Don’t Settle on a Wet Basement

I’m willing to bet that most of your associations with settlement aren’t that great: settling a disagreement, settling for second place, and settling down is, for 20-somethings still on their parents’ insurance plans, something only slightly more appealing than prison.

The verb to settle, in fact, comes from the same root as the verb to sit. Though archaic these days, a settle (noun) is a term for a kind of large scale seat, often a bench. The proximity of sitting and settling or settlement is very close. The action that puts a person in a sitting position is roughly the same as the action that compacts the earth to create settlement, downward movement until stasis is reached.

Using the verb to settle to describe the lowering of the ground dates back to at least the late 13th C.[1] For those keeping track, English speaking folks have stood outside their homes with crossed arms and a frown on their face for at least 700 years and said, “yup, it looks like the ground has settled”.

Settlement of the ground and the grading of a given lot figure prominently into home inspection. Both are directly related to water intrusion. I’ve written about the damage poor water management can cause before, but this entry addresses a specific style of house, ubiquitous in our area: the mid-century brick rancher.

Between the fifties and early eighties thousands of these homes cropped up across the mid-Atlantic landscape. You’ve seen this house innumerable times: bedrooms on one side, living room and kitchen on the other. They are the embodiment of their original greatest-generation buyers. No frills: give me the basics and I’ll make it mine. There is a version of this house with siding built on a crawlspace, but the brick-clad version has a full basement with the same footprint as the first floor. If well maintained (well being the operative word) these houses will be here until doomsday. The ratio of foundation depth to above-ground wall height is fantastic.

Like all houses with a basement, these began with the excavation of a hole in which the foundation was laid. Once it cured, dirt was gently pushed back into place. The fill couldn’t be compacted because the risk of damaging the new foundation was too high. As a result, the loosely laid dirt slowly settled for months, years, even decades.

When most of these homes were built, they had a simple gravel driveway, almost always on the kitchen side. Now the vast majority have paved driveways. Over time, home improvement initiatives and parents tired of gravel in the kitchen eventually dictated the demise of the original gravel swaths.

This simple home improvement project, usually done by a landscaping company or contractor of similar ilk, often came with one simple oversight. Settlement next to the house. The driveway that once sloped away from the house now angled back toward the brick-work because of the slow settlement of the loose fill around the foundation. Sometimes uniformly, other times erratically, the grade was now lower next to the house than a few yards out. Once paved, these houses now had a huge asphalt spoon pointed towards the foundation.

Note the settlement next to the house.

Note the settlement next to the house.

The result on the inside. Yikes!

The result on the inside. Yikes!

I have inspected a number of these houses in which water problems in the basement are the direct result of water being channeled toward the foundation wall by the driveway. In the example below, you can see that the window was bricked up in an attempt to address the water issues.

Look behind the terrible dryer vent at the wall.

Look behind the terrible dryer vent at the wall.

This issue, though it has caused damage in countless homes, is not unfixable. Driveways can be re-graded. It may not be cheap, but don’t settle (See what I did there?) for a damaging driveway. No sealant or miracle coating can keep the water out for long. If you’re a homebuyer or agent, look for the signs: bricked up basement windows, water staining on the basement wall adjacent to the driveway, and, of course, poor driveway grading. You can sight a driveway just like a piece of lumber: get close to the ground, close one eye, and look along the span for variations in depth. You could also bring an experienced golfer along! They do this with greens all the time.

-Joe

[1] “Þe grounde satled” (“The ground settled”). Robert Mannyng of Brunne. The Chronicle, Idelle Sullens ed., Binghamton, New York, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996. l. 8186.