P-trap, spackle, and aggregates, oh my . . . You’re standing around talking with a group of people about houses and they start throwing around jargon and terminology. You’ve heard these words before, but you don’t know what they mean for sure so you nod and smile and issue awkwardly timed utterances like, “yeah,” and, “for real.”
Then the term “foundation settlement” comes up and you’re in the dark about what that really means too. The dude next to you is like, “Yeah, that was just normal settlement, so I didn’t worry about it.”
And you’re all, “That’s right, dude.” But inside you’re thinking: I don’t know if that’s right!
At Anchor Foundation Repair, we know what’s right and what’s wrong in foundation settlement and can tell you its meaning from our perspective. We have inspected and repaired thousands of foundations in the Bryan-College Station area for the past 35 years and counting. We know what settlement means and looks like in Brazos Valley homes.
Foundation settlement is a term used in the construction industry, the world of engineering, real estate, and home improvement, as well as by foundation repair contractors. It’s one of those terms that’s defined differently by everyone. It also gets interchanged with other terms that sort of mean the same thing, but not quite.
Not everyone interprets the term “foundation settlement” the same, so it’s easy to get confused. We will straighten it out for you by giving a basic definition and explaining different types of settlement situations.
Then at the next random home improvement convo, you will have more to say or at least know what everyone is talking about.
What is the definition of foundation settlement?
Some people hear the word “settlement” and think of a lawsuit when everything is *settled* and over with. But this is not that kind of settlement. Foundation settlement is more of a moving thing rather than a thing that is over or finalized.
Home settlement is a nice and polite, non-alarming way of saying that your home is sinking.
When something heavy is placed on soil, the soil will compress, compact, and move down and the heavy thing will move down too. That heavy thing is your home and it is expected for this to happen when the home is first constructed.
Further settlement occurs during rainy and dry seasons where our clay soil expands when wet and contracts when dry again. The home sinks when it’s dry and sinks more the drier it gets. We live in Texas, so it gets dry and drought-like . . . a lot . . .
This settlement happens to all homes, it is not an unusual thing. There are signs that you might see around your home that indicate that foundation settlement is occurring, like diagonal cracks in walls, or doors that don’t latch or close right.
Sometimes these signs are just annoying, but not bad enough for the homeowner to bother getting fixed. Other times foundation settlement turns into a problem for homeowners and foundation repair becomes necessary to stabilize the movement and correct these issues.
Foundation Settlement Goes By Other Names
Some industry people use foundation settlement, foundation problems, and foundation issues interchangeably (heck, we do it all the time!). Others say things like “cracked foundation” or “cracked slab” and just mean settlement. Even though people tend to throw all these terms around like they are the same thing, they are not exactly the same.
Foundation movement is the closest term that matches what foundation settlement really means. It means your foundation moves, and it has not yet “settled down” and stopped moving. Yes, this is the opposite of making sense because somehow settling means moving but alas . . . I can explain no further . . .
There Is No “Normal” When It Comes to Foundation Settlement
You might often hear people say, “Oh, that’s normal,” when it comes to foundation settlement. It’s not so much normal, but more like *not unusual* or *nothing to worry about.*
A better term than normal would be “minimal” settlement. Think of a small (not really noticeable) crack that doesn’t get any larger over time. A door that doesn’t latch quite right at certain times of the year but gets better and isn’t affecting its functionality i.e. it still works.
Minimal settlement is something that you find tolerable and aren’t worried about fixing. People often use the term “normal settlement” but we don’t think that’s the most accurate word to use.
When signs of foundation settlement begin to affect the performance of your home, that’s when it’s no longer minimal and becomes characterized as a foundation issue or problem. There are a few signs you might see in your home that are true indicators of an issue that you decide to get repaired.
These true signs mean that your foundation settlement has *moved* into the foundation problem category:
- Diagonal Cracks on Interior Walls
- Exterior Brick Cracks
- Doors Sticking or Not Latching
- Gapping or Separation of Exterior Trim
- Movement of Wood Trim and Other Inside Fixtures
We don’t want to spend too much time on foundation problems here since we are just trying to define foundation settlement. But if you want more information along these lines, check out this article, “Do I Have a Foundation Problem? Top 5 Signs Repairs Are Needed.”
What are the different types of foundation settlement?
Yes, there are different types of foundation settlement or, to use a word that makes more sense, foundation movement. The seven settlement types are defined by either when or how the movement takes place, or by its severity. Here’s a list of them and we will go over each one in a bit more detail.
Notice that “normal” is not one of the *official* types of foundation settlement, because it’s not a thing.
Foundation Settlement Determined by Timing
Initial and seasonal settlement happen at certain times in a home’s life or year. They are determined by the timing of when the movement or sinking happens.
1. Initial Settlement
When a home is first built, it settles into the ground. The soil compresses and compacts underneath the weight of the home and the home will sink down some. The initial settlement period lasts from between 18 to 24 months after a new home is built.
The ground underneath the home should be prepared according to current building codes at the time of construction. A properly prepared lot will minimize initial settlement if it is done right. You might notice minimal signs of settlement but it should not be extreme or in any way problematic for the functionality of the home.
You likely won’t notice anything at all because the initial settlement should not be noticeable. But if the ground prep process was poorly done, the initial settlement effects could be more visible than a homeowner would like.
2. Seasonal Settlement
Unlike initial settlement, which only happens once at the beginning of a home’s life, seasonal settlement can happen every year. Seasonal settlement gets its name from the seasons of the year. Winter, spring, summer, and fall each have their own weather characteristics and it will be either dry, rainy, or a little bit of both.
With the expansive clay soils we have here in Central Texas, the clay expands when it’s wet and contracts when it’s dry. This soil movement causes foundation movement as well and can cause seasonal changes in your home. Cracks can open and close throughout the year. Doors can stick in one season and not in another. These signs indicate seasonal settlement.
Foundation Settlement Determined by Type of Movement
The next three settlement types are named by the way that the foundation is moving. Is it sinking at the same rate all around, sinking at different rates, or tilting in one direction? Uniform, differential, and tipping settlement types describe the style or direction of foundation movement.
3. Uniform Settlement
Anytime that a home’s foundation is sinking, whether it is at initial construction or any other time, if the entire slab sinks down to the same depth then it is called uniform settlement. So the home is moving down equally in all areas.
Since uniform settlement keeps everything in its original balance and level, it would not damage the structure of your home as long as it doesn’t sink too far down.
If the home were to sink in all areas uniformly but too much, plumbing lines would be harmed as well as the alignment of sidewalks or porches to your home. Drainage flow could also become a problem. Uniform settlement is not common.
4. Differential Settlement
Differential settlement is kind of the opposite of uniform settlement. It means the different areas of the home are moving or settling at different rates or depths. One part of the home has sunk lower and moved more than the other part. Differential settlement is the most common type of settlement and is also associated with a cracked slab.
One part of the slab-on-grade foundation cracks from the rest of the slab and moves more or sinks down more than the other part. This difference in degrees of movement is where the *differential* comes from in differential settlement.
5. Tipping Settlement
Tipping settlement occurs when a slab stays flat but tilts one way. The slab is not cracked, just not at its original level position at all points anymore. This type of settlement does not often result in cracks or damage to walls but does make your floors unlevel. A ball or round object could roll by itself towards the direction of the tipping or slope of the floors.
Tipping settlement can happen on sloped lots or hilltops where a gradual “slope slide” makes your house slowly turn and/or move downhill.
Foundation Settlement Determined by Engineering Standards
In the engineering world, they have actual numbers and measurements that they deem to be acceptable vs. unacceptable for foundation settlement. Rather than settlement, engineers often use the term “deflection” as well.
6. Acceptable Settlement
By engineering standards, a set range has been established to measure gaps in walls or floors from cracks, and the angles at which floors are sloping or walls are leaning. The actual numbers can be found somewhere, but acceptable settlement measures less than the engineering standards that have been set.
Small cracks in walls and door problems that don’t cause significant damage or have major functionality issues are the kinds of things that would be considered “acceptable” by an engineer.
7. Unacceptable Settlement
The opposite of acceptable settlement is unacceptable settlement. This level of foundation movement exceeds the set engineering numbers. The gaps are too large, the deflection is too much, or the slope is too great and is deemed officially “unacceptable.”
What this means for a homeowner are larger and longer cracks in walls, functionality issues with doors or windows, floors that slope enough for you to easily feel it.
Foundation repair companies rely less on engineering numbers and more on the performance and functionality of your home. Repair contractors will inspect your foundation and propose a plan to do what it takes to bring your home back to its original elevation and get things in working order.
Control Foundation Settlement with Foundation Repair
Whenever a home experiences too much damage or problems from foundation settlement, the homeowner might be ready for it to stop moving so much and causing issues. Foundation repair is the solution to your foundation movement problem.
Anchor Foundation Repair has repaired thousands of home foundations in the Bryan, College Station, and Brazos Valley communities for two generations and 35+ years. Not all foundation settlement is a problem and we will be the first to tell you if this is the case. While we are in the business of repairing foundations, we’re not in the business of fixing things that don’t need fixing.
Just like foundation settlement, foundation repair is another term that is not exactly what it sounds like. It sounds like someone is going to patch your slab foundation back together and make it “unbroken” but that’s not really what happens. Read all about it in our, “What is Foundation Repair?” article.