Arizona Homeowners: Beware of
Foundation Repair Misdiagnosis, Overcharging
An industry insider warns of sketchy sales practices and the #1 problem overlooked in approximately 80% of the state’s foundation repair jobs
What Arizona homeowners don’t know about foundation problems can cost them dearly, and what they don’t know about the foundation repair business can cost them even more.
The issue is that the industry is largely built on a model in which salespeople, with no engineering education and trained only by a single source supplier are often sent out to diagnose a home’s foundation problems, recommend a solution and close the sale in a single visit.
According to industry expert Bob Brown, this model lends itself to potentially over- and under-engineered solutions ultimately paid for by the homeowner. It is also the primary reason that many foundation repair jobs are misdiagnosed, given that Arizona has unique soil conditions not seen much throughout the rest of the country.
“More than 80% of the foundation issues in Arizona are misdiagnosed due to the unique clay soil conditions, combined with the arid climate, that occur here,” says Brown, president of Arizona Foundation Solutions, a Phoenix-based foundation repair company.
As a foundation repair industry expert for 30 years, Brown is one of two Certified Foundation Repair Specialists (CFRS) in the state. He is also the author of the e-book, “Which Way is My Foundation Moving?” which is described as a homeowner’s guide to foundation repair.
The book, which is downloadable at no cost from Brown’s web site, was written to educate homeowners on the most common problems and misdiagnosed issues to save homeowners money.
Now Brown is calling for the entire industry to abandon the current sales model in favor of one in which experts – in this case, trained engineers – diagnosis foundation repair issues. While this may seem obvious, this is a fundamental change in the way the industry has operated for decades.
When homeowners call for a foundation repair assessment, Brown says a salesperson arrives at the home and quickly surveys the home and foundation.
The salesperson then bases his or her diagnosis on superficial visual clues such as cracks in the walls and ceilings, or doors and windows that don’t open and close properly.
However, most salespeople have no formal training in engineering or geology. Instead, they are trained by single source product suppliers that offer specific solutions. In most cases, the products address only the issue of settlement.
“It is easy to walk into a house and think you understand what is going on by looking around, but this can often lead to the wrong conclusion,” says Brown.
During this visit, the salesperson then presents a cookie cutter solution to the homeowner and immediately attempts to close the sale.
“I’ve met hundreds of civil engineers and have yet to hear one say they can visit a home and determine an accurate foundation repair diagnosis and recommendation on the spot,” says Brown. “Yet salespeople with no engineering experience – paid solely on commission – are routinely doing so despite the obvious conflict of interest.”
Brown adds that foundation repair salespeople are taught to “oversell just to be sure.” This can end up costing homeowners well over $100,000 on some repair jobs. When homeowners do not have that kind of money, a solution that is under-engineered may be offered in an attempt to make a sale.
Instead, Brown advocates for a system in which engineers alone handle the diagnosis and make remediation recommendations.
Although Arizona Foundation Solutions initially sends out a sales consultant, it is only to conduct an initial evaluation to determine if an engineered investigation is needed.
Should an engineered evaluation be required, it needs to be conducted in a standardized, industry recognized procedure that is overseen by a licensed, professional engineer.
Arizona Foundation Solutions employs an engineering team that consists of Licensed Professional Engineers and assistants to gather the data and report back to the Engineer of Record for the project.
The data gathered includes floor plans, floor level surveys, topography of the site and photo documentation of cracks or other signs of stress (defined as a Level B Investigation by the Foundation Performance Association).
A Level B Investigation is the only current investigational procedure recognized by the industry. Once the Engineer of Record has reviewed this data, a report and recommendations are written and sealed by that engineer.
Brown says that in some cases foundation repair companies will claim that an engineer ultimately reviews and approves the project. However, this does not mean an engineer is involved in the diagnosis or the proposed solution.
Instead, it is an engineer’s evaluation that products installed, such as push or helical piers, are sufficient to support the weight of the structure. Given that virtually all products on the market can meet this standard, this type of engineering “sign-off” means little.
The problem of “heave”
The other problem with this model is that salespeople can misdiagnose the true root cause of the problem. This should genuinely concern homeowners because the most common foundation problems in Arizona are often misdiagnosed.
It turns out that in Arizona many homes are built on fine clay soil that can become saturated with water. When this occurs, the soil either settles after it dries (causing the foundation to drop or sag) or heaves (lifts) as moisture accumulates.
“Arizona soil has less clay than some parts of the country, but our state has an arid climate with soil that’s been dry for millions of years,” says Brown. “This makes homes susceptible to heave when moisture drains off the roof and has nowhere to go but under the foundation and floor slab. The wet soil then swells, which can push up the foundation/floor slab.”
Both heave and settlement can cause serious damage to the home foundation and structure. This may initially appear similar to the untrained eye, although their remediation approaches differ significantly.
“Cracked brickwork, floor tiles or windows can indicate either heave or settling,” says Brown. “This is why a careful, thorough, analysis of all data is necessary to compose an engineered repair plan that addresses the problem. Hasty or on the spot analysis should be avoided.”
Given that the vast majority of the industry is oriented to products and solutions that address settling and there are far fewer solutions for heave, homeowners are often left picking up the tab for solutions that do not resolve the problem.
“The industry’s solutions for settling involve stabilizing and raising foundations using a variety of support piers, piles, or underpinnings driven into the ground until it contacts load-bearing soil or rock,” explains Brown.
However, underpinning a home with heave is not only of no value, it can actually place additional stress on the structure.
“If heave is the problem, putting in support piers won’t solve it,” says Brown.
Fountain Hills Resident Experiences Heave
For longtime Arizona resident Richard Newman the problems began when he and his wife, Diann, began to notice the telltale signs of foundation problems. Newman, a retired Arizona State University professor, lives in Fountain Hills, a retirement community in the Phoenix metro area.
After living in his home for several years, he began to see large cracks in the ceiling. Several sliding doors did not open or close properly as well.
Newman says that over the next year and a half the problem progressively got worse. The cracks soon became big enough that he could “stick his hand in them sideways.”
At one point, a kitchen wall and baseboard was visibly lifted more than an inch above the travertine tile in the kitchen. Later, it was determined that the heave was centered under the wall, which, fortunately, was not load-bearing.
Determined to remain in the house for the rest of their lives, Newman decided to spend some of the couple’s hard-earned retirement money to address the issue. He proceeded to conduct research online, watch videos and also sought out referrals from friends before deciding on Arizona Foundation Solutions.
The company sent out an engineering technician that took elevation and floor level measurements and collected other data that was input into a 3D modeling program. The subsequent engineering report offered several different options. Although the report came with a cost, it was applied to work performed.
In some ways, Newman is an atypical homeowner in this situation. Although he is not trained as a civil engineer, he holds multiple degrees in agriculture and has extensive knowledge of soils. Because of this, he was aware of the issue of the unique clay soil conditions in Arizona.
“The Phoenix metro area has several localized areas that have expansive soils,” explains Newman. “Fountain Hills is an area where if the soil gets wet it will expand and won’t necessarily contract when it dries.”
Because many of the homes in the area are built on hills, fill dirt is often used in the area to change the grade or elevation. This further contributes to the water migrating toward the foundation when it rains.
Arizona Foundations Solutions’ Brown says there are several ways to remediate heave, but many require invasive procedures and can be expensive. This includes the use of cutoff walls or removal and replacement of the interior slab, for example. Grading and drainage improvements are typically recommended, but may not solve the problem by itself.
In searching for a better solution, Brown pioneered a new patented approach to address heave called MoistureLevel® Smart Foundation System, which he developed and tested in collaboration with Arizona State University’s geotechnical department and a local geotechnical engineering firm, Copper State Engineering.
The approach, which costs a fraction of traditional underpinning, essentially draws in natural dry air from the perimeter of the home and sucks it across the wet soil at the high part of the slab. The dry air picks up moisture through evaporation and is vented out of the home through gable vents or another convenient spot using a quiet and energy efficient fan.
To date, Brown says the MoistureLevel system has been installed in approximately 500 homes in Arizona over the past four years.
To be clear, this type of remediation is not an overnight fix. It can take six months or longer for the clay soil to completely dry out. The system often remains in place to mitigate moisture issues caused by future moisture accumulation.
“What we are trying to do is lower it as much as possible and then control it so the heave doesn’t create more damage,” explains Brown. “Then the homeowner can repair any cosmetic cracks, without having to worry about it getting worse.”
Newman says the engineering report for his home included a recommendation to install the system.
“For about $3,800 the MoistureLevel system will pull down this heave,” says Newman. “For me, it was a no-brainer.”
The company is due to come back in a few months to take new measurements. Even without that data, Newman says the results are already noticeable. The kitchen wall and baseboard where the heave was centered have settled back to its normal position.
Arizona Foundation Solutions also installed new rain gutters and traditional helical piers in other areas of the house to address other issues at his hillside home.
Although the entire project came with a cost, Newman says the investment was worth it.
“At any point, I could have said money was too tight and opted to not go with some of the solutions,” says Newman. “But this was not a remodeling job we could live without. This was to save the house.”
To learn more about foundation problems, causes and potential solutions, visit Bob Brown’s Blog: Leveling with Bob (http://www.foundationaz.com/) or call (623) 748-4859.