Wooden house foundation problems

Written by margo steele
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Wooden house foundation problems
Don't ignore foundation problems. (Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives)

Most houses built of wood today are constructed with pier and beam foundations, as were the charming old houses we see in cities across the country. Unfortunately, these foundations are subject to some particular problems that are not common to concrete slab foundations. In spite of this, they continue to be popular with buyers, and new homes are being given a vintage look by using this type of foundation.


Spotting foundation problems in a wooden house is not difficult; sometimes they are visible from the street. Sagging walls and floors along the sides of the house spell trouble, as does a porch that appears to be separating from the house. Inside, the signs may be more subtle. Doors may stick or not close properly, cabinet doors may hang open, and there may be a noticeable slope to the floor in one or more rooms.

Soil Problems

Many wooden house foundation failures are caused by problems with the soil. The soil of the house site must be thoroughly compacted. The weight of the house is transferred to the soil through the piers. So if the soil moves, the house moves as well. Swelling and shrinking of the soil also may cause foundation movement, and so moisture must be evenly maintained. Too much or too little moisture in the soil will cause a foundation shift.

Lumber and Piers

Improper size and/or spacing of lumber components can be responsible for wooden house foundation problems. Girder size should be 4 inches by 6 inches, minimum. Floor joists should be installed on 16-inch centres, with girders no more than 12 feet apart. Piers should be no farther apart than 6 feet and should have bases; otherwise, they can settle into the ground and cause sagging in the structure above.


Unlike houses with concrete slabs placed directly on the soil, wooden houses with pier and beam foundations have an open area beneath them through which rainwater can drain from one point to another. Erosion or settlement can occur around the piers and cause them to become unstable. When that happens, floors in the house sag and may even separate from the walls. To avoid this, grade soil to drain water away from the house.


While especially true of older homes, all of the above statements apply to new homes as well. Precautions must be taken before, during and after construction to avoid these kinds of foundation woes. New products and improved building techniques can minimise the potential problems of pier and beam foundations, and it should be remembered that homes built on concrete slabs are not without their share of problems.

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