probably going to find any issues, and you may want to be proactive on anything that comes up.  This could save you from a big reduction in sales price or repairs.

I’ve tried to cover everything I could think of.  There is of course the last part.

How Do You Find An Engineer?

Google.  Seriously.  The engineer should have a Professional Engineer license in your state, and at least in Illinois a Structural Engineer license may be required.  Some states, like Georgia, don’t yet have the “Structural Engineer” license, and generally a Professional Engineer will have the knowledge for looking at a residence.  

A Structural Engineer has to pass a 16 hour exam, and has to have course work in structures, and experience in structural design.  Generally, it takes a Masters Degree to pass that exam, or equivalent knowledge.  That kind of license is something necessary if you are designing multi-story (over 3 or 4 stories, and generally high-rise buildings), or bridges.  Residential, not so much.  A Professional Engineer has to pass an eight hour exam, which is more generalized, and the level of knowledge is generally Bachelor’s Degree level.

The engineer should be experienced in residential construction and failure investigation.  Somebody that only works in commercial construction won’t know what to look for.  All of this should be on the engineer’s website.  Generally, engineers that do this work have very small firms (like up to 10 people).  It isn’t profitable for large firms to do this work because of their bureaucratic overhead.

I haven’t gotten into retaining wall problems, that will be another post.



Why You Need a Home Inspector and How to Find One

Whenever you buy a house, whether to live in or as an investment, you take a great risk.  There is a significant amount of money you are spending on an asset that you will own for a long time, and is not easy to get rid of.  If you buy a defective microwave oven, you will probably find out it has problems a couple of days after you get it, and you can usually just bring it back to the retailer and return it.  If your house has problems, they won’t manifest themselves for months, and you may have serious difficulties getting the seller to remedy your problem.  If the problems manifest themselves after a certain period of time, depending on your state’s statute of limitations, you may be stuck.

The best solution of course is prevention.  Home inspectors’ cost varies with the size of the house usually, and also among inspectors.  Some offer discount inspections (don’t go for those, you get what you pay for), and some charge fairly high fees.  Generally you will probably spent between $500.00 and $1,000 around here in Atlanta, and in my opinion, it’s worth it.  Note, we don’t do home inspections.  We follow up afterwards if the inspector finds a problem.

The next issue is – how do you find a home inspector?  Here in Georgia, home inspectors aren’t licensed.  Anyone can call him or herself a home inspector and get a business license.  Many of them advertise, “Licensed”, but that is only a business license.  Not a professional license.  There are a number of them that carry no insurance.  If the home inspector makes a mistake and misses something expensive to fix, you would then have no recourse.  Also, without insurance, if the home inspector gets hurt during the inspection (easy, like falling through ceiling joists in an attic), you might find yourself getting sued by the inspector.

So, what do you do?  Many times real estate agents recommend home inspectors.  In many cases that’s not bad, I get recommended by real estate agents too.  HOWEVER, I have met unethical real estate agents that will do anything to get a sale.  That type of agent might recommend what I think of as a “blind mouse”.  That type of home inspector will find a bunch of minor items, but miss big problems.  That way the report looks like some work has been done, but you get hit with expensive repairs later.  By the way, suing the home inspector for negligence is expensive, and their contracts usually protect them pretty well, so you don’t want to have to go there.

So, what do you do?  I’m not against taking your real estate agent’s recommendation, but do a bit of homework yourself.  The inspector should be a member of ASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors, or here in Georgia GAHI (Georgia Association of Home Inspectors).  Both organizations have pretty strict criteria for membership qualifications, and specific insurance requirements for membership.  They also have great continuing education for their members (I went to one of their seminars (from GAHI) – on Chinese Drywall, it was excellent).  I can’t say enough good things about these organizations.

Also, check the reviews online about the inspector.  There should be reviews on Google, Yelp, Angies List, and other sites.  That can give you an idea.  However, don’t be frightened off by one bad review, or even two.  There are the “Karens” and “Kevins” out there that are perpetually unhappy with everyone.  A home inspector I have very high respect for has a review that totally trashes him, and is completely out of line.  Probably from a homeowner who failed to make a sale because of him, or an angry real estate agent.  It happens.

Finally, check the inspector’s website.  Everybody should have a website.  What is the inspector’s bio?  How did they get into home inspection?  I would want to see a construction background, or engineering or architecture.  The home inspector DOES NOT need to be an engineer or architect by the way, but should not be someone that just decided one day, “I think I’ll be a home inspector” and took a two week course (although membership in ASHI or GAHI weeds those people out pretty fast).

If you are having a house custom built for you, spend a bit of money to have a home inspector look at the foundations before they are poured (a bad foundation is EXPENSIVE to fix), inspect your framing, and you HVAC and plumbing.  Better to fix that stuff in advance.  If you are buying a large house (say over 5,000 SF), I would get an engineer to look at the foundation and framing.  Expect to pay a significant amount for the framing inspection if you want it done right.  Again, you don’t want to have to repair it.  Defects in wood construction often don’t show up for years.  By that time your builder may be long gone.

I think I’ve covered a lot here.  In the next blog post, I’ll talk about when you need to hire an engineer, and what to look for.


Gordon Avenue Townhomes

The Gordon Avenue townhomes project consisted of three buildings and an underground detention pond.  The first building built was done with cold formed steel, the second two were conventional wood framing.  This was project was challenging in that it had very large openings on the front, and getting proper wind bracing was very difficult.

440 and 442 Gartrell Road, Atlanta, GA

#442 – the brown building on the left, was the first container building we ever designed.  It’s located in downtown 4th Ward in Atlanta.  There was nothing particularly challenging about this project.

What is noticeable is the amount of people and companies that take credit for this job that had nothing to do with it.  I was forward a picture of a billboard in China with these houses on it from someone in Australia.  There have been companies and individuals taking credit for these houses that are too numerous to mention.  The houses were built by GAD Construction, we did the structural design, and the architectural design was done by Francis Kirkpatrick.  

Lift Stations and Photo-Cat Treatment Containers, Jamestown, NC

This facility was a package water treatment facility pre-fabricated in Ontario, Canada and shipped to North Carolina for installation.  The system is meant to clean groundwater on an old landfill site.  The challenge with this installation was the containers showed up fully loaded.  So…we had to design them to be able to be lifted from the trucks with a lot of weight already in them.  

“The Oscar” – Phoenix Container Building

Architect: Stark James, Phoenix, AZ

Structural Engineer: Runkle Consulting, Inc.

The Oscar is a commercial and multi-family building in Phoenix.  The building is combined shipping containers and concrete masonry units.  The “wet” portions of the building – the bathrooms are between containers in sections built with concrete masonry units and concrete metal deck composite floors.