Updated Oct 28, 2022
Updated Oct 28, 2022
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Pier and beam foundations were standard in older homes until the 1950s. These foundations were the best option for new homes until concrete slabs became slightly more affordable. So, if you live in an older home (especially in wet areas prone to flooding), your home might sit atop a pier and beam foundation.
Over time, these foundations wear out, leading to various issues throughout your home. While repairing these foundations is usually doable, there are a few exceptions. This article reviews pier and beam foundations, associated damage, maintenance, and tips for prolonging the lifespan, so continue reading to learn more.
Pier and beam foundations are a common foundation type used throughout the post-World War II era. Unlike traditional slab-on-grade foundations, pier and beam foundations consist of stone, brick, or concrete piers and wooden beams.
Together, the two elements support the weight of the home. Unlike traditional slab foundations, these foundations sit above ground level, usually suspended about 24 inches off the ground. Some consider them a type of crawl space foundation. But depending on the height of the pier and beam foundation, it may not be easy to access.
Until the mid to late 1950s and 60s, pier and beam foundations were standard in various parts of the country. They were the go-to option for building houses, offering excellent benefits to homeowners in certain areas.
While they’re no longer as prevalent after concrete slab foundations and other types stole the spotlight, they remain an ideal choice for homes in specific areas. For example, they are often a solid choice in areas where flooding is a constant concern and soils are susceptible to shifting. If you have a concrete slab and the soil shifts, cracks and gaps may develop in the foundation, potentially compromising the structural integrity of the building.
Aside from home building, these foundations are used for decks, raised homes, sheds, and fishing piers. So, even though they aren’t standard in most home builds today, they remain an option for new construction.
Although pier and beam foundations are usually stable, damage can occur over time. Three leading causes of pier and beam foundation problems include foundation settlement, prolonged exposure to moisture, and poor quality or worn-out materials.
Unfortunately, pier and beam foundations aren’t immune to settling soils. Like popular concrete slab foundations, pier and beam foundations can become compromised if the soil underneath the home begins to settle.
For example, consider expansive clay soils common throughout various portions of the United States. This particular soil expands when it’s wet, then contracts as it dries out. While it might not seem like a big deal, this expansion and contraction can wreak havoc on your pier and beam foundation, especially when it occurs every year or multiple times per year.
When the soil pushes up as it expands, it causes the foundation to shift. Once the soil contracts as the moisture leaves, the home settles down again. Over time, this constant movement during each season can cause damage throughout the interior of your home.
You might notice the effects of the constant movement in the doors, windows, and walls. Cracks may begin to form in the walls due to the foundation’s movement, and doors and windows may develop gaps around the frame as the misalignment worsens.
Most pier and beam homes were built before the 1950s when building codes were different. On top of that, the materials builders used to construct these foundations have been around for well over fifty years, so their age may lead to a weakened state.
A common issue with these foundations is a spongy, wavy, or bouncy floor. The reason behind this problem is the spacing between the floor joists, which are too far apart to adequately support the home’s weight. So, you might notice the floor moves quite a bit or is low in certain areas.
In some cases, this movement is exacerbated due to broken or worn-out floor joists and shaker sills. On top of that, piers within the structure can break down and require replacement, or they might rotate and settle differently than others near them. Sometimes, they might crack or break under the rise and fall of the soil beneath them.
These situations often appear slowly over time, eventually becoming bad enough to create significant problems throughout your home.
Although pier and beam foundations are popular in areas that regularly experience flooding, they remain susceptible to prolonged moisture. When there isn’t adequate ventilation or efficient drainage, the moisture can begin to cause issues with the foundation’s setup.
The wood may swell as it absorbs moisture, eventually allowing mold to take over. After a few months or years of constant moisture exposure, the wood may begin to rot or disintegrate altogether.
The water may not solely affect the beams – it can actually creep up the entire system, eventually affecting everything from the sill to the subfloor. Once the wood comprising your foundation becomes compromised, you’ll likely begin to notice the adverse effects of foundation damage.
In many cases, water damage only needs to affect one or two pieces of wood underneath your home before it begins to cause issues. This is due to the nature of the pier and beam foundations, where each component is interconnected. So, one bad piece can detrimentally affect the entire system.
Although pier and beam foundations feature ventilation holes to help encourage airflow through the crawlspace, plenty of air cannot make up for standing water due to poor drainage. Sometimes, a pier and beam home may start with adequate drainage, but the drainage system becomes ineffective over time, creating moisture issues under the house.
Once your pier and beam foundation becomes damaged, there are a few ways repair companies may decide to address the problem. Ultimately, the best fix for your foundation depends on the issue.
Reshimming is a common repair for these foundations, as it allows repair companies to add shims to the foundation to correct looseness or slight movement. This minor repair requires updating every 3 to 5 years and costs anywhere from $1,200 to $1,800 — for example, a minor beam repair.
Foundation repair contractors may add or rebuild pier stacks to correct faulty stacks, such as degraded or disintegrated wood. This helps the system distribute weight more evenly, allowing the foundation to support previously bowing floors. Rebuilding pier stacks and the beam structure (or adding new piers) usually costs around $4,000 to $6,000, depending on the scale of the project.
In scenarios where shaker sills or floor joists rot, warp, wear out, or break, repair companies need to replace the wood. Depending on where the replacement is and how much needs to be replaced, this can be a massive job. In some cases, the foundation repair costs can reach upwards of $20,000.
Pier and beam foundations are sometimes undersupported and underbuilt, so adding underpinning to the beam is necessary. This helps add support required for areas where settling has occurred. The pricing associated with this repair fluctuates drastically based on the scale of the project, the number of supports necessary, and the repair method.
Pier and beam foundations can be complex building projects, as the builder needs to consider various aspects to ensure the foundation is level and sturdy. Due to the foundation’s complexity, pier and beam foundations usually cost between $8 and $15 per square foot.
So, for a 2,000-square-foot house, homeowners should expect to pay between $16,000 to $30,000 for the foundation itself.
To repair these foundations, most homeowners pay anywhere from $4,000 to $6,500, although the final price may be higher or lower based on the severity of the damage.
While everything has an expiration date, including the foundation of your home, there are a few things you can do to extend its lifespan. While this mainly consists of regular maintenance and inspections, you should also engage in preventative tactics, such as exceptional drainage systems.
Routine maintenance and inspection are critical factors in avoiding and preventing pier and beam foundation damage. It’s essential to regularly check for issues that could potentially cause problems, as identifying the issue early on is key to preventing expensive damage.
Look for water pooling around the foundation and crawlspace, especially after heavy rains. If the water cannot drain properly, it could lead to severe water damage to the setup. Ensure you have a solid drainage system in place to direct water away from your home.
If you suspect issues with the foundation, you might see various signs inside and outside your home. For example, you might notice gaps between the doors and frames, making them appear misaligned. There might be cracks along the drywall of your walls and ceiling, indicating a shift in the foundations. Or you might notice uneven floors.
Outside, you might notice cracks in the siding of your home, especially bricks (such as a stair-step or vertical crack). The chimney might appear uneven or detached, and there might be gaps in the roof’s fascia.
You should also routinely check for termites (especially in the foundation piers and beams) as they can quickly compromise the foundation’s integrity.
If you notice any of these signs, call a professional immediately. While these signs indicate foundation damage has already occurred, a professional can help address the issue before it gets out of hand.
Pier and beam foundations can last around 75 years with proper care and maintenance. Varying circumstances can affect the system’s lifespan, driving it higher or lower. For example, if you live in an area where the soil expands and contracts from season to season, the foundation might not last as long.
Or, if the foundation is comprised of poor-quality materials, it’ll likely fail before its expected lifespan is up. Additionally, the build quality can affect how long the entire system lasts.
The lifespan of these foundations is reasonably comparable to poured slab-on-grade concrete foundations, which usually last anywhere from 80 to 100 years. They can sometimes last longer, although this requires careful precision.
Various other considerations can affect whether repairing your foundation is a sensible choice, but repairs can prolong the system’s lifespan in many cases. Sometimes, repairing the system might not be feasible, as damage may be too bad, causing the scales to tip against repairing the foundation.
If you’re unsure whether repairing the foundation is a sensible decision or not, check with a local contractor experienced with this type of foundation. They can advise and help you select the best course of action based on the damage severity.
For the most part, pier and beam homes are reasonably stable. However, like any foundation, they can develop issues due to settling, broken components, water damage, and other issues. Professional assistance and special foundation repair methods are necessary in many cases to fix the damage.
Generally, you can repair a pier and beam foundation. Of course, there are some scenarios where repairing the foundation might not be a sensible or feasible option. That said, repairing pier and beam foundations is typically more straightforward than fixing slab-on-grade foundations.
On average, pier and beam foundations last around 75 years. That said, extenuating circumstances can affect the lifespan of the foundation. For example, the quality of the construction, type of materials, and soil around your home can significantly impact the foundation’s lifespan.
Since many pier and beam homes were built before the 1950s, you might be considering giving your home a facelift to bring it into modern times. If you’re planning a remodel and your home’s foundation has issues, be sure to repair the foundation first. This way, you won’t have to replace materials you just bought due to damage from foundation issues.
Although pier and beam foundations may seem like a way of the past, they remain a typical pick for homes in areas prone to flooding, decks, sheds, raised homes, and fishing piers. After a while, the system’s components begin to wear out, leading to structural damage throughout your home.
In many cases, the damage is correctable, but it might not be a sensible option in some cases. If you’re unsure of the best course of action for your home, consult a professional for advice.
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