From Kentucky to Idaho to Colorado, homeowners are reporting dramatic, rapidly developing foundation problems which are the apparent result of this years record drought. For states in the midwest it's the worst drought since 1956. But we've had many droughts since 1956.
I remember a drought back around 1979 that threatened to dry up the Mississippi River and almost brought shipping to a standstill. Hank Williams Jr. even mentioned it in a song he wrote at the time. But I don't ever remember hearing about such problems with foundations collapsing under homes in the numbers we're seeing today.
One story, from a town in Indiana shows brick walls beginning to separate.
In Colorado a woman made news when her living room floor suddenly dropped about four inches. The floor separated from the wall, leaving a gaping hole. And it happened suddenly. This was not your run of the mill type of settlement issue.
If you search the internet for terms such as "foundation problems, drought" you'll find dozens of news stories from Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky and other states as well.
Indeed, both drought and heavy rain can cause severe settlement problems over time. It's not uncommon to see older homes with foundation problems as a result of a process known as "heaving". In places where the soil has a high clay content, "heaving" is a regular part of the life of a home.
When it rains, the clay in the soil soaks up the water and this causes the clay to expand. This can actually lift a home up about one-half inch to one full inch every time you get a soaking rain. Over time a house will literally move up and down as the clay absorbs rain, then dries out. As it dries out the clay contracts, and the house moves down. This up and down movement is known as "heaving".
In areas that have periods where there is a lot of rain which is then followed by a drought, the heaving can be very pronounced and cause problems like doors that won't shut, cracks in windows, cracks in brick walls, and in severe cases, a house can literally break in two.
I once inspected a home that had settled so badly on one end that the entire house "broke" into two sections. One end suddenly settled in soil that was weakened by too much rain. The half-inch wide crack that resulted penetrated the entire height of the house, split the sheetrock in the interior rooms, and broke a 6 inch thick, poured concrete basement wall. The crack then worked it's way across the entire width of the basement floor, effectively breaking the house into two sections. It was amazing to see the damage that resulted from a combination of lots of rain and foundation footers on one end that had been placed in fill dirt instead of compacted soil.
I live in north Georgia, where we have lots of Georgia red clay. Here, houses without gutters on them often develop foundation problems over time, due to heaving caused by water getting too close to the foundation. But it's usually a problem that takes years to develop. And it is usually controlled by making sure that rain water is drained away from the foundations. However in this case, there are thousands of houses suffering from dry weather. The clay soil is so dry that it's shrinking and portions of many houses in the severe drought areas are dropping entire sections, or the entire house is cracking up.
To make matters worse, there is typically no insurance coverage for structural damage caused by a drought. Foundation repairs are difficult and expensive. Homeowners facing such problems in the drought ravaged areas are looking at spending tens of thousands of dollars to fix the damage. Some have reported that they still had problems with doors and windows even after foundation repairs.
This is one type of problem that is even worse than falling home prices, because when you have a major structural problem your home is virtually unmarketable until repairs are done. Strapped homeowners could be looking at abandoning homes in some cases, where the damage is really severe.
I can't help but wonder if there are other factors at work here. Perhaps the drought is also causing problems below ground, that are aggravating the foundation problems. In many of these states that have been most affected by the drought, the water table is also very low, and this may be reducing the ability of the ground to support the weight of a structure.
It's a complex issue to be sure, but what puzzles me is the widespread nature of the problem. Are we building houses these days that are just not that well built? Is the stability of the ground being compromised by a combination of factors? I don't know, but I do know that this problem is so widespread that it strikes me as highly unusual.
It's bad enough to have a housing market riddled with foreclosures, and millions of homes that are "under-water". But a housing market with widespread structural problems? That is a new wrinkle to be sure.
But if you think that the drought is causing problems for these homes, just wait until those same areas get too much rain. As water makes it's way down into those cracks in the soil, it could erode exposed foundations even further, making a structure completely unstable. It's important to address any open cracks around foundations while it's still dry, and try to prevent water from doing further damage.
I'd like to see the US Geological Survey do some kind of documentation of this event to see what can be done by home owners and builders to help avoid these problems in the future. This situation seems highly unusual, but if droughts do become more frequent or more severe, as some are predicting, this could become another major issue for our embattled housing market.