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Bryan Baeumler – Advice for DIY and home repairs

Hi, Bryan. Our house was built in the late 1980’s; we bought it in 1993 and ever since have had problems with it shifting. One season doors will close, the next they won’t. Drywall tape has ripped away on the vertical in two different rooms. Tiles in our newly reno’ed bathroom have cracked horizontally. Our garage floor has developed large cracks and water seeps up in one spot. There is one brick on our front stone pavers that is often wet. Our lot is higher than the road and slopes down significantly at the back. We have not had problems with a wet basement. I hope you can help me figure out what is wrong.
_Sherry H., Peterborough, Ont.

Well, Sherry, there are a few different reasons that houses will move around. A little bit of movement is normal because houses are made of wood — in the summer they expand, in the winter they shrink. But excessive movement usually indicates something a little deeper. The other reason houses move around is structural. If you have an addition on the house and it seems like it’s moving more, that could be an issue with the footings. If the footings were put on soil that was previously dug up and wasn’t fully compacted, what will happen when it gets cold — if they weren’t insulated properly — is the cold will get underneath there, freeze and actually lift the footings up. So it could be a foundation issue.

The other possible issue is you could have a really high water table in that area. As the water table moves up and down, it might cause the dirt underneath the footings and the backfill underneath the garage slab to compact slowly over time. So you’ll get some movement from that.

It’s impossible to diagnose exactly what’s wrong without doing a full and thorough inspection on the home and possibly doing a soil test. I would suggest you get in touch with a structural engineer for a consultation, and perhaps a soil engineer if the first option doesn’t yield any solutions. They can determine whether the structure of the home is compromised in any way. If you find out it’s a footings issue, there are plenty of solutions, from underpinning to slabjacking. Unfortunately, neither of those options are quick or easy.

Hi Bryan. We moved into our bungalow few years ago, now I want to take on some small projects. One of them is the mortar between the bricks: it is sunken into the bricks, but there are no cracks. Is this the style of the 1950s, or will it cause us trouble in the future? Thanks.

It’s tough to say, Petti. Different masons will certainly tool the mortar in between the brick differently — some are flushed and some are recessed, depending on the style of the home. If your house is 1950s style and the mortar is recessed, but you don’t have any cracking or deterioration of the bricks, I would not suspect that would cause you any issues in the immediate future. However, if your concern is merely cosmetic, you could attempt to do some tuckpointing — that’s basically mixing up mortar and using a thin pointing trowel to push mortar into those joints and then tooling it with a half-inch round tool that shapes the mortar into the bricks.

So if it’s only slightly recessed by a half-inch or so, it certainly shouldn’t be an issue, structurally. If it’s more than that and there are areas where the mortar is missing or halfway into the brick, that might cause an issue. The idea of that mortar is not just to hold the brick, but to prevent water from getting into the brick and freezing during the winter.

Bryan, we have a home on Lake Simcoe that is eight years old, with many windows that overlook the water. Some of them are going foggy, as the seals seem to be gone. The manufacturer, Jenn Weld, says the windows only have a two-year warranty. Can you tell me if there is a fix for this problem? Or do we need to replace the windows? Also, does this effect the R-value? Thank you.
Scott & Cathy A., Beaverton, Ont.

You’ve obviously got a double-pane window, which is two panes of glass with a sealer on the outside. Typically, that space in between there will be a bit of a vacuum or will be filled with argon gas, which is an inert gas that prevents any air from being in there that will carry moisture. There are companies that will come and repair the seals on the windows — they’ll remove the window panes, empty out the air that’s in there and either fill them with argon gas or just create a vacuum and reseal the windows. So you certainly can do all that without replacing the entire windows themselves. Certainly after eight years you shouldn’t have to replace the windows themselves.
If you lose the argon gas or the seal goes on that window, that certainly will affect that R-value. You’ll no longer have that thermal break between the glass. So having repairs will not only let you see clearer, it’ll help the windows keep the heat in, as well.

Hi, Bryan. We live in an 80-year-old bungalow in the Beach, close to the end of the streetcar line. The house was renovated before we moved in. In the five years that we’ve lived here, we’ve noticed cracks in the walls of one large room with a cathedral ceiling — even ceiling/wall lines. We’ve been fixing these but the cracks reappear, as well as new ones. We also noticed that the main level floors are not even. What could cause these cracks? The vibrations from the street cars, a shaky foundation? Can this be remedied? Is the housedisintegrating? Thanks so much.
Mandy R., Toronto

Well, Mandy, there’s a lot of drama in this question! A lot of room for doom and gloom. The honest answer is, in an 80-year-old home that’s been renovated, there are so many factors. My first question would be — especially if that bungalow has vaulted ceilings — was it done with a permit? Is there now a structural beam or ridge holding the roof up? If there isn’t, you’ll have some movement in that roof and the structure could be weakened. I’m not saying that’s the case here, but you’ll probably want to check with the city to see if permits were obtained for that renovation. See if you can get a copy of the plans and see if that ridge is supported.

I don’t think there’s too much vibration coming from the streetcar. Maybe if you lived directly above a subway station or right beside a railroad track, but I doubt that’s what’s causing it.

In the renovation, my question is: were the walls reframed and properly insulated? Or was it simply a lipstick-and-mascara renovation? In an 80-year-old house, you’ll typically find there’s a half-inch air gap behind plaster and lathe, with no insulation for the brick. That means you’re heating it in the winter and a lot of that heat is escaping, but a lot of the cold is penetrating the wall, as well, causing that lumber to shrink. Conversely, in the summer, all the outdoor heat is coming through, which causes the house to grow and move in the other direction, causing cracks as well.

So my first suggestion would be to check with the city regarding the permits to make sure the house is structurally OK. My second suggestion would be to check the humidity in the house and make sure you’re keeping it fairly constant, with the 35-40 per cent range — because it will shrink or expand due to how high or low the humidity is.
This past winter was obviously very cold and dry, which caused lots of cracking and popping issues with drywall because houses shrunk more than normal. Make sure you have a dehumidifier if your house is too humid in the summer, or a humidifier if it’s too dry in the winter. That should even out some of that movement, assuming that structurally the house was renovated properly.

Hello Bryan. The bottom six inches of the pillar between my garages has been damaged by water. I would like to fix this. I hired a mason to fix the grout between the bricks in this same area, however he said that he would not be able to repair the garage foundation issue.
Carolyn, Stouffville, Ont.

My guess is that the bottom six inches of your garage is brick. If the concrete footing doesn’t come up high enough and that brick is ground-level and absorbing a lot of water, this could cause problems. Since it’s a clay brick, it will absorb water that will freeze in the winter, which will slowly start to break that brick apart. The only way to repair that is to replace the brick and add concrete to bring it up higher so the bricks aren’t in direct contact with the ground and absorbing more water.

_Petti W., Scarborough, Ont.