Reuben Saltzman

Foundation cracks: get an engineer every time?

Does this sound like good advice to you? Hire an engineer to evaluate all foundation cracks? It doesn’t sound like good advice to me. Yet, that’s the advice given in a recent article in a trade journal for home inspectors, written by an insurance company. Home inspector insurance companies have a lot of influence in the home inspection profession, and they’re making home inspectors paranoid. They’re making home inspectors afraid to do their jobs; at least meaningfully. I think that if insurance companies had their way, home inspectors would call for further inspection of every single component in the home.

This article was about foundation cracks and foundation damage, and it seriously said that the size of a crack doesn’t matter. I wish that this was an attempt at cheeky humor, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.

If you’re the reading type, please read on. If you’re the video type, here’s a video with my response:

Size doesn’t matter?

Are all cracks really the same, regardless of size? Let’s take a look at a couple of examples. Take the crack below, from a recent inspection. This is a big crack in a foundation wall, and our inspector recommended repair to help stabilize the wall.

Large foundation crack

Our inspector also theorized that this was the result of poor water management at the exterior. He didn’t definitively conclude this, but that was his best guess. It’s a good guess, and he gave some recommendations about what to do at the outside. I’m pretty confident in his guess, and his recommendations were sound.

For this next crack, you’re looking at one of the foundation walls at my own house. This occurred at one of the ‘steps’ in the foundation wall of my 20-year-old home. It’s unusual to not have cracks at that location.

Small foundation wall crack

Now get ready to gasp and clutch your pearls: I didn’t pay any mind to this crack when I bought my house.

This crack has remained this way for the last eight years that I’ve lived in my house. This crack ain’t going anywhere, and I’m not concerned about it. If I inspected this house for someone else, I’d even tell them as much. Lord have mercy, right? I’d probably use a bit stuffier wording, so as not to be called unprofessional (yes, that has happened to me in the past for using colloquial language in my reports). My written report comment would say something like this:

There was a relatively small vertical crack in the poured concrete foundation wall, which is probably attributable to shrinkage and has little structural significance. Generally speaking, cracks in poured concrete walls that are less than 1/8″ are not considered to be structurally significant. Nonetheless, it should be monitored to see if there is active movement in this area.”

According to the same article, this proper thing to do would have been to invite my client to “seek further evaluation by a structural engineer.” Of course. What else would an insurance company want us to do? My problem with this is that it provides zero value to my client. All it does is protect me and my insurance company. Show me a home inspector who is only concerned about their own liability, and I’ll show you a worthless home inspection report.

Standard of Practice

I’m a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and I follow the ASHI Standard of Practice (SOP) for home inspections. Here’s what my SOP says about my responsibility to report things like cracks. I added the bold.

2.2 The inspector shall:
B. provide the client with a written report, using a format and medium selected by the inspector, that states:
1. those systems and components inspected that, in the professional judgment of the inspector, are not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe, or are near the end of their service lives,

When I find cracks in foundation walls that, in my professional judgment, are not significantly deficient, I will tell my client as much. I will not make a recommendation for further evaluation. This does not mean that I am certifying the foundation as structurally stable, nor am I offering an opinion about the adequacy of structural systems or components. I’m simply doing what the client is paying me to do; share my professional opinion.


So what’s the conclusion? I don’t know. I guess I’m kind of ranting because I got whipped up when I read this article. I believe that if home inspectors want to limit their own liability, they need to start by protecting their clients. I’m of the opinion that making recommendations for structural engineers over every little crack is not in the best interest of our clients.

What do you think? Please chime in with your thoughts, and leave a comment below.

ps – of course, there are times when a structural engineer is needed, and in those cases, it’s good to have a partner to work with. We recommend Complete Building Solutions and Criterium-Schimnowski Engineers.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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No responses to “Foundation cracks: get an engineer every time?”

  1. Ben Hendricks
    November 20, 2018, 5:54 am

    While I agree with you Reuben, I would argue the vast majority of inspectors lack the knowledge or experience to make that call.

  2. Roy Wier
    November 20, 2018, 6:07 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Our approach is very similar to yours, and I don’t intend to change that anytime soon to appease an underwriter.

  3. Charles (Charlie) Bellefontaine
    November 20, 2018, 7:17 am

    I couldn’t agree more. We can even take it to the other side. Those cracks that are 1/4” or wider, have been repaired and cracked again, or have moved in two or more directions don’t need a structural engineer either. They need a foundation repair company.

  4. leslie
    November 20, 2018, 7:29 am

    I agree with Ben Hendricks. Nice piece Reuben. Well written and factual.

  5. Michael Patton
    November 20, 2018, 7:42 am

    Reuben, good article, good response to the insurance article. I agree with your position.

  6. Donald Rankin
    November 20, 2018, 7:58 am

    We’ll put Reuben , as usual your comments are sensible.

  7. Triesta Brown
    November 20, 2018, 11:11 am

    Love the rant, Reuben, because it means you care about what you do. Many years ago, homeowners in St. Paul were required to disconnect the rain leaders. Unfortunately the grading, gutter and downspout issues were not addressed at that time by many property owners, leading to those big cracks in foundations that are still quite commonly seen. Government regulations that lead to unintended consequences can occasionally be the cause of issues that come up in inspection reports. It’s too bad that inspectors aren’t consulted by those government agencies to address some of those consequences in order to develop some education for the property owners before the regulations go into effect – and also in some cases to prevent requiring an owner to do something that may harm the integrity of the structure or its components. I realize this comment has ranged a bit further than the topic, but I just couldn’t resist, based on the particular example you used.

  8. John Guy
    November 20, 2018, 1:54 pm

    I agree 100%….a good inspector has got to take some responsibility and “stick their neck out” a little to provide value. If the focus of the report is solely to minimize liability don’t expect much repeat business. Clients want your expertise, not a report full of referrals to specialists. Thanks as always for the good work Reuben.

  9. Matt Fellman
    November 20, 2018, 9:58 pm

    Hey Reuben – This is Matt from up in Oregon. We chatted briefly at the ISN conference after the E/O agent and lawyer presentation. As you may or may not remember I’m the guy with current 950K lawsuit based on this exact topic – foundation cracks. I am completely in agreement with your opinion and am totally frustrated at E/O companies opinion of how we should conduct ourselves. Of course, calling out an engineer for every crack would prevent lawsuits but it would also prevent any of us from working as our inspections would be of no value. I guess I don’t fault the E/O companies specifically. They are just looking at the almighty $$.

    The other SOP that I always think of is ASHI 2.2 -B-1. A crack is “not performing properly” if it is larger than some accepted standard of what is “normal”. From my research I usually find the threshold to be the dime size or screwdriver tip or ballpoint pen or something like that. Also, I’m talking vertical/settlement cracks here. Horizontal are, of course, a whole other game. Anyway, there are plenty of times when I know a settlement crack is not ever going to be a problem (I have a bunch in my own house just like yours) but I just feel like I’m leaving my butt hanging too far out in the wind to not write them up in some manner.

    I totally agree with your overall take on this and share your frustration 1000%. It’s really a shame where this industry has gone. Here in Oregon we have herds of “foundation specialist” contractors driving nicer trucks than mine making a good living scaring the hell out of people. As much as I want to stand up for what I know is right I sometimes just don’t have the time and energy. At the end of the day my company spec is if you can fit a dime or screwdriver in it, write it up. I do have some pretty soft write-ups if there are just a few minor ones that barely meet the dime criteria. As soon as we can tie it into sloping floors, skewed door frames and/or cracked drywall the write-up gets a bit heavier handed.

    Great topic and great stuff as always…. thanks!

  10. Marc
    November 21, 2018, 10:19 am

    One would hope that insurance companies would be better informed or to least open to advice from the home inspector community. If not, then once a state regulatory body mandates E & O, we’re at the mercy of those insurance providers and the integrity of this aspect of our service rises and falls at the whim of the insurance community.

  11. Mike Abshear
    November 21, 2018, 10:35 am

    I believe most NEW inspectors feel obligated to recommend an engineer over every little crack. As these inspectors become more experienced and understand what’s important and what’s not important, the engineer recommendations drop significantly.

  12. Mike Stephans
    November 22, 2018, 3:33 am

    In my area, poured concrete foundations rule. I like to tell my clients that I know 3 things about these foundations, 1- they’re gray, 2- water will migrate through them, and 3- they crack. It’s the nature of the beast.

  13. Alex
    November 22, 2018, 8:43 am

    There is a structural engineer here in Kansas City that all the realtors use (he’s $175 cash) when an inspector recommends a SE. He is literally at the house for 5 minutes. I have been at many inspections where he was scheduled ahead of time and showed up during the home inspection and he literally overlooks structural issues — and provides a fluff report. He asks if you are selling or buying the house and adjusts his recommendations as well. So I am usually hesitant to recommend a SE unless there are significant problems. From the buyers perspective, the advantage to hiring a qualified SE is actual repairs needed are documented — 5 different foundation repair contractors will have different opinions with bids all over the place. Of course the seller, will find the foundation contractor (his buddy) that recommends nothing and that’s not good for the client. Now the realtor is mad you scared the buyer and a “professional” came out and said nothing is wrong. :/
    So I agree with you that it depends on the severity and like mentioned in another comment, the recommendation for a SE significantly decreases as the inspector gains experience.

  14. Terence Hobson
    November 30, 2018, 1:18 am

    Good stuff Rueben! I generally explain it to my clients in this way…Small vertical cracks are usually not really of major significance, however; if the cracks begin to stairstep, bulge or offset, take immediate action and contact a licensed foundation repair contractor. In the meantime, monitor closely. Thank you Rueben for the service you’re providing on this site!

  15. Wade Falls
    January 25, 2019, 6:42 pm

    Totally agree Reuben. I typically still recommend that all cracks be repaired 1) to prevent moisture penetration and 2) that way it can be monitored for further movement. We don’t know when the crack happened, could have been a month after the house was built or could have been last week. But there has to be something more going on (widely open crack/shifting/displacement or other evidence throughout the inspection) to refer a structural engineer, I agree that it is not doing your client any good to refer to an engineer for any hairline crack. Nice article/video.

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