Cracked Houses

Homes all over Arizona are falling apart. Blame the bad soil -- and the lousy construction

And it's not just one builder. It's almost every builder, from some of the smallest custom home specialists to major national players.

They've taken shortcuts. They've saved a few grand here and a few hundred bucks there.

And now it's their buyers who will pay the price.

Jim Eckley says mold is often a byproduct of builders 
ignoring a site's soil problems.
Michelle Paster
Jim Eckley says mold is often a byproduct of builders ignoring a site's soil problems.
Before moving to Sun City Grand, Bernice Kaleta enjoyed robust health.
courtesy of Ron Kaleta
Before moving to Sun City Grand, Bernice Kaleta enjoyed robust health.

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The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Services Arizona map

The Phoenix shrink/swell map (» web link) shows which parts of the Valley have expansive soil. Red indicates a high potential to swell, yellow is moderate, and green is low.

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Real estate porn -- those gorgeous full-color ads in Phoenix Magazine and the Sunday Arizona Republic -- always employs the same buzz words: Gourmet kitchens and roman tubs. Maple cabinets and guest cottages. Heated pools. Granite countertops. Hardwood floors.

The ad guys aren't stupid. This is sexy stuff. Far sexier than the foundation below, which never even gets mentioned.

And not just because foundations aren't as noticeable as high-end cabinets.

Because the foundation is supposed to be a given.

Indeed, one of the craziest things about all the soil problems plaguing new construction here is how easily they could be avoided.

You might assume, after hearing about all the lawsuits, and seeing so many cracking homes, that Arizona's soil is awful, some of the worst in the country.

Not true.

"I wouldn't say the Phoenix Valley has particularly bad problems when you compare it to places like Denver, Oklahoma, and Texas," says Sandra Houston, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University.

The catalyst for most of Arizona's foundation problems is what geologists call "expansive soil." Frequently found in lake bottoms, expansive soils have a high clay content, which means they absorb water like a sponge.

When they get wet, they expand. Then, when they dry out, they shrink.

The other problem soils, called "collapsible," were the ones at Shari Wilson's house. Silty and sandy, they, too, seem fine until they get wet. Then, true to their name, they collapse.

Expansive and collapsible soils didn't affect the original settlers here, the Native Americans, or even the cowboys who followed.

It's been a different story for Arizona's more recent immigrants: the ex-Midwesterners with their new four-bedroom suburban manses, the Californians with their tidy vacation cottages, the young families with white-collar jobs and faux colonials.

The reason: Soil movement -- be it expanding and shrinking, or collapsing -- can wreak havoc on the big slabs of concrete that provide the base to most Valley homes.

As long as moisture stays constant, the house is okay. But consider the chain reaction that begins when water gets under the foundation.

First, the soil swells with moisture. And though without a house on top of it no one would likely notice, expanding soil doesn't take well to being pinned down by a thousand feet of concrete and a few tons of drywall and furniture and Spanish tile.

So it heaves.

And the concrete cracks.

When the moisture dries out, the concrete settles.

And then it cracks some more.

Because the whole house rests on the slab, when the concrete moves, the house moves, too. But it doesn't rise and fall in an elegant, uniform motion; it settles uneasily on the cracking, heaving foundation.

(Collapsible soils typically experience similar problems, so much so that they're frequently confused in early stages of investigation. Either way, the house is in trouble.)

"If the whole house moved together, you wouldn't have a problem," explains Houston, the engineering professor. "The problem is there are different levels of moisture in different areas under the foundation, and one part moves differently than the other."

And so cracks run from window frames across the wall, or from the edges of the archway up to the ceiling. In nastier cases, doors won't open. Walls begin to separate from the ceiling. At the baseboards, the drywall pulls away from the floor.

Mold, too, can result. Once the home starts shifting, moisture can get between the walls. And then, says attorney Jim Eckley, it grows like crazy.

But as bad as the results can be, experts agree that they're entirely avoidable. With proper engineering and careful attention, most soils in Maricopa County could be built on without too much trouble.

The problem is that some builders here aren't taking the trouble.

Instead, rather than address soil issues in construction, when they might be handled for a few extra grand per house, those builders are playing Russian roulette.

By taking shortcuts, they're clearly betting that, despite all evidence to the contrary, nothing will go wrong. Or, at least, maybe not until the statute of limitations runs out.

In some cases, the bet pays off. In others, they end up spending hundreds of thousands fighting off lawyers -- and, eventually, paying off their clients.

Either way, it's the homeowner who gets screwed.

Consider:

• Developers know which areas have problematic soils, but they're building there anyway.

• The state requires builders to commission a soil report for every new subdivision. But builders frequently ignore their own report's recommendations.

• The reports frequently require builders to keep water from the foundations, with gutters and a slope that drains away from the house. But even in areas with highly problematic soil, some builders do neither.

• The reports also typically recommend stronger foundations. But some builders resist them, citing cost.

Regulators and defense attorneys stress that construction is not an exact science. Any new home is going to be less than perfect, and perhaps people pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into new houses simply need to lower their expectations.

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2 comments
arvinlexor
arvinlexor

Are you looking for a Concrete Foundation Repair Contractor? If you're a building manager, you know the importance of your building's foundation. Knowing this is only half the battle, the other half is doing something about it.

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