You’re walking around your brick house one day and suddenly notice mortar cracking between your bricks. The cracks are not going in a straight line up or down or horizontally. These cracks kind of look like stairs going one up (or down) and one over and repeating heading across the wall.
Or maybe you are looking to buy a brick home and notice this stair-step pattern on the exterior during your showing. Yikes! What is going on here? Should I be concerned that this is a foundation problem?
At Anchor Foundation Repair, we understand that homeowners can see alarming signs like stair-step brick cracks and be concerned about them. While we are not masons or brick layers, we do know how foundation settlement and other causes affect masonry work and brick veneer siding and can tell you about how we diagnose issues during inspection visits.
This article will cover the two most common reasons that stair-step cracks can form in your brick mortar and how to tell what is causing it. We will also review your options for getting this troubling home issue repaired.
What Do Stair-Step Brick Cracks Mean?
There are two common reasons stair-step mortar cracks might appear in a brick home. This noticeable pattern can be caused by:
- Foundation settlement, or
- A lack of brick ties in the wall.
We know these are *construction-y like terms* that you might not totally get. Don’t worry, we will explain them further in these next sections.
Stair-Step Brick Mortar Pattern Caused by Foundation Settlement
Foundation settlement is a nice way of saying that your home is sinking, but that sounds terrible and scary like you’re falling in a hole to oblivion. Foundation settlement happens frequently in construction and it’s not that dramatic. It means that your home has moved somewhat in a downward direction from when it was originally built.
Stair-step brick cracks especially highlight foundation settlement when one part of the home settles more than another part. In other words, the entire home is not settling evenly and one section has moved lower than other parts of the house.
Stair-Step Brick Cracks Caused by a Lack of Brick Ties
When the brick veneer is placed on a home, there’s a way that the brick is connected to the framing of the house. They call these “brick ties” and they prevent the brick from separating from the rest of the home, as well as transfer some of the weight and force of gravity onto the framing.
Getting brick ties installed right is the job of the builder or mason that installs them. If the installer did not follow the building code, or there was no building code at the time of construction, or they simply did a shoddy job, then your brick veneer might not be adequately interconnected with the rest of the home.
Brick tie materials can also corrode or break and cause the problem too. So there could have been enough brick ties installed correctly by the builder, but something happened to them over the course of time due to age, or degradation.
A lack of brick ties or brick ties that are poorly installed or failing can cause the same type of stair-step pattern that foundation problems cause in brick. It’s not your whole home and foundation that is settling in this case. It’s just the brick veneer moving independently from the house and framing.
How to Tell What Is Causing Stair-Step Brick Mortar Cracks
Here’s how we typically can tell if stair-step brick cracks are caused by foundation settlement or by brick tie issues. When we go out to a home to perform a foundation inspection and notice brick cracks, we have to investigate a little further to figure out what’s causing them.
Determining If Stair-Step Brick Cracks Are a Brick Tie Problem
If you shove on the brick wall with your body, does it move or feel loose? If so, it’s a brick-tie problem. A brick veneer that is not properly or adequately tied into the home will move when pushed. Bricks laid one brick deep and stacked on top of one another is actually not the sturdiest sort of wall.
Sounds kinda scary, but there are likely some brick ties still maintaining enough connection that your wall is not going to collapse. Remember too, that it’s a veneer or cosmetic outer covering. Even if the bricks were to fall away, your framing and the inside of your house aren’t going to come with it.
Determining If Stair-Step Brick Cracks Are Foundation Related
When foundation problems are the root cause, it’s more likely for a stair-step brick pattern to appear coming off of door or window frames. The earliest signs of foundation settlement appear first on the weakest points in your home’s construction. So anytime you have a cut-out or framed-out hole in something (to create a window or door frame) it creates weak points that are more susceptible to showing signs of movement.
If foundation settlement is the root cause of your stair-step brick crack issue, then you will likely be seeing other signs of foundation problems in and around your home. You will never have *just one sign* when a home is experiencing foundation issues.
Check out this Ultimate Picture Guide to Foundation Problem Signs to look for anything else showing up in your home connected to foundation settlement issues. Once you know what you are looking for, there are likely other signs that will help to confirm that your brick problem is caused by foundation settlement.
What To Do About Stair-Step Brick Mortar Cracks: 6 Options
You’ve got some options on what to do about these stair-step cracks of yours. Some of these choices can be employed for both brick-tie issues and settlement issues and some will only work for one or the other.
- Ignore the cracks
- Repair with caulk
- Re-apply mortar
- Remove and replace damaged sections
- Redo the entire brick wall on one or multiple sides of the home
- Raise the foundation using foundation repair
Let’s discuss . . .
Option 1: Ignore the Stair-Step Cracks In Your Brick
Suggesting that you ignore the cracks sounds a little strange, but we’re just listing *all* the options here. But if the cracks don’t bother you that much and aren’t getting actively worse at the moment, then you could just ignore them for a while until you decide if or how to proceed later.
If the cracking is not on the front of your house or easily visible from the street, then it might not be that urgent for you.
Options 2 & 3: Caulk or Re-Mortar Your Stair-Step Brick Cracks
Repairing the cracks with caulk or mortar are both cosmetic ways to mask either issue. This could work in the short term if you just want to make the cracks disappear temporarily to look good for an event at your home. Eventually, the cracks will reveal themselves again if the root cause of the problem is not addressed.
Options 4 & 5: Remove/Replace/Redo Sections or Entire Walls
Removing and replacing damaged sections or redoing an entire wall of brick could be better options if brick ties are your problem. That way the brick ties can be installed sufficiently and correctly to fix that issue and reset the bricks.
If you were to do this when foundation settlement is the cause, it would be a cosmetic fix and likely a huge waste of money. The cracks will return if your foundation is still moving.
Option 6: Raise the Foundation with Foundation Repair
If you want to fix foundation-related brick cracks with a more permanent and lasting solution, raising your foundation back to its original elevation is the way to go. Foundation repair is only a good solution if foundation settlement is your problem. Foundation repair is not a good option for fixing a lack of brick ties.
It should be noted that we have seen homes with BOTH a brick tie problem and a foundation problem at the same time. In a case where both issues are occurring in one home, the best thing to do is to repair your foundation first.
Sometimes, raising the foundation will actually shore up the looseness in the walls and squeeze everything back together sufficiently. So foundation repair *could* end up fixing both problems! Though it’s not guaranteed to work especially if you have a true issue with brick ties.
If you still seem to have an issue with a lack of brick tie connection after foundation repairs, you would still need to take steps to handle the brick tie issue to your satisfaction afterward.
Handling the Source of Your Stair-Step Brick Mortar Cracks
Now that you know how to figure out if you have a potential foundation problem or a brick tie issue, what’s next? Well, if you think you have a brick tie problem here in BCS, get in touch with a mason or bricklayer to consult with you more on your options – they are the experts when it comes to all things brick.
At Anchor Foundation Repair, we have been inspecting and repairing foundations for 35+ years in Bryan, College Station, and surrounding Brazos Valley communities like Navasota and Brenham. We want to empower you with as much diagnostic information as possible so that you feel confident making repair decisions for your home.
If you think you have a foundation problem on your hands, we’re here to help whenever you are ready. Most homeowners don’t automatically know a lot about foundation repair. Check out, “What Does Foundation Repair Mean and How Does It Work?” for an introductory lesson in simple terms.