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Cracks – The Facts

When it comes to property an ability to identify which cracks are just inoffensive settlement cracks, and which can lead to a big ‘crack’ in your renovation budget is a very useful skill! The more serious cases are of cracks are due to subsidence – which can usually be easy to spot from the way the cracks appear. They tend to run diagonally and were wider at the top than at the bottom.27-01-2012

So, what are the causes of subsidence and how do you spot it in a property?
The most common causes of subsidence are as follows:
1. Water erosion. Damage to subsoils caused by water flowing through them. This may be from naturally occurring ground water or leaking drains and water mains. When a drain begins to leak it can soften or wash away the body of a soil and create weakness. This can result in the weight of any nearby structures causing the soil to crush, allowing the building to subside.
2. Mine Shafts  If your property is in a mining area, then settlement of old mine workings can result in damage to structures on the surface. Although the mines may be very deep and a long way from your property – they can still cause subsidence. You can ask for a mining report to be carried out on your property to check for the potential for this kind of damage. In certain cases you may also be able to claim the cost of repairs back from the relevant mining authorities.
3. Instability of uneven ground. When soils rest at an angle to the horizontal they can sometimes become unstable and begin to slip. This is known as landslip and is typical of coastal cliffs and most people are aware of the type of dramatic collapses that appear on the news from time to time. In a lesser way this can happen on naturally occurring slopes and in areas where a man-made excavation has created large differences in ground levels. This type of movement is both difficult and expensive to deal with.
4. Shrinkage of soils is probably the most common cause of subsidence. Soils that contain a large organic content such as peat are most susceptible to this. When these materials are below the water table in the ground they remain relatively stable for hundreds of years. If, for any reason, the water table should become lower, then the soils will be prone to drying-out or biodegrading - either of which will result in a reduction in its volume. This will cause any buildings supported by the soils to settle and crack.
5. Shrinkage of clay soils. Clay is a natural soil created in historic rivers by the deposition of tiny rock particles. Being highly impermeable to the passage of water, clays will resist the tendency to dry out and will normally maintain consistent moisture content over many decades. However, if a clay dries out it can shrink and upon rewetting it expands. This results in seasonal shrinkage and swelling which can cause cracking of nearby buildings.
6. Tree roots spread out in search of water. When trees grow in shrinkable clay soils they can dry out the soils and this can often cause subsidence if they affect the soils beneath the footings. Alternatively, if a well established tree should die then the ground in which its roots are dispersed will no longer be subject to the long term drying-out effect and as a result will begin to take up moisture from surrounding soils and from the atmosphere. This in turn will result in swelling of the soil and this is known as heave. Heave is capable of producing greater damage to a building than its counterpart, subsidence.

How can I spot if a property has subsidence?
The obvious signs of subsidence in a property, is if there are a series of cracks generally around one part of the building, e.g. bay window, corner or additional structure such as a porch or annex. Similarly, if repaired cracks reappear or doors or windows begin to stick, then these are all signs that there is movement to the walls which may be due to subsidence, heave or landslip and requires further investigation.
What's the prognosis if a property is found to have subsidence?
In structural terms, damage caused by subsidence rarely causes the building to become unstable overnight. As a general guide for more modern properties, the crack width/movement needs to be about 15mm or more to warrant a ‘severe damage’ classification. Even with such movement, the building may not be unstable.
If you suspect that your property has subsidence, you will need to get it checked out by an experienced and qualified Chartered structural engineer who can will carry out various investigations on the property and report to you what remedial work should be undertaken. They will also oversee and co-ordinate repair work. You should also notify your buildings insurers as soon as possible, as they may wish to appoint a loss adjuster to help with any insurance issues.
Your Structural Engineer will usually need to dig down to the foundations of your property in order to establish the foundation and subsoil characteristics. Soil and root samples are then tested in the laboratory. Other tests include checking drains for leaks and visible cracks need to be measured and monitored for changes. If you know a bit about the history of your property, this can also be very useful.
Aside from the costs of getting the remedial work carried out, you should also be aware that because of the need to monitor movement, it is common for subsidence damage to take 12-18 months to resolve. If monitoring is not considered to be beneficial, then repairs can be carried out more quickly but there may be issues involving third parties (i.e. neighbours having an offending tree whose roots are causing the problem) then this can add an extra element to your project which could make the process longer.
About 20-30% of properties suffering from subsidence need some form of underpinning but in most instances, remedial measures such as removal of trees or repairs to leaking drains are sufficient for the building to regain stability and the repairs are no more disruptive than you needing to redecorate the property.
You as the owner of the property could be responsible for the costs involved in sorting out the subsidence, but your buildings insurers may reimburse you the engineer's fees, investigative costs and repair costs if they are reasonable. Remember, you will have to pay the policy excess, which in most cases will be about £1000.
If you are just about to buy a property that you know has serious cracks and are applying for a mortgage, it’s likely that the mortgage company will insist on a Structural Engineers Report. They may also request a drain survey. Depending on what the report states, you can expect the mortgage company to put a ‘Retention’ on the mortgage. This in effect means that they hold back part of the loan pending the work being carried out to fix the problem. They may even want to see evidence that you have this money available to you from other means (and I’ve heard of some cases where they have gone as far as to insist that it cannot be borrowed by means of a loan but in effect ‘gifted’ to you).
So..it may be that you need to go back to your sums to find a work- around on the finances if you are seeking a mortgage. One sensible option might be to negotiate with the vendor that they either reduce the price of the property by the amount of the mortgage retention or at least allow you to defer this until your mortgage company pays you!

Submited By: xiaojun    18-09-2016 06:46 am
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