Can I fix my slanting wood floors? I called a structural engineer…

My house is over a hundred years old. A hundred and nine, to be exact (although I suppose I don’t know exactly what month the construction was complete). So, for an old house, a person’s willing to forgive several things. The woodwork isn’t perfectly pristine anymore, how could it be after 109 years? The rooms aren’t as large as they would be in a brand-new house, but the house makes up for it in charm. Well, one thing that I’ve been forgiving since buying the house is the almost complete lack of level floors. The living room, in the front of the house, is perceived as level by a casual observer (although it does slant toward the street). The kitchen and bathroom, in the back of the house, are perceived as as level, although they do slant slightly toward the dining room (in the middle of the house). The bedrooms and dining room, however, have a significant, immediately perceivable slant. It happens both on my floor (downstairs), and in the rental unit (upstairs). I’ve had people who were viewing the apartment actually joke about feeling like they were “walking uphill.” I have 4″ shims under one end of my bed to make it level. It’s really a significant gap. However, I’ve gotten used to it, and I’ve never had a vacancy upstairs, so other people presumably are able to get used to it as well. Most of my home-improvement-savvy friends seemed to think that the issue was that the house had shifted (past tense), and was now done shifting, so there wasn’t much to worry about at this point, unless I actually wanted to correct the slant. While the slant can be corrected, it comes with a slew of its own problems, though — crumbling plaster, windows and doors that don’t close, squeaking, cracking, all sorts of things. It didn’t seem worth it, so I just left it alone.

When I bought the house, some of the immediate maintenance that I did involved sanding down the top of a couple of doors so that they would close properly, and also the bottom of one of the bedroom doors upstairs, so that it wouldn’t scrape across the hardwood floor. I hand-sanded the doors, and sanded far enough down so that the doors would open/close freely, plus maybe a magazine’s width on the bottom of the bedroom door. This was 5 years ago. I realized during the last turnover, however, that the upstairs bedroom door was scraping the floor again… which meant that, although slight, there was still movement. Also, there are a couple of obvious patch-jobs in the plaster on my dining room walls. These have clearly been there for a while, but over the past five years, they’ve cracked through the paint. Also, my front door slowly became harder and harder to close, until it finally dawned on me that I had to sand down the top of it. I started to worry that I had a real problem on my hands.

WHAT TO DO? I knew that there wasn’t much that my friends and I could really tell about the status of the foundation, and we couldn’t make any realistic predictions as to what would happen to the house in the future (would it eventually end up at a 45 degree angle????) I was also thinking about putting some more money into the duplex by remodeling the kitchen and bathroom downstairs, but I didn’t want to put any more money into a sinking house… for piece of mind (and to know whether I should quick patch up all of the cracks and sell the house ASAP), I decided that I needed to bite the bullet and have a structural engineer take a look.

As luck would have it, one of my good friends (a mechanical engineer, incidentally), had recently been doing some structural work at his house, and was able to refer me to a very good structural engineer. He came out to do a site visit for no charge (I was expecting to pay around $150 for a visit, which I still think would have been well worth it). He looked at the foundation, the basement, the floor joists, the slant of the floor, the walls, the woodwork, etc. He gave me his prediction for what would happen to the house in the future, and a few general ideas of how a slant like mine could be fixed. To put together an actual plan for how a contractor could carry out one of these methods, he quoted me around $400, which seems pretty reasonable to me too.

Well, most importantly, he assured me that nothing “catastrophic” was going to happen if I simply left everything alone. The foundation is sound, the skeleton of the house is fine; it’s simply an old house. Likely, the ground beneath the house is compacting, and the house is simply moving with it. So, I don’t have to quick sell the house. Good. Here are the options that he gave me for fixing the slant:

  • Jack up the house (like house-movers do), remove the old foundation, solidify the ground beneath it, and build a new, level foundation. Drop the old house onto the new foundation. I think that he said this would end up costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000. Yipes. Except — in the process of doing this, you could actually turn your duplex into a triplex. The new foundation could become a garden-level apartment, thus increasing the income-generation potential of the property by about a third. Over time, it could actually pay for the cost of the new foundation. Drawback? Well, aside from the initial outlay of cash, the non-level house would have to re-shift to accommodate the now level foundation, causing all of those cracking/crumbling/sagging issues all over again. While intriguing, this isn’t anything that I’m ready to jump on.
  • Apparently, they can actually inject some sort of ground-solidifying material into the ground below your foundation. They can inject enough of this that it actually slowly lifts up the foundation of the house. Sounds much easier than the previous option, but apparently it isn’t much cheaper….
  • They can attach a bunch of little auger-like devices to the foundation that are able to move the foundation to the proper level. I wish that I had asked more questions about the actual mechanics of this, but, like the last two options, it’s also pretty expensive. Sigh.
  • I can have a soil test done to find out what’s actually going on with the soil beneath my house, what it’s made of and why it’s settling. After this, I either dig out, inject, or auger-ify. Not so helpful.
  • I can just live with it. And realize that it’s an old house; one that’s not quit grand enough to warrant $50,000 worth of foundation work to correct a semi-minor problem. If this was a mansion, historical landmark, etc., it might be worth it. But, assuming that this guy knows his stuff, it’s not likely that the place is going to cease being a reasonable place to live within my lifetime. As I do plan to keep the duplex indefinitely, and use it as extra income when I’m old and retired, I’m certainly interested in the long-term. Leveling the un-level floors doesn’t seem to be in the cards, however. It seems like the best thing to do in this case is to do nothing at all. Except for maybe have a lot of shims on hand…

5 thoughts on “Can I fix my slanting wood floors? I called a structural engineer…

  1. Mine does this, as well. I’ve had a couple of contractors look at things and they say all the shifting is done, but I have a suspicion they’re wrong because I could swear some patched cracks are open again, and I’ve only had the house six months. Eeep….I’m not going to pursue it, though, because maybe I’m hallucinating. Maybe. I do however need to sand doors down this summer. *sigh*

  2. Yeah, I guess that the sanding-down-doors thing is just part of having an old house. It makes me wonder, too — if I did something to correct the slant, would I then have to get all new doors, because they would all be slanted on the top (or bottom) from all of the sanding down?

    Oh well, I’m not likely to pursue anything, so I guess I’ll never know 🙂

  3. If you dont have a basement you could do what we do in South Africa yourself (the houses here are all double wall brick……with a wooden house you could use less concrete.

    Dig a hole about a metre long and half a metre wide at the side of the house, when you get below your foundation dig under the foundation till the foundation stops (depth below foundation about 250 to 350 cm)

    hit some 1 metre lengths of steel reinforcing bar about half way into the sides of the hole about half way between the bottom of the hole and the bottom of the foundation

    fill the hole up to the level of the bottom of the foundation with foundation grade concrete (you can mix it yourself)

    allow to harden for 3-4 hours and fill the remainder of the hole with removed soil

    This takes a 50 year old man (like me) about a weekend

    continue next week with the hole NEXT to the one you have just filled

    By the time you have finished you will have a new WIDER foundation under the old one hopfully DOUBLING the width of the existing foundation and underpinning it. It will therefore support TWICE what the original foundation did OR (and this is what you want) require TWICE the pressure to move .

    Ask your engineer freind to size it for you (it worked for me! on a badly built house in Blairgowerie Johannesburg…..the house has not sustained any further cracks after 30 years. The house belonged to my father and I dug the holes and mixed the concrete, it only took me 1 day a metre because I was then 20!))

  4. Sorry. Didnt make myself clear. Continue the process all the way round the house till you reach your starting point.

  5. Thanks for the info, Andrewa. This may work for some people in the southern part of the U.S., where it’s warm year-round. Unfortunately, I’m located in the Midwest, where the temperatures are below freezing for most of the winter. Most houses here have either a full basement, or at least a crawl-space that goes below the frost line.

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