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The Risks Associated with Unstable Soil

written by: •edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 5/30/2011

Most homes begin to settle as they age because the soil beneath them erodes over time from weather and other factors. Settling foundations may be the least of the issues that a homeowner has to be concerned about with unstable soil. Learn the facts about unstable soil and home ownership.

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    Identifying Problems of Unstable Soil

    unstable soil For those who are considering purchasing a home, the potential hazards of unstable soil is a real problem. One of the major issues is that this is not always easy to determine when viewing a home. Buyers may see a perfectly groomed lawn, beautiful landscaping and find out later that the property is an accident looking for a place to happen.

    Unstable soil has the potential of creating numerous problems for homeowners. Some of these problems include the home settling too quickly causing foundation damage or finding water in the basement every time it rains. Additionally, soil erosion can cause trees to uproot and fall on the home creating even more damage.

    How can home buyers protect themselves?

    It can be challenging identifying unstable soil especially since not all homeowners may be aware that there are problems. Some immediate signs that a home is built in unstable soil is the condition of a foundation. When buying a home, a thorough inspection of the foundation should be conducted. Looking for cracks, signs of repair or other faults that may give signs that a home foundation has been recently repaired or is in need of repair can be helpful.

    Additional checks can be made by looking at the soil in the yard that the property is built on. Check under decks, porches and shrubbery to see what type of soil is on the property. Signs that there may be problems include pooled water, extremely sandy soil or hard clay.

    What can a home buyer do if they suspect unstable soil?

    If a home buyer suspects that a home has unstable soil the best thing they can do to protect themselves is to contact a professional soil tester. These professionals will conduct what is known as a percolator test which can determine the stability of the soil. These professionals have specific training and tools that help them determine how stable the ground is.

    Another method of determining how stable the soil is may be to review topographical maps of the area which may provide information regarding the soil in the area. However, these maps are not always current or entirely accurate.

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    Problems Faced by Homeowners

    structural damage from unstable soil Unstable soil can create numerous problems for a homeowner. Before answering the question is it a good idea to buy a house with unstable soil, home buyers should be aware of the types of issues that can be caused by unstable soil.

    Damaged foundations - cracking and damage to foundations are one of the most common hazards associated with unstable soil. Not only are foundations expensive to repair, but the inconvenience of having a foundation repaired must also be taken into consideration. Damaged foundations can cause mold and mildew to build up in basements and damage property as well as cause illnesses in the home;

    Weather concerns - unstable soil can mean that a homeowner who is living in an area where there is seasonally heavy rains, chances of hurricanes or earthquakes may have additional concerns. For example, homeowners who have purchased homes that have unstable soil near a beach or waterfront may have to worry about excessively high tides causing serious damage to their property as a result of erosion;

    Vegetation overgrowth - homes that are built on unstable soil may suffer serious damage if nearby trees topple as a result of overgrowth. These trees often do well for long periods of time until the roots grow out of control and begin getting top-heavy. These trees can create problems with electrical lines causing fire hazards and may also topple causing roofs to collapse;

    Structural concerns - in addition to possible damage to foundations, a home that is settling unnaturally due to unstable soil may also suffer other structural damage. This damage can be broken windows, uneven door casings, fractures in walls and other damage that may over time weaken the overall structure of the home.

    Those who are considering buying a home that may have unstable soil will want to carefully evaluate the potential damage that may be caused before purchasing. In some cases, there may be ways to shore up the home or make the soil more stable. Homeowner's should not risk the safety of their family or belongings by purchasing a home with unstable soil without understanding the potential hazards.

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    Resources

    For additional information:

    US Geological Services Digital State Geological Maps

    Sources:

    1. Construction Dictionary Unstable Soil
    2. HUD Handbooks - (PDF) Chapter 5 Environmental Factors
    3. Fox News 13 Now Web Staff Couple awarded $3M in lawsuit against developer for sinking home

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