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What is house settling?

House settling, also known as foundation settling or foundation settlement, occurs as a new house and the land on which it sits get used to one another. The house begins to settle into its foundation, and the foundation begins to settle into the ground. In homes with pier-and-beam foundations, the footings begin to settle further into the earth. Additional settling effects may begin to occur as soon as the environmental conditions around a newly built house start to change. The concrete in the foundation or footings, the wood used to build the house, and the soil under the house all may expand or contract. This is normal in any type of new construction.

Many different factors can contribute to house settling. Common causes may include:

  • The type of soil under the home.
  • Weather conditions in the area, such as particularly dry or wet weather.
  • Encroachment by tree roots or other external factors.

All buildings settle to various extents, but the effects are generally most noticeable when a building is new. For houses, settling can be especially pronounced during the first one to three years. You might not notice it from one moment to the next, but the signs that a house is settling become clear over time. For example, small foundation cracks may appear, as well as cracks inside your home where the walls and ceilings meet. Thankfully, these common indicators are typically cosmetic in nature and rarely threaten the home’s structural integrity.

What signs indicate a more serious issue with settling?

Small cracks are a normal part of settling, but large cracks may be a warning sign of more substantial foundation problems. Visible foundation damage that is more severe than hairline cracks can be serious. It could indicate that structural damage has occurred or is likely to occur. It can also give water and pests a way to get into the home. If this is the case, ask a professional with experience in foundation repair to inspect your home to see if there is cause for concern. Foundation damage almost always requires professional repair services, which can be quite costly.

Other common signs of foundation issues may include the following:

  • Large drywall cracks: Vertical or horizontal cracks can form as a normal part of foundation settling. When cracks occur along with other foundation damage warning signs, though, it is best to schedule an inspection as soon as possible. Catching a minor foundation issue sooner can help you avoid larger, more expensive problems later.
  • Problems with doors and windows: Foundation settlement can cause door and window frames to shift to the point that doors and windows cannot shut completely. This can also be a normal part of house shifting if it is occurring in isolation.
  • Slanted or uneven floors: This is typically a sign of a serious problem known as differential settlement, which occurs when the house is settling unevenly. Without foundation repair, this type of settling can cause significant structural damage to the house.
  • Cracks in basement walls or the crawl space: Foundation issues tend to affect areas closest to the ground first. Cracks and other damage at or below ground level could be a sign of serious problems with your home’s foundation.

Who is financially responsible when the house settles?

Financial responsibility for damage caused by settling issues depends on whether the home has a builder’s warranty and the terms of that warranty. Homebuilders may offer limited warranties that cover certain types of damage or repairs. A Construction Contract or Construction Management Agreement can address the terms of a builder’s warranty, but these are typically separate documents from the contract with the builder. If you buy a completed home from a builder or developer, be sure to arrange for the builder’s warranty to be transferred to you at closing. You can include this as a term in the Real Estate Purchase Agreement that you and the seller sign.

A builder’s warranty offers a variety of benefits for owners of new homes. When looking for a home to buy, you can include builder’s warranties on your Home Purchase Worksheet so you can compare homes where they are available.

If you have a builder’s warranty, read over it carefully to see what it covers, what it excludes from coverage, and what it requires from you. Some things to look out for include:

  • Many warranties start to reduce coverage after the first year that you own the home. Additional coverage may expire at the end of the second year and after each subsequent year until the warranty expires altogether.
  • Warranties often have exclusions for settling, erosion, and other types of soil movement.
  • Most warranties require homeowners to keep up with a list of maintenance obligations. If you do not perform these obligations, the warranty could become invalid.

Your homeowners insurance policy might cover some types of damage that are not included in the warranty. If you took out a mortgage to buy your home, your lender almost certainly required you to obtain homeowners insurance. Check your policy carefully to see what it covers. Some insurance companies exclude house settling from coverage.

If you do not have coverage for damage caused by settling through a builder’s warranty or an insurance policy, you may be financially responsible for the cost of repairs as the homeowner.

How can you protect yourself from settling issues?

The best way to protect your home and yourself from foundation settlement problems is to try to avoid those problems in the first place and to respond promptly if they do occur:

  • Know the warning signs of settling. Be prepared to take action before the damage gets too bad. Keep contact information for a foundation repair contractor or structural engineer handy just in case.
  • Hire a professional to inspect any foundation issues you find. They can advise you about whether any repairs may be necessary.
  • Watch out for warning signs that could suggest serious problems, such as cracks in basement walls or in your crawl space. If you find this type of damage, get help from a qualified foundation repair professional immediately.
  • Consider talking to a lawyer if you think your foundation settlement is due to poor workmanship rather than natural occurrences. They can advise you of your rights and help you evaluate your options.

You may have legal rights if you believe your foundation problems are the result of a builder’s neglect or negligence. If you have more questions about your home warranty, negotiating with your builder, or your rights after buying a new home, reach out to a RocketLawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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