Ask the Inspector: Sloping floors equals frustration for home buyers

QUESTION: I have a question about our new house, which is about 55 years old. We are just making an offer to purchase it. It is in the Vancouver Fairview Slopes area.

We were not made aware by the seller and did not notice at the time that the home has a definite slope in it. The main floor tilts to one side. After we realized this, we contacted the sellers and were told that their agent said everyone who looked at this house should have been made aware of it which, unfortunately, was not the case with us.

We really like the location and the layout, but have found the slope to be a source of frustration. We are just curious as to what, if anything, can be done about this. It would appear to us that anything to fix this could be extensive and expensive, but we really have no idea at all what the cause of this might be.

We don’t know how to proceed, or if we should just leave it and when the time comes that we sell it, just hope for the best. Any thoughts or insights into this would be appreciated.

ANSWER: I will certainly provide my thoughts on your issue, but I must warn, you may not like the response. As you have stated, it is unfortunate that you did not notice the sloped floors in the home before making your offer, as you are now forced to live with it. You are correct that repairs may be undertaken at considerable cost to lessen the slope, but there may also be some less-costly remediation you can do to minimize the problem.

It still never ceases to amaze me, with all the information available in countless forms, that some home buyers are unaware of the potential pitfalls of what is likely the largest purchase of their lives.

Once you sign on the dotted line of an offer to purchase a home, you are bound to the terms of that contract if accepted. If you have some specific conditions in that offer that have to be satisfied by either the seller or yourself, then there may be some wiggle room to change your mind if these conditions cannot be met.

One of these conditions should certainly be a home inspection completed to your satisfaction by an independent, professional property inspector. Without the condition to have the home checked out in great detail for visible defects by an experienced inspector, you are only relying on your own observations in the very brief time you could look at the home. Often, that time is less than 1 hour, where you are primarily looking at suitability of the home for your lifestyle and how clean it is. Your brief look will likely focus on the kitchen, bathrooms and other amenities, but not necessarily the structure or mechanical components.

The slope you have described would have been identified at the time of the home inspection and you could have decided then if it would have been enough of a deterrent to prevent you from completing the purchase. You may still have made the decision to buy the house, but at least you would have been aware of the sloping floor – as well as the other issues with the home. That would have allowed you to weigh the positive and negative features of the home and make an informed, rather than hurried, decision.

SOLUTION: Now that this “lecture” is over, we can address the sloping floor of this home. It is somewhat unusual to have a very noticeable slope in a home, but not uncommon due to shifting soil conditions. The earth moves continually, more or less like the surface of the water.

With many houses that have settled, if all in one direction, there may be little concern other than the noticeably sloping floors. As long as portions of the house have not moved at different rates, known as differential settlement, then the slope may only be an inconvenience. Yes, it may cause some doors to rub and furniture and appliances to sit awkwardly, but hundreds of older homes have these same issues.

It is very common in older areas to see homes that have settled several inches, often to the front street or to one side, that are otherwise in liveable condition.

The one thing you may be able to do, without major structural repairs to the home, is to adjust the posts/columns holding up the main beam(s) in the basement, by replacing with adjustable metal columns – teleposts. As homes settle, these metal columns can create significant “bumps” in the middle of the floors. This may be due not only to the settlement at the perimeter foundation, but also some heaving of the footings under these posts.

When this occurs, it can often make the sloping of the floors appear to be more dramatic – due to the unevenness caused by the upward forces of the posts and beams.

The solution is to call an experienced general contractor or foundation specialist to slowly and very carefully adjust the teleposts, as needed. This can be a relatively easy task if your home has a simple design with a single beam, or can be very difficult if you have a finished basement with multiple posts and beams. Ensure anyone you hire has many years of experience in this area and does proper measurements and calculations to determine which posts need to be adjusted and by how much. Also, commercial General Liability and Errors & Omissions insurance, plus a good reputation and a valid business license.

There are clues that can indicate structural problems in a house: floors out of level, windows and doors sticking, bouncy floors, or floors that sag in certain spots. And not all structural problems are such a big deal. But if all the floors in the house slope to the middle, that says something serious. This is not a quick fix and for a first-time homeowner with a limited budget and not much experience with houses, I’d stay away.

There are lots of reasons that might cause sloping floors in a home. There might be foundation issues or problems with sinking. The sill beam or floor joists might be rotted out or have been eaten by carpenter ants.

But one of the most common issue is people cutting through the structure to run plumbing or wiring or duct work. Or, someone has removed supporting structure underneath to create an open-concept design (or to accommodate a Grow-Op).

Professionals can cut joists to run piping or wiring, but it’s got to be done properly, without weakening them. I suspect someone might have removed critical support. But, without seeing it, I obviously can’t be sure. You need to bring in professionals who can assess the house’s structure.

Structural problems can be fixed. With houses, pretty much anything can be done; it’s just a matter of skill, experience, time and of course, money. Joists that have been cut and compromised can be replaced or repaired (sistered). You can jack up the whole house to replace a rotten sill beam. A crumbling foundation can be excavated and repaired. But these are big, expensive jobs. You’d better be sure the low price for your “fixer-upper” makes up for the cost of the fix.

CONCLUSION: For the most part, pointing out a floor slope in a home more than just a few years old is not the responsibility of a vendor or a realtor, unless you specifically request this information.

As long as nothing was deliberately done to cover up this condition, it is your job to inspect the property as thoroughly as you want before you make an offer to purchase. Without the assistance of your home inspector or professional structural engineer, you are relying on your own very limited expertise and time to make this evaluation.

As you have stated, you can now only “hope for the best” and perhaps make some necessary telepost adjustment to minimize the sloping of the floors in your home.

CONTACT: For all your home inspection and consulting needs, contact Glenn Duxbury at Duxbury & Associates.

Glenn Duxbury

About Glenn Duxbury

Duxbury & Associates Building Inspection and Consulting Ltd. has received the 2004 Douglas College Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the ‘Consulting’ category for persistence and pursuit of excellent service delivery to clients by providing very thorough and professional Inspection Reports and dedication to those involved in buying / selling / building / renovating and maintaining uncompromised customer focus.