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What Are The Early Signs of Subsidence?

Property Saviour » Problematic Properties » Condition » What Are The Early Signs of Subsidence?

Subsidence is a pervasive issue that can affect any type of building, from residential homes to commercial properties.

It is the gradual sinking or settling of the ground beneath a structure, which can result in a range of issues such as cracks in the walls, doors and windows that don’t operate properly, and uneven floors.

Should it be neglected, subsidence can cause severe damage to the structural integrity of a building, potentially making it unsafe for occupants.

In this article, we’ll talk about different types of subsidence, early signs that you should spot, its treatments and whether you should sell the property as it is.

Table of Contents

Different Types of Subsidence

Subsidence can be a complex issue with many underlying causes, but certain signs can alert property owners to the problem before it becomes too serious. 

By being aware of these warning signs and taking quick action, you can help prevent subsidence from causing major damage and save yourself the expense of expensive repairs.

  • Heave

The heaving of the ground below the property leads to an upward shifting of the walls, floor, and foundation of the property. This is due to the upward displacement of the ground.

  • Landslip

Houses that are constructed on an incline or close to one can be affected by a landslip. This is when the ground beneath them shifts laterally.

  • Settlement

Settlement occurs when a building’s excessive weight causes the soil beneath it to compress. Compaction is another name for this type of issue. If you’ve heard of something similar, you may be wondering what compaction is.

Common early warning signs

There are many visible signs of subsidence to watch out for inside and outside the house, which can show the severity of the issue. People often mistake common signs, such as cracks in the home, as early warning signs of subsidence.

Although cracks are indeed one of the usual indicators of subsidence, they can usually be caused by natural shrinkage and expansion in response to weather and humidity changes.

You will know whether a crack is caused by subsidence if you notice the following:

  1. The crack is larger than 3mm in width and thicker than a 10p coin.
  2. It is positioned diagonally, with a wider shape at the top and slimmer at the bottom.
  3. This crack can be seen both internally and externally near doors and windows.
  4. It may spread under the damp-proof course, a waterproof layer in walls near the ground used to stop rising damp.
  5. Other signs of subsidence could include wallpaper creasing where the wall meets the ceiling, doors and windows sticking due to warped frames, and cracks at the joint between the house and extension.

If you see any indications of subsidence, it is important to get help to resolve the problem promptly. Taking swift action is key.

early signs of subsidence
Horizontal cracks above doors and windows are especially worrying, as they suggest the weight of the building is no longer spread evenly.

The Main Signs of Subsidence: What You Need to Know

  • Cracks in Walls, Floors, and Ceilings

Cracks are a common indicator of subsidence. They can be seen both inside and outside of a building and tend to start small before gradually widening over time.

Horizontal cracks above doors and windows are especially worrying, as they suggest the weight of the building is no longer spread evenly.

  • Trees

Subsidence due to trees is a common issue, particularly in areas with clay soils. Tree roots can take away the moisture from the clay soil, causing it to shrink and lead to subsidence. Here are some things you can do if you think subsidence is caused by trees:

  1. Identify which trees may be causing the issue. 
  2. Look for trees that are close to the building and have large, visible roots. 
  3. Check the type of trees – some, such as willows and poplars, are more likely to cause subsidence than others.

When is a crack not subsidence?

  1. Hairline cracks are thin and narrow, usually measuring less than 1mm in width. They occur due to minor settlement or shrinkage of building materials and are rarely a cause for concern.
  2. Settlement cracks are wider and usually appear diagonally near corners of doors and windows. If they are wider than 5mm, they may be a sign of a more serious issue.
  3. Thermal expansion cracks occur when building materials expand and contract due to changes in temperature. These cracks are vertical and often occur in south-facing walls exposed to direct sunlight.
  4. Lintel failure is a serious issue that can cause damage to a building’s structure. Signs of lintel failure include cracking above windows and doors, sagging or uneven walls, or doors and windows that are difficult to open and close. Possible causes of lintel failure include age, poor installation, and exposure to moisture or other environmental factors.
  5. Cracks caused by moisture occur when moisture penetrates building materials and causes them to expand and contract. These cracks are usually horizontal and occur near the base of walls or near windows and doors
  6. Vibrations created by nearby traffic can negatively affect buildings, especially those in areas with a high volume of traffic. This can lead to cracking, particularly in older or weaker buildings. It is important to make sure that the building is structurally sound and that any necessary repairs or maintenance are carried out.  A prime example of this is a house near a railway line.
  7. When new plaster is drying, it may crack. Small cracks can be filled with additional plaster or filler; however, if the cracking is severe or widespread, this may be indicative of a problem with the structure of the building or with moisture.

Doors & Windows sticking?

When a building is affected by subsidence, doors and windows may become hard to open or close. This could be a sign of underlying structural movement, foundation issues, warped frames, or environmental factors like humidity and moisture.

If you spot your doors or windows sticking, it’s important to have a qualified professional assess the issue. You should check with your insurance first to see if they will cover it.

They will help you identify the source of the problem and suggest the right repairs, which could vary from minor adjustments to the doors or windows to more serious repairs to the building’s structure or foundation.

Sticking doors and windows should not go unnoticed; they could be symptomatic of a more serious underlying issue and require prompt attention to avoid further damage to the property.

Older houses may experience some slight sticking in colder, wetter months, especially with wooden windows and doors, which can become swollen due to moisture and are consequently more difficult to open.

What are sloping floors
If you're thinking about buying a property with sloping floors, it's a good idea to get a report from a structural engineer.

Sloping floors

Sloping or sinking floors can be a warning sign of subsidence, which happens when the ground underneath the building starts to collapse. If you notice gaps around your skirting boards, act quickly and contact your insurer.

If you’re thinking about buying a property with sloping floors, it’s a good idea to get a report from a structural engineer. This will help you to understand the extent of the subsidence and any repairs that may need to be done.

No damp but wallpaper creasing

If you notice your wallpaper wrinkling or rippling without any signs of moisture, it could be a cause for concern. Damp is the primary cause of wallpaper creasing. However, it can also be a sign of deeper structural issues like subsidence.

If you think it is subsidence, then it is essential to have your property inspected by a structural engineer as soon as possible to identify any issues and take the necessary action.

Tiles affected by subsidence can crack, or large gaps (e.g. between grout) appear between tiles.

It’s always better to be cautious to monitor these changes to see if they getting worse over time.

Extension seems to be moving

If you notice that your extension is distancing itself from your home, it could be a sign of a serious issue that needs immediate addressing.

Properties built during the Victorian and Edwardian eras have a shallow foundation, while more recent extensions must have a deeper foundation to meet modern building regulations.

The materials used for the extension are more rigid than those used for older properties, and this combination of different foundation depths and materials can cause the soil underneath both parts of the house to move at different speeds, which can lead to damage and cracking.

If you think that your extension is moving away from your home, it is important to seek professional help. A structural engineer can investigate the issue and determine the cause.

They can then advise on the most suitable measures to stop any further movement or damage and guarantee the security and stability of your home. Taking action quickly can help you save money and protect your property from further structural damage.

 How to prevent subsidence or how to treat subsidence
The expenses of fixing subsidence can vary significantly depending on the severity of the damage and the trigger of the subsidence.

Leaning property?

A property with visible leaning can be a sign of subsidence, but not always. The subsidence may have happened in the past, and the building may not have moved in a long time.

If you’re looking to buy a property and notice any leaning of the walls, get a structural engineer to assess the property. They can figure out if the subsidence is ongoing or if it’s something from the past and nothing to worry about.

It’s worth noting, though, that buying a house with historic subsidence may make it harder to resell or get insurance in the future. 

Even after paying thousands of pounds to a structural engineer, they may recommend monitoring the property over 2-3 years, and this can make the property unsellable.

 How to prevent subsidence?

Whether you are a keen gardener or a house-proud homeowner, before planting a tree near your home, make sure to check what kind of root system it has.

  1. Planting trees or shrubs too close to your house isn’t advised. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has a helpful table that shows how far away each tree type should be.
  2. To prevent existing trees from absorbing too much water, you should prune them regularly. If the problem is more serious, it is best to get a tree surgeon to look at it.

Subsidence Insurance Claim

If you detect any signs of subsidence in your home, it is important to inform your insurance provider immediately to prevent the issue from getting worse. Neglecting early signs of minor subsidence can lead to more expensive and extensive repairs in the future.

If you have insurance, your insurer will appoint a certified structural engineer to examine your property. This costs between £700-£1,000. Your excess for a subsidence claim is the same amount, meaning you will need to pay for it yourself if you do not have insurance.

Once the survey is done, most insurers will organise the repairs through their authorised contractors and cover the costs.

The expenses of fixing subsidence can vary significantly depending on the severity of the damage and the trigger of the subsidence.

Minor cases of subsidence may only require aesthetic repairs, for instance, filling cracks in walls, and could cost a few hundred pounds.

On the other hand, more serious cases of subsidence may require underpinning, which involves reinforcing the base of the ground beneath the structure and can cost tens of thousands of pounds.

How long and how much to fix subsidence
The length of time to fix subsidence can also vary depending on the severity of the issue and the repairs needed.

How long and how much to fix subsidence?

Subsidence repairs can be expensive and time-consuming, depending on the extent of the damage. The cost of repairs can vary from a few thousand to tens of thousands of pounds. On average, homeowners expect to spend around £10,000 to £15,000.

The length of time to fix subsidence can also vary depending on the severity of the issue and the repairs needed.

Minor cases can take a few weeks, while more serious ones can take months or years. It is best to act quickly and get professional help as soon as you spot any signs of subsidence, as leaving it untreated can result in worse damage and higher repair costs.

How much does subsidence devalue a property?

Subsidence is complex, and there’s no guarantee that it will be fixed after treatment.

You must declare it to any buyer – even after treating it.  It makes it harder to sell due to difficulties with mortgages, and the insurance is very expensive and probably won’t cover future subsidence claims.

This is why properties affected by subsidence have their values reduced by as much as 30%, as they’d have to be bought for cash.

What Causes Subidence? A Comprehensive Guide

There are many causes of subsidence that one should be aware of.

Some of the main reasons are:

  1. Roots from trees and other shrubs can disturb the foundations of the ground beneath the home, leading to instability. However, this isn’t always the case, as not all conditions where a tree grows near a house will cause subsidence.
  2. Clay soil can also be a potential cause, as it changes consistency depending on the weather. In dry weather, it will crack and shift, while in wet weather, it will swell, which can cause the foundations of the house to become unstable and sink.
  3. Leaking drains can also lead to subsidence, as the moistened ground surrounding the property can become unstable and sink due to the ground not being able to hold its weight.

Check if your property is located in a mining area, and ensure that your drainage systems are properly maintained.

You can also check to see if your neighbours have any historic subsidence, as it can help inform the likelihood of it affecting your property.

Selling a house with subsidence

The word subsidence puts fear into the buyer’s mind.  Mortgage valuation surveyors are worried about the risk of being issued and will almost always recommend a structural engineer’s report.

The structural engineer won’t confirm if the subsidence is historic or current – and would recommend that you monitor it.

How do we know this? We have bought & sold properties with subsidence, and this is our experience.

As professional property buyers, we are happy to take a risk with subsidence.  So why not get in touch with us today?

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