How to Look

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We want you to be an informed homebuyer, and each blog post is a question that we have answered for our friends and customers over the years. Hope they help you make a good choice for your next home.

    That’s a lot of legalese, but it hits two key points:

  1. 1)Defect is in “load-bearing portions of a home.”

  2. 2)The defect causes the load-bearing components to become “unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unlivable.”

    The HUD definition further clarifies what is NOT considered a structural defect, which includes damage of non-load-bearing components such as roofing, drywall and plaster, exterior siding, stone, brick or stucco veneer. Here is where it gets complicated. While these components are not load-bearing, they are often the areas where symptoms of structural problems behind them become visible. A hole punched in a bedroom wall does not indicate a possible structural defect, but a long, open crack in the same wall requires further investigation. Also, this is a standard for an insurance claim and we have to point out structural problems that are progressing towards “unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unlivable.”

   The photo at the top of the page, of the stair-step cracks in a retaining wall under the porch and utility room of a home, shows clear signs of structural distress, with a large crack and part of the wall rotating outward. The concrete slab above it was observed moving away from an adjacent wall. and—curiously—the outside trim of a doorway directly above the slab, shown below, was buckling under the pressure of what appeared to be clay soil “heaving” after several days of heavy rains.

    Cracks are not usually this dramatic, and many are simply cosmetic ones due to changes in humidity or temperature in a home. During the first two years of a home’s life there is also a certain amount of normal settlement and small cracks appear. If repaired, they usually do not reopen, since the structure will stabilize after the initial settlement.

    We use a standard gauge for determining whether a crack is structural: if you can stick two quarters side-by-side in the crack and one side of the crack has shifted up from the other one, it is likely a structural problem. Nearby further signs of distress will help to confirm the evaluation. Also, keeping an eye on it over time to see if it continues to move is another indication of a developing structural defect.

    It’s worth noting, though, that defects do not just fall into the two categories of structural and cosmetic. A double-pane insulated window that has lost the inert gas and began to cloud over is more than just a cosmetic problem, for example, because the insulation rating of the window was lost when the gas escaped. To learn about how the FARBAR contract used for most Florida residential real estate transactions defines a cosmetic defect, see our blog post “What is a ‘cosmetic defect’ in a home inspection?”

    The question we sometimes get from an annoyed realtor when we point out a structural defect is “Well, do you think it’s going to fall down any time soon?” The answer is rarely yes, but it has happened. A cracked wood beam across the living room of a 1950s modern home that supported two large areas of roof at a recent home inspection was sagging noticeably, with a significant opening at the bottom of the beam. It was clearly creeping towards imminent collapse.

    But usually, the answer is “no, no time soon, but if not repaired it will likely continue to get worse and progress towards failure later.” Structural problems tend to pick up speed if ignored.  Water gets inside a crack in a wall, for example, and begins to rot the wood framing, which opens the crack further, which allows more water entry and rot, and so forth. Dust and debris lodge in the bottom of the crack and keep it from closing even after conditions that caused it are reversed. So it is always a good idea to determine the cause of a structural defect and fix it as soon as possible after it is observed.

  For more information, see our blog post “What causes cracks in the walls and floors of a house?” for a brief course in crackology, or go to “How do I recognize serious structural problems in a house?” for tips on hunting for clues to underlying structural defects.


While we hope you find this series of articles about home inspection helpful, they should not be considered an alternative to an actual home inspection by a local inspector. Also, construction standards vary in different parts of the country and it is possible that important issues related to your area may not be covered here.
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