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Under Pressure, Concrete Block Wall Failures

Home Inspector with JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC HOI 394

Water and soil can combine to create an irresistible force

Concrete or "cinder" block foundation walls are fairly common here in Connecticut. The building industry refers to these blocks as concrete masonry units or CMUs. Modern foundation construction in this State will typically use poured concrete almost without exception. Some of the reasons for using poured concrete is strength, another is water resistance.

A fairly common issue with block foundation walls in my experience is water penetration due to the numerous seams in the wall. The other and more concerning, although a leaking foundation is a very close second, is structural failure. Either problem is usually costly to repair.

On a recent inspection, I found both of these issues present while examining the basement. The front foundation wall displayed pervasive water staining and numerous cracks. The condition extended to the two side walls, diminishing where the soil dropped off due to the slope of the lot. The rear wall was completely above soil grade, a contrast of the front wall.  Also telling was the presence of efflorescence on the blocks. The crystal like formation is an indication of the presence of moisture on the exterior side of the wall. The white deposits can be telling of an area where water dwells in the soil, indicating poor drainage and or a high water table.

The basement had a perimeter drain and sump pump installed to manage the water that would come into the space, which by the evidence present was occurring on a routine basis. The issue that hadn't been addressed was the failing of the front foundation wall.

A horizontal crack was present slightly below midpoint along the wall. The crack extended just about the wall's entire length. Vertical and step cracks were also present below the line of the crack. Horizontal cracks are concerning when present in block walls. The cracking can often be the point of failure in the wall. The crack is often the apex of a bulge. I discovered that to be the case here.

When water is present behind the wall coupled with the soil it creates pressure. Saturated soil, expansive soils are capable of exerting an immense force that can overcome the strength of the wall. The problem here in my view would not be fully rectified by reinforcing the wall. Exterior drainage to relieve the soil pressure may also be needed. In all an involved and undoubtedly expensive repair.

A moveable object has met an irresistible force. In the buyer case, it may be time to move on.

Posted by

James Quarello
Connecticut Home Inspector
Former SNEC-ASHI President
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

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Comments (8)

Liz and Bill Spear
Transaction Alliance 513.520.5305 www.LizTour.com - Mason, OH
Transaction Alliance Cincinnati & Dayton suburbs

I often see the same type of issues with cinder block walls in our area of Ohio. 

Apr 07, 2018 08:42 AM
James Quarello

I'm sure. Certainly not unique to one area.

Apr 08, 2018 04:25 AM
Debb Janes
Nature As Neighbors - Camas, WA
Put My Love of Nature At Work for You

Well, that is not an inspection report many buyers would be excited to hear about, or see. Good to know though, structural issues are a big problem. The sellers have a big problem on their hands. D

Apr 07, 2018 09:47 AM
James Quarello

The sellers in this case are the bank, so not sure how that will go.

Apr 08, 2018 04:25 AM
Dave Halpern
Dave Halpern Real Estate Agent, Inc., Louisville, KY (502) 664-7827 - Louisville, KY
Louisville Short Sale Expert

Very informative post. Older homes have many problems. It's good that building standards have improved.

Apr 07, 2018 10:15 AM
James Quarello

To be clear, block is still used, but I don't see it in my area.

Apr 08, 2018 04:26 AM
William Feela
Realtor, Whispering Pines Realty 651-674-5999 No.

I have seen amany a basement issue where my buyers said so what...Had to educate them

Apr 07, 2018 06:09 PM
James Quarello

I have starry eyed buyers all the time. Reality can be sobering.

Apr 08, 2018 04:27 AM
Myrl Jeffcoat
Sacramento, CA
Greater Sacramento Realtor - Retired

There is a cinder block wall in the pool area of my health club.  I noticed a similar issue last spring.  They have remedied it, however.

Apr 08, 2018 03:48 AM
Jay Markanich
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC - Bristow, VA
Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia

I see concrete block walls all the time.  Often they are experiencing the same as you show here.  To wit, your photo indicates previous painting, perhaps with UGL or some other form of painted "sealer."  So the homeowners at some point knew there was a issue with moisture!  It's unfortunate too, as you say, because this moisture and the movement is a big problem.

Apr 09, 2018 04:05 AM
James Quarello

I see a lot of block too, just not a newer houes. Yes, the walls were painted with sealer, as you can see the moisture is so great, it is pushing it off the wall. 

Apr 09, 2018 05:14 AM