The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 12, 2012

Waseca home owners dealing with sinking houses

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

WASECA — Last spring Pat and Howard Edwards suspected that something had gone awry with their home.

That sinking feeling turned out to be justified. Their house had sunk.

 The culprit: drought. The out-of-pocket cost to remedy the situation: $40,000.

Farm crops and lawns weren’t the only victims of this year’s extended dry spell. Some homes also have succumbed to arid soils.

For whatever reason, homes in and around Waseca have been particularly affected.

 Howard Edwards said he and his family have lived in their northwest Waseca home for 36 years and never had a similar problem until this year.

He said fissures in the ceiling, walls and foundation began to inexplicably appear, and doors and windows weren’t closing properly.

“We noticed a dramatic shift in everything ... everything cracked.”

Work to return the structure to level footing was completed a few days ago, and Edwards said he hopes the ordeal can serve as a cautionary tale to homeowners.

He said four other homes in his neighborhood were similarly afflicted, and he suspects the soils in the area, formerly a slough, may have exacerbated the situation.

That’s a reasonable assumption, said Victor Barke, owner of Complete Basement Systems of Mankato.

“As soil dries, it shrinks. And if you don’t have good, stable soil ...”

Barke said heavy clay soils are highly moisture-retentive and mitigate against damaging dryness caused by drought.

Other soils are more susceptible, and in a year of severe dryness a lack of moisture can cause the soil to contract. When that happens, a house can tilt down into the void.

“We’ve had a rash of foundation calls this year,” said Barke, who hasn’t seen the like since the extended drought conditions of the late 1980s.

Nate Proper of American Waterworks of Mankato, a basement repair and waterproofing company that worked on the Edwards home, said the firm has raised about 10 sunken homes in Waseca and he knows of about a dozen more there with similar problems.

Edwards said his house had to be raised 3 inches on one corner and more than an inch on another corner. That doesn’t sound like much, but to achieve it requires some serious digging and lifting.

The fix calls for steel pipes, or piers, to be driven into the ground until they reach load-bearing soil.

 That can be a depth of a couple of dozen feet on up to nearly 100 feet — the deeper the dig, the more costly to the homeowner. The piers at the Edwards home were driven 57 feet.

Next, L-shaped brackets are attached to the piers and the foundation is lifted to its original level.

Because homeowner drought insurance is virtually unheard of Minnesota (like a flood insurance clause, it must be written into contracts), a stricken property owner ends up paying tens of thousands of dollars to right the wrong.

“It’s been a learning process for all of us,” Edwards said wryly.

Barke said one telltale sign that a home’s foundation might be compromised by dry soil is the presence of vertical cracks rather than the more common horizontal cracks wrought by freeze/thaw cycles.

He said latex caulk can be applied into a vertical fissure as a test. If it rips back open, there’s an active problem going on.

As a proactive measure during dry spells, homeowners can position perforated garden soaker hoses a few feet away from the foundation to keep soil moist and intact.