Monday, October 3, 2011

Drought causes foundation headaches in Oklahoma

The exceptional drought across Oklahoma has wreaked havoc on the state's clay-rich soil, which causes problems with concrete slab building foundations. The expensive repairs can put a big dent in a homeowner's finances.

Published: September 25, 2011

Oklahoma's red dirt is as much a part of the state's cultural fabric as agriculture, oil fields and strange weather. But it can be a curse to house foundations in times of drought.

“We like our red dirt here,” said Gary McManus, associate state climatologist. “But it doesn't do us any favors whenever we start to go into this type of a drought cycle.”

The exceptional drought strangling Oklahoma's soil has contributed to foundation problems across the state this summer, experts said. The result is a large number of home and business owners facing repairs that are about as expensive as it gets with building maintenance.

The clay that makes Oklahoma's dirt red is more reactive to water than many soils across the planet.
“When that clay starts to lose moisture, it contracts, and when it rains again it expands,” McManus said.

The expanding and contracting soil puts stress on foundations, underground water mains and other structures at the mercy of the first several feet of soil.

When the soil is affected by extreme conditions like this year's drought, the compression is just as extreme. And calls for foundation repair estimates pile up as the state gets hotter and drier.

“It's an incredible spike, to be honest with you,” said Doug Denison, owner of American Leveling, a local foundation repair company. “This is one of the top three (spikes) in the 25 years I've been doing this. ... On average we're taking between 30 and 55 calls to look at properties every day. Normally, it's probably 10 or less.”

Cracks, stuck doors
The first ways damage to the foundation shows itself can be cracks in floors, walls or exterior siding and with doors that don't close or jam, said Professor Gerald Miller of the University of Oklahoma's College of Engineering, who specializes in civil and geotechnical engineering.

During a drought, it's a sign the soils at the edge of the building have dried out and compressed, which puts pressure on the foundation causing it to bend.

“You can think of it like you took a piece of paper and bent down the edges, that's what the slab would do,” Miller said. “You're going to get distortion in the structure.”

Miller said homeowners can try to water the edge of their house just like a plant during a drought, and it can keep the soil from compressing. But that's not a guaranteed prevention method, and over watering or poor drainage can cause their own issues.

Houses with basements don't tend to have the same problems because the foundation is far enough underground that the soil isn't affected as much by the weather.

To fix or not to fix?
Repairs of around $10,000 are not uncommon, and costs can spiral much higher for difficult repairs or more extensive damage. Foundation problems are not covered under homeowners insurance policies.
Some repair companies offer financing, some with no interest for a year or so. Homeowners can dip into their home equity for a loan or refinance. But some homeowners with limited equity and limited flexibility who face a particularly expensive repair could think walking away from the house and mortgage is a practical, but scary, option.

Most houses with wood frames wouldn't suffer damage as severe as a collapsed wall if repairs aren't made, Miller said. But doors can stick and cracks can form to the extent it affects house's functionality, and it's possible a longer wait means a more expensive repair.

And the decision to repair the foundation or not is a factor in the future sale of the home. Even a good and long-lasting repair can push down the eventual sale price, with or without an accompanying repair warranty that has numerous exceptions in the fine print.

Louis Lackey, 45, of Oklahoma City, had repairs made to the foundation for his home near Lake Hefner last week. The previous owners had work done in 1997, and Lackey had to make repairs to a house he used to live in as part of the agreement when he sold it.

He noticed telltale cracks in his ceiling and exterior this summer and knew what was ahead. In Oklahoma, it comes with the territory.

“I knew having to fix it was pretty much inevitable,” Lackey said as a crew noisily worked away in his backyard.