A Miami condo collapse in June raised questions about the stability of home and condo foundations. Advise clients to heed these warnings.
Construction worker picking up marble tile which has been demolished between an interior doorway for house remodeling project

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Key Takeaways:

  • Water is a foundation’s biggest menace.
  • Hiring a home inspector is a first way to uncover problems.
  • The age of a foundation is less significant than deferred maintenance.

When the 13-story Champlain Towers South building collapsed in the town of Surfside, Fla., earlier this year, municipalities in the area speeded up planned inspections, and owners of other coastal condominiums worried about whether their buildings were secure. But concerns didn’t stop there.

The tragic collapse and deaths brought questions from multifamily and even some single-family homeowners and buyers around the country. Delayed maintenance is speculated to have been the cause of the tragedy outside of Miami—a swimming pool leaked into a parking garage, which caused rebar to rust and concrete to crumble. However, people have questioned other culprits: Was it the waterfront setting, type of soil, salty air, increasing storm surges, construction method, materials, or structure’s age? Could location and climate present other problems?

“Water is by far the biggest menace, even for those who don’t live near [a body of] water,” says Steven Barckley, a water drainage expert with Exceptional Stone Products in Livingston, N.J. His strategy is to divert water from an exterior foundation, helping to keep it out of the interior.

However, major structural settlement can occur for other reasons, such as highly compressible soils, says Bill Coulbourne, whose eponymous company is based in Annapolis, Md. “The soil will settle differentially and may cause cracks in the foundation,” he says.

Besides the risk of injury, a damaged foundation can be an expensive fix. Before the collapse, Champlain’s owners faced costs totaling $15 million. An important lesson to share with clients is not to delay repairs. “Age is far less relevant than deferred maintenance,” says South Orange, N.J.–based home inspector Tom Dabb of Immaculate Home Inspections.

Understanding construction methods and materials is also critical. “Concrete is a porous material. Water, humidity, and salt in air affect it. If not maintained, it can cause a problem with a structural system,” says New York–based architect Victor Body-Lawson of Body Lawson Associates.

Bringing in an Expert

As a real estate professional, when you’re working with concerned owners or buyers, a smart first step is to recommend they hire a licensed home inspector. Ron Oster, with Coldwell Banker West in San Diego, says his company insists on this step for buyer clients. “If buyers tell me they do not want an inspection, I have to have them sign a waiver since we highly advise them to get an inspection,” he says.

Experienced home inspectors will examine the outside and interior of a house or condo and, ideally, look at a condo building’s basement, since it can provide structural clues, says Cary Jozefiak, with HomeTeam Inspection Service of Chicago.

Real estate pros should encourage buyers to accompany an inspector as they look for potential problems. An expert eye can differentiate between a slight shift or settlement versus a severe pitch that causes greater concern, says Jason Chang with Jersey Inspections in Verona, N.J. The inspector’s job is to suggest which clues warrant a specialist, such as a structural engineer to investigate cracks or an arborist to see if a tree’s root system affects drainage. “The key,” says Madison, Conn.–based architect Duo Dickinson, “is to catch signs before structural inadequacies lead to potential disaster.”

Buyers are wise to choose experts who know local building codes and an area’s challenges, such as salt that corrodes, earthquake tremors that may liquify soil and loosen a foundation, or melting snow that may leak into a basement through foundation cracks. Topography presents challenges, too. “Homes on the side of a mountain are more susceptible to water damage because the water’s force is greater. Drainage is key,” Barckley says.

Often, a building’s infrastructure may be buried under another material, such as wood or concrete. Inspections are more difficult when surfaces have been covered for decorative purposes or repairs, says Jesse Keenan, associate professor of real estate at Tulane University. Outside, mulch may cover plants to control weeds and add curb appeal but might conceal a foundation, Jozefiak says.

You Don't Need to Be a Foundation Pro to Become a Foundation Sleuth

Real estate pros, real estate attorneys, and condo buyers can request condo association board meeting minutes to learn what repairs are needed or if work has been done, says Mike Clarkson, president of Hilb Group of Florida, a national insurance brokerage firm that represents condo associations. Keenan suggests that buyers inquire about building reserves to learn if additional assessments may be levied. It also doesn’t hurt to ask for the reserves study, which is the building’s long-term capital budget planning, as well as future capital improvements that are slated and any insurance claims. The bottom line is to get as much information as possible in writing.

Clients purchasing a single-family home can ask to see sellers’ insurance claims and a list of repairs they have made. Buyers can also search for permits at the city’s building department to see whether work has been done, who did it, and whether the permit was closed, says Dickinson. And buyers can drive by the property on a rainy day to see how the site handles water, Keenan adds.

While there is no guarantee against foundation challenges, the good news is that almost all issues are repairable—and prevention works. “If your house is built atop a crawl space, you keep the area dry underneath, for example. Or you seal cracks in your slab to keep it from settling,” says practitioner Barb St. Amant of Atlanta Fine Homes, Sotheby’s International Realty in Atlanta. “You can’t maintain a great house on a weak foundation. Maintenance is key.”

Warning Signs

When it comes to drainage around foundations, water-drainage expert Steven Barckley suggests watching for these clues.

  • Rotted or recently replaced wood on the base of exterior wooden door frames and windows
  • Horizontal or diagonal cracks in a foundation or wall
  • Sloping upper-level floors that aren’t part of normal settlement
  • Soil erosion
  • Wet or moist basement
  • Efflorescence left on masonry surfaces, mainly on basement walls near foundation windows and corners where downspouts are located, usually identifiable by white minerals or stains
  • Absence of gutters or downspouts
  • Clogged gutters and downspouts
  • Inadequately sized gutters and downspouts
  • Downspouts dumping water too close to a foundation
  • Overgrowth of vegetation close to a house, especially large trees
  • A sloping site where water is not diverted from the foundation
  • Patios or walkways pitched toward a home or toward its ground- level doors
  • The presence of mold or mildew, especially on lower levels
  • A smell of moisture or moldy conditions
  • Cracks in a multifamily building’s lower levels, possibly accompanied by excessive moisture or water