Stair Step Cracks in Walls
Well trained and experienced home inspectors will accurately report any cracks that are found in brick, CMU or poured concrete walls, even if they do not look like they are going to fail. Cracks in brick, CMU and poured concrete walls that have a pattern to them can be indications of serious structural problems that can be expensive to cure.
Even if repairs to the structure are not necessary at the time of the inspection, the cause for the problem should be found and cured in order to avoid further damages. Experienced home inspectors know from years of experience that sometimes things are not what they appear to be. Cracks in foundation walls and floor may not be a problem if they are due to shrinkage of materials, expansion or contraction. Cracks in foundation walls or floors that have other causes can be real problems.
Home inspectors who advise clients to just monitor cracks that are not likely to be due to shrinkage of materials, expansion or contraction are just postponing the inevitable. The cause for the problem must be located and repaired or further damages to the structure should be expected to occur.
Stair step patterned cracks many times are an indication the footing under the foundation wall is moving. Footings can move for many reasons. One of the most common reasons footings move is water or moisture in the soil under the footing freezes, expands and lifts the footing and foundation wall. When the frost melts the wall drops.
Old stair step cracks in walls are less of a concern if grading around the exterior of the home has been changed. It is possible and even likely the grading changes may have cured the problem that allowed movement of the footing to occur in the past. Of greatest concern to me when performing a home inspection is evidence of a crack that a home owner or trade person attempted to cover up. Cracks that have been patched especially those patched more than once are an indication of ongoing movement. Cracks that have been patched and painted over are even more of a problem as I will be concerned the home owner is out to trick me. Recent drywall and or finishes that block access to the foundation walls very much concern me. More than once I have inspected a home for a client, reported problems with the foundation walls (cracking, water infiltration, etc.) only to go back weeks or months later for a different client to find all the problems covered up with installed finishes. Yes, some home sellers commit what I consider to be fraud.
Just about any stair step type cracks require further evaluation by a Licensed Professional Engineer. Should one of my home inspection clients follow my advice and have further evaluation performed by a Licensed Professional Engineer and no corrective action be necessary all my client has to do is hold onto the Engineers report and show it to future buyers of the home when they go to sell it. Home inspectors should know not to just advise a home buyer to monitor the crack as who will be there to pay the bill to cure the stair cracks should the new home buyer hire an engineer who feels repairs will be necessary.
Hillside homes have a tendency to suffer more from stair step cracks in the foundation than others do because the earth can be moving it even if it is at a slow pace. Severe movement can cause the foundation to shift. In this case, the home inspector may advise you to get further investigation done by a geotechnical engineer.
Fixing the crack with epoxy or by filling it with cement will not be a cure for the crack. It will be a cosmetic patch at best. The real cause for the crack must be cured PRIOR to sealing the crack or it will just crack again.