TREC Speaks Out On Foundation Performance

I recently came across an article published on the TREC website titled Reporting Visible and Present Indications of Adverse Performance in a Foundation. The article reports on a problem with the way many inspectors are applying the requirement that inspectors render an opinion concerning foundation performance. In my opinion, every TREC licensed inspector should read this article carefully and critically. It certainly provides insight into how TREC interprets its own rules. The problem identified in the article is real, but the proposed solution does not work, in my opinion.

The Problem of Uncertainty 

The problem addressed in the article comes down to this: many home inspectors approach the problem of foundation performance with a specific understanding – namely that the inspector must render an opinion that the foundation is either performing or not performing. The TREC article does not argue for, or against, this understanding. According to the article, inspectors who accept this understanding are not always able to determine whether the foundation is performing or not performing with sufficient confidence to render an unambiguous opinion.

How should uncertainty be reported? Specifically, if an inspector is not certain as to whether a performing or not, what should he or she report? The SOP does not address this, but the article finds an answer in a book titled Dearborn’s Principles of Home Inspection. The first edition of that book takes the position that if you cannot determine whether the foundation is performing or not performing, your default recommendation would be for further evaluation and advice presumably from a structural engineer. In a later edition (2003), the default recommendation was changed. Now the inspector is advised to recommend further evaluation if the movement is dramatic or monitoring if the movement is less severe.

What to report if you are not sufficiently certain

The implication seems to be this: if you cannot determine whether the foundation is performing are not performing with sufficient confidence, then you should either recommend further evaluation or monitoring. It is not clear whether you should do this in lieu of, or in addition to, providing an opinion of foundation performance or in addition. Since rendering an opinion is mandatory, I presume that recommending further evaluation or monitoring is not a substitute for rendering a performance opinion.

The definition of performance

When forming an opinion concerning the performance of the foundation, the article instructs the inspector to consider the definition of performance in the SOP. The TREC SOP defines performance as:

achievement of an operation, function or configuration relative to accepted industry’s practices with consideration of age, normal wear and tear from ordinary use.

I have no quarrel with this definition. The way the article uses the definition is a problem. 

The article veers off course making several statements that are questionable

The article tells us that a residential foundation is expected to remain reasonably flat and level to provide acceptable for performance. This is highly problematic for several reasons. There are no code approved levelness requirements for how level a new or old foundation should be. The expected degree of unlevelness for a newly placed foundation is not an inspection item under the policy of any government entity that I am aware of. It is true that the American Concrete Institute (ACI) publishes construction tolerances for slab-on-ground foundation levelness, but these tolerances are not part of any code and they are not intended to be applied after 72 hours after the slab concrete has been placed. In addition, the engineering design of slab-on-ground foundations takes no notice of how level the foundation should be. I understand that sloping floors is considered an indicator of foundation performance. I have no issue with that, but it is also, in my opinion, the least reliable foundation performance indicator in the SOP. To give a simple example: no builder would intentionally build a home with cracked drywall and no reasonable buyer would buy a new home with fractured drywall. The presence of cracked drywall is a sure sign the frame structure racked after the drywall was applied. The racking might and might not, be due to foundation distortion. On the other hand, residential foundations are never built level.

The article also states: 

A foundation that is not performing as intended affects the structural integrity of a building.

This is vague to the point of being indecipherable. For instance, what does the phrase performing as intended mean as applied to a foundation? Whose intent are we talking about? The design engineer, the builder, the buyer, the seller, the third party warranty company, a foundation repair contractor or any of a number of others? And why should the phrase performing as intended be applied when it clearly bears no relation to the definition of performance in the SOP?

The phrase performing as intended is easily applied to mechanical and electrical devices, equipment and systems, but not to structures. For instance, foundations can be designed for different degrees of bending. To take a simple example. The code requires that floor joists be designed for a uniform live load of 40 psf with a maximum deflection of 1/360. If you look at the current span tables for southern yellow pine, you will find numerous tables that an engineer could use to size the floor joists. There are 13 tables that a design engineer could use size the floor joists. 

The term structural integrity is also problematic. To a structural engineer, a structure is said to have structural integrity if imposed loads are transferred through the structure to the ground so that individual members do not fail, either from being overloaded or from the structure distorting to a degree that the imposed loads can no longer be safely supported. The same thing is true of soil pressure pushing upward on a slab foundation. So long as the framing is not being pulled apart, an unusual, but possible, consequence, of expansive soil swelling, structural integrity can be said to be intact. Unfortunately, non-engineers often assume there is a structural integrity issue if there is even minor cosmetic distress such as a single, very narrow crack or separation in drywall. In my opinion, TREC inspectors and their clients would be best served if the term structural integrity was avoided. If a TREC inspector feels like he or she needs to use this term, it should be defined in the report. Otherwise, it leads to too many misunderstandings. This is true of Professional Engineers also. If the term is used, it should be defined in the report.

A recommended solution

As I see it, the root of the problem is the apparent belief that the SOP requires the inspector to either state that the foundation is performing or state that the foundation is not performing. This black and white approach is simply wrong. At the very least, this understanding is not the only legitimate interpretation of the SOP.

Foundation performance is best thought of as shades of gray. Let me give you an example: consider a house that has a sticking first-floor door, some minor 1/16th inch wide cracks in the brick veneer. The house is in southwest Houston in an area of very expansive soils. It is 50-years old. When compared to other homes in southwest Houston of similar construction and age, the performance opinion could be expressed in any of the following ways:

  1. In my opinion, the foundation performance is average taking into consideration other houses of similar age, construction and normal wear and tear from ordinary use.
  2. In my opinion, the foundation performance is below average taking into consideration other houses of similar age, construction, and normal wear and tear from ordinary use.
  3. In my opinion, the foundation performance is above average taking into consideration other houses of similar age, construction and normal wear and tear from ordinary use.
  4. In my opinion, the foundation performance is average or better taking into consideration other houses of similar age, construction and normal wear and tear from ordinary use.If the TREC inspector wants to indicate that he or she wishes they were more confident of their assessment, they could always use wording like the following:

    In my opinion, the foundation performance is average taking into consideration other houses of similar age, construction and normal wear and tear from ordinary use. It should be noted that it is difficult to reliably judge the cause of minor distress. For this and other reasons, different professionals may have different opinions concerning the cause of distress.

It is important for TREC inspectors to understand that their opinion of foundation performance is just that: an opinion. That is all anyone, TREC inspector or Professional Engineer, can provide. The client needs an independent opinion regarding foundation performance. That is what he or she is paying for. The inspector or engineer is duty bound to provide an independent, honestly held opinion.

Two other related problems

There are two related problems I see repeatedly in TREC reports. The most common problem I see is that the inspector fails to render an opinion as to the performance of the foundation. At least 90% of the reports I see do not provide an opinion as to the performance of the foundation. Instead, they give an opinion on other issues. Some examples of common wordings:

  • There were drywall cracks, brick veneer cracks, and sloping floors.
  • Movement was observed.
  • One or more of the following were observed: drywall cracks, brick veneer cracks, and sloping floors.
  • There were two points that had an elevation difference of 1.5 inches.

These examples are common, but none could be considered an opinion of foundation performance. Nor is it apparent that the inspector considered any industry standards, practices or normal wear and tear.

Another issue I see frequently is for the TREC report to recommend that a second opinion be obtained from a foundation expert or a foundation repair contractor. This is, in effect, a recommendation that the buyer violate the standard TREC sales agreement. The normal residential sales agreement specifies that the buyer can select the inspector of their choice so long as they are a licensed TREC inspector or are otherwise permitted by law to make such inspections. Foundation repair contractors are not licensed and are thus not permitted by law to make inspections for real estate transactions. It should be against the rules to advise buyers to ignore the contract.

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