The Many Meanings Of “Structural”

The word “structural” is often misused. It behooves real estate agents and Professional Engineers to make sure they are speaking and writing the same language. Otherwise, misunderstandings are inevitable and that is not helpful to anyone.

If you look consult a dictionary or do a search online for “structural definitions“, you will find that it is an adjective and it is used to mean all kinds of unrelated things, meanings that are not just unrelated, most have no connection with each other at all. That is your first hint that the word “structural” can be easily misunderstood.

How structural engineers use the word “structural”  

To a structural engineer, a “structural” refers to a report that addresses the performance of all the structural elements in a house: the foundation, roof framing,  lintels in brick veneer, wall studs, floor and ceiling joists, subfloors – every element that carries some load other than its own weight. Such a report is sometimes called a Structural PE report.

Notice the phrase: “structural element”. To an engineer, a structural element is an element that supports loads other than its own weight. Shingles are a not structural element because the only load they support is their own weight. Roof decking is a structural element since it carries its own weight plus the weight of the shingles. 

A Structural PE report is unusual and is usually ordered by a relocation company. What most engineers produce is a foundation performance evaluation.   

How real estate agents use the word “structural”

When a real estate agent tells me that they need a “structural”, I always ask what the concern is. The concern includes drywall cracks, brick veneer cracks, cracks in tile and sticking doors and/or sloping floors. Usually what the agent needs is a foundation performance evaluation. The unstated (by the agent) assumption is that the performance of the foundation does not involve examining the visible distress.  

Many agents seem to assume that foundation performance evaluation is based on an inspection of the exposed portions of the foundation. A performance evaluation does include an inspection of the exposed portions of the foundation, but the focus is really on the distress and damage in the house that can reasonably be attributed to foundation distortion. 

My favorite story about the confusion around the word structural 

I was retained by a relocation company to make a structural PE report on a small one-story house. About a month later a lady calls me. She is fit to be tied, as my mother might say. She says the roof is leaking and a roofing company says it cannot be repaired; it has to be replaced and she wants to confirm that I will pay the bill.

It took me a while to understand what had happened. If the roof was old (more than-20-years), I would have said something about it the report. I repeatedly asked her who the client was because I use the client’s name in the file name so I can easily find a report. She kept giving me her name and I could find no record that I had ever made an inspection for anyone with the name she provided.

Finally, she told me the report was done for the XYZ relocation company. That cleared up everything. The report was a structural PE report and roof coverings are specifically excluded from the scope of the inspection and report.

She told me that her agent had told her that there was no need for retaining a home inspector or an engineer because an engineer had already inspected the house and there were no issues. 

Lesson learned 

Buyers and agents need to read these reports. I know they are boring, but that is not the point. Agents should never tell anyone that there are no issues with a house. Every house, including new homes, have issues.   


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