How to Diagnose & Evaluate Horizontal Foundation Cracks
HORIZONTAL FOUNDATION CRACKS - CONTENTS: Diagnostics & Pictures of types of horizontal foundation cracking & bulging. The causes, significance, & remedies fdor horzontal cracks in building foundation walls.
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Horizontal masonry wall or foundation cracks: how to recognize, evaluate, diagnose & repair horizontal foundation
cracks and signs of foundation damage. Foundation cracks and movement are discussed by type and location of foundation cracks,
vertical foundation cracks, horizontal cracks, and diagonal foundation cracks, and shrinkage cracking.
Foundation cracks, which are signs of foundation damage, can mean very different things
depending on the material from which a foundation is made, the location, size, and shape of the foundation crack, and
other site observations.
These foundation damage assessment notes presume that you are examining a wall which is entirely or nearly all below-grade level.
Horizontal Foundation Cracks Located High on a Foundation Wall
Horizontal foundation cracks located in the upper third of a concrete block wall (presuming most of the wall is below grade)
are most likely to have been caused by vehicle loading or in freezing climates, by surface and subsurface water combined with
In northern climates if we see cracked mortar joints in the top third of a block wall, at about the same depth as the
frost line in that area the damage is almost certainly due to frost. Often outside we'll find corroborating evidence such as drip
lines below the building eaves confirming a history of roof spillage against the building, and back inside we may see that the
foundation damage is occurring only at the building walls below roof eaves and not at the gable ends of the home.
Cold climates- frost, possible displacement inwards
Possible vehicle loading, displacement inwards
Our photo (left0 illustrates an example of this foundation wall crack pattern: the masonry block foundation wall shows open horizontal cracking in the second mortar joint from the wall top. To further understand this crack it would be useful to notice outside just where the backfill soil height is with respect to the wall top.
Typically when we see a crack high in the wall like in this photo its cause is one of the bulleted items listed just above: frost loading or vehicle loading.
Horizontal Foundation Cracks Located at Mid-wall Height on a Foundation
Masonry block or stone walls which are cracked and/or bulging inwards at mid height on the wall are likely
to have been damaged by vehicle traffic or earth loading.
Possible vehicle loading (look for a driveway near the wall or site history involving movement of heavy equipment near the wall)
Backfill damage - excessive height or premature backfill before the first floor framing was in place.
Hillsides - earth loading or earth loading exacerbated by water or frost
Areas of wet soils - likely to be earth-loading or earth loading exacerbated by water or frost
Our block wall horizontal crack photo just above shows these conditions. Povided that an outside inspection confirms that the soil backfill height is close to the top of this foundation wall, finding horizontal cracking in the middle third of the wall, below the frost line for the area in which this building is constructed, argues that the crack is not caused by frost or freeze damage but more likely is caused by earth loading exacerbated by the added weight of wet soils or possibly those conditions combined with vehicle loading.
Horizontal Foundation Cracks Located Low on a Foundation Wall
The forces exerted by soils against a foundation wall increase geometrically as we move from surface level of the soil against
the wall to the areas near the bottom of the wall. In other words, earth pressure is greatest at the bottom of the wall. This fact
helps us distinguish between frost or water-related cracking and simple earth loading in some cases since a wall which has become
dislocated laterally only at or near its bottom is likely to have been damaged by earth loading.
Earth Loading, especially if in an area of dense or wet soils - the total force of soil pressure against a foundation wall increases as we move down from the soil surface towards the bottom of the wall and its footing.
Horizontal dislocation of a masonry block or brick wall may appear first as a crack and then
later as horizontal movement as a wall is pushed inwards by earth or wet soil pressure.
Where a floor slab helps hold the wall footing in place against horizontal movement, earth loading pressures against the foundation wall are more likely to cause inwards movement and cracking in the mortar joints above the floor slab.
Causes of Horizontal Cracks in an Attached Garage Foundation
Construction methods for attached garages (as opposed to a garage located under a home and adjoining its basement) may create some special
opportunities for foundation cracks:
Shallow garage footings: The garage foundation footings are less deep than the house footings, exposing the foundation to other risks
of frost or settlement damage and movement.
Garage additions: The garage may have been added after original construction, creating newly-disturbed soils around the
foundation and footings that have settled more recently than that of the original home.
Garage slab settlement and cracking: A garage foundation is often constructed as a concrete footing and a low masonry block wall, followed by
dumping fill inside this structure to raise the level of the garage slab to the desired height. A common
construction error is the omission of adequate soil compacting before the garage slab is poured. A related common
construction shortcut for these "raised slabs" (on fill, higher than and not resting on the garage
wall foundation footings), is the omission of pins connecting the slab to the garage foundation wall at its elevated
The result of these details is that as the soils below the slab settle and compact the slab can move
and settle significantly. Depending on the amount of garage floor slab reinforcement (wire or re-bar or none),
the slab may crack as well as tip and settle. How does garage slab settlement crack the garage foundation walls?
The weight of a garage floor slab, combined with the weight of vehicles in the garage, compresses the soil
below the slab.
Soil pressure includes an outwards force which can cause horizontal cracks in a masonry block
garage foundation wall. Look for these cracks outside the garage and above grade-level.
Detecting soil voids below a garage slab is quite possible using this "ghost busters" technique: drag
a heavy chain across the floor and listen to the sound it produces. If the chain moves across an area of soil
void you'll hear a change in pitch in its sound, typically dropping lower.
This is not a technique for every
building inspection but it is useful when evaluating garage floor slab movement, tipping, cracking, or
Where are Horizontal Foundation Cracks Visible?
Horizontal foundation cracks are usually visible only from inside a basement or crawl area unless building is all masonry. Occasionally horizontal cracks may be visible above-grade on a building exterior or interior wall, as we illustrated in our repair advice field report described below.
Lateral or horizontal movement of a masonry foundation wall inwards from earth pressure will often be seen at the first
mortar joint above a basement or crawl space slab. Remember that the slab itself may be holding the very first course of masonry
blocks or brick in place.
This is a useful detail to keep in mind if you are using a plumb line and measuring tape to document
the total amount and location of wall movement.
The bottom course of concrete blocks or bricks, held in place by the floor slab,
can usually be taken as a baseline of zero movement, from which other measurements to the plumb line are compared over the height
of the wall.
Our photo (left) illustrates severe bulging damage to a concrete block foundation wall where a combination of water, frost, and earth loading are collapsing the foundation wall. The "jackleg" repair attempt shown by multiple diagonal braced 2x lumber is at best a stop-gap measure. The wall will need to be rebuilt and the outside water and draingage problems corrected for this structure to survive.
Horizontal Masonry Wall Crack Cause Diagnosis & Repair Advice
Horizontal cracks in reinforced brick or concrete block walls and in poured concrete walls can occur because of
Exfoliating rust pressure from rust caused by water leaks into thewall structure, particularly where steel mesh or re-bar are close to the wall surface or are for other reasons exposed to water leaking into the wall. We also find this rust damage to masonry walls of all types at steel lintels over windows and doors (cited also at BRICK FOUNDATIONS & WALLS and BRICK STRUCTURAL WALLS LOOSE, BULGED )
Shrinkage cracks - may run in any direction, including roughly horizontal, but tend to be discontinuous and not straight, and tend to occur more at natural points of variation in stresses in the concrete wall (or floor) such as at penetrations or changes in wall height, width, thickness, etc. (SHRINKAGE CRACKS in CONCRETE)
Watch out: while many horizontal cracks are of only cosmetic significance, others may be a source of leaks (and further damage) into the wall or water intrusion into the building, and mroe seriously, significant horizontal cracks diagnosed as caused by wall buckling or bending or movement are likely to require structural repair or reinforcement, or in extreme cases like that shown in our page to photograph of a buckling masonry block wall, foundation wall reconstruction.
Reader Question: Is this horizontal crack serious? Hairline horizontal crack evaluation request
My house is 20 years old and sits on a slope. I found a horizontal crack last weekend when I was out in the back yard. Normally I stay indoors and don’t go out to back yard.
I can’t say when the crack started. I think it is probably recent because the horizontal dark line is obvious. I start looking on internet. I love your website. A lot of info and very knowledgeable. Therefore I wonder if you can help giving some advices. I am scared right now.
Here are some details. The first picture was taken from the backyard. You can see the back of the house sits on a big wall of concrete. Actually, the whole house sits on concrete. The concrete thickness in the front of house is thin, and it gradually become thicker. The concrete wall is about 10 feet high in the back of the house as the picture shown.
There is a dark color horizontal crack. The dark color looks like caused by the moisture coming out of the crack. The crack starts from half way on one side of the house, runs across the back, and ends around the half way of the other side of house.
The second picture shows the close look of the crack. It is not big. I don’t know if it is hardline wide.
Could you please give me some opinions? I already scheduled visits with a few foundation repair companies. I hope you can provide me an independent assessment on how to fix it.
A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that would permit a more accurate, complete, and authoritative answer than we can give by email alone.
You will find additional depth and detail in articles at our website. And I'm in the dark about your comments about varyijng concrete thickness.
That said I offer these comments:
It's not clear if the cracked wall is reinforced poured concrete (lower risk) or a cement parge-coated concrete block foundation wall (higher risk). It's also not clear from the photo the extent of wall movement and bending - factors that along with rate of change, site conditions, and building construction methods would define the risks involved.
What I can see in your masonry wall crack photos includes:
what looks like a brick veneer wall built atop a masonry wall that is either concrete or concrete block, with
a horizontal crack less than 1/4" wide, extending along a portion of the foundation wall
what looks like water stains down the building wall and along the pathway of the horizontal crack - water and frost, or if reinforced concrete, rusting steel re-bar or mesh could be factors in this cracking
a downspout that spills by the foundation wall
flat, poorly-graded site that traps water against the foundation - possible sources of footing settlement or movement, but if the footing were moving I'd be surprised if the crack were so localized in just a portion of the width of the wall
and in close-up to me the crack looks "recent" in that its edges don't look weathered and though the wall has been painted, there is no paint inside the crack
A competent assessment requires an onsite inspection by an expert in foundation repair - perhaps an experienced mason or a structural or civil engineer who has specific experience with residential foundation wall troubleshooting and repairs.
An expert will look at the size, pattern, location, of the crack, the extent of wall bending (more than an inch is likely to be a more urgent concern), crack and movement history, site factors, and similar items in forming an opinion.
I realize that we don't want to waste an expert's time and our own money on an inspection and analysis that may not be necessary, and also that lots of "experts" find it safer for themselves to spend more of your money by calling for measures that may not really be appropraite.
In general, I would expet (OPINION) that an experienced building inspector, home inspector, or one of the foundation experts I listed above would, on seeing a wall like the one in your photos, figure that if the wall is close to perfectly vertical and there is no sign of rapid ongoing movement, a hairline crack is low enough risk that you could reasonably hold off on heroics and watch the wall and crack for signs of further movement.
It would make sense also to keep surface runoff and roof spillage (the downspout in your photo and the gutter above if it's clogged) away from the building foundation wall. It might make sense to include in your evaluation the condition of the brick veneer as well - as it looks as if water has run down the building wall.
Reader Follow-Up: more details about the fine horizontal crack found in the wall photographed above
I finally found pictures from last year showing the horizontal line was already there. So this is not new. Yesterday two foundation repair companies came. Both of them didn’t see anything wrong inside and outside. There is no crack inside. Floor is almost flat using test tool. Drainage is ok. Foundation is fine. They can’t tell what was causing this horizontal crack line. Both of them guessed this crack might be caused by cold pouring joint. The hairline crack is a straight horizontal line starts from one side of the house, all across the back, and to the other side of house. They offered a few tips to direct water away from the house. They both told me nothing to worry about. Just keep an eye on it.
They showed me that the concrete is parge coated. I pointed out a spot to one of the inspectors. It looks like some rust is leftover below a small parge coat crack. You can see it in the picture. He said that’s the spot of rebar. He also showed me a few other spots which has rebars inside.
I feel ok now. What should I do next? Do I need to confirm this is really cold pour joint leak(which I don’t know how), or just keep an eye on it?
Sorry for confusing you about the thin/thick. I should say the concrete retaining wall/foundation is shorter near the front of the house, and taller near the back of the house.
Reply: leaks into a concrete, brick, or block masonry wall can cause rust damage cracking or frost cracking
You confirm for sure that this is a poured concrete foundation wall.
I noted earlier that your photo showed what looked like water stains on the exterior wall, also suggesting water was running down the wall.
If a building foundation wall is reinforced poured concrete and if water was leaking into the wall, I noted in my earlier message that water running down a masonry wall where re-bar or reinforcing steel mesh is close to the wall surface or where cracks (say shrinkage cracks or others) admit water into the wall, rust can cause further wall cracking as the pressure exerted by exfoliating rust along steel reinforcement is quite powerful.
This rust damage pattern in foundation walls is more common in brick or block structures (such as shown in our photo at left).
I also note that because steel mesh or re-bar placed in a masonry wall structure are rather straight, water and thus rust damage to the wall, if caused by water intrusion where steel reinforcement has been wet from leaks on or into the wall, tends to cause cracking that is rather straight-line.
Frost cracking that follows water leaks into a masonry wall is more likely to be horizontal in a block or brick wall but might be horizontal in a poured concrete wall if water is entering at a crack where steel reinforcement is close to the wall surface.
Concrete parge coating may have been added to cover up prior rust or water damage to the foundation wall
It is common to see concrete parging coating a concrete block foundation wall. It is less common to see concrete parge coating on the exterior of a poured concrete wall. One might speculate that if found the parging may have been added on a conctrete wall it might have been done by a prior owner for cosmetic reasons, to cover spalling or rust-caused cracking in the wall surface.
If the prior owners did not realize that wall damage was being caused by roof runoff spilling down the wall surface, even though the wall was parge-coated to cover up old damage that same problem might be expected to recur.
Your onsite inspectors confirmed (by implication in your message not by explicit remark) that there is no significant movement in your wall - leaning, bending, bowing, etc. That in turn means you're not facing an urgent costly structural repair.
Fix the causes of roof gutter overflow/spillage that sends roof runoff water down the wall (suggested by your first photo)
Cosmetic repairs to the parging would be fine and might help keep water out of the crack. Any "patch" type repair such as using masonry caulk or even concrete patch will look just like that - like a patch. To not see the repair at all you'd need to either patch and then paint the wall surface (which means re-painting from time to time in the future) or re-parge-coat the wall anew - a more costly alternative.
Readers should also see our article series at CONCRETE SLAB CRACK EVALUATION since those pages also assist in distinguishing among types of cracking in concrete.
Watch out: To be used properly, this information must be combined with specific
on-site observations at the particular building in order to form a reliable opinion about the condition of that building's foundation. Anyone having
concern regarding the structural stability, safety, or damage of a building, foundation or other components, should consult a qualified expert.
Use the "Click to Show or Hide FAQs" link just above to see recently-posted questions, comments, replies, try the search box just below, or if you prefer, post a question or comment in the Comments box below and we will respond promptly.
Sal Alfano - Editor, Journal of Light Construction*
Thanks to Alan Carson, Carson Dunlop, Associates, Toronto, for technical critique and some of the foundation inspection photographs cited in these articles
Terry Carson - ASHI
Mark Cramer - ASHI
JD Grewell, ASHI
Duncan Hannay - ASHI, P.E. *
Bob Klewitz, M.S.C.E., P.E. - ASHI
Ken Kruger, P.E., AIA - ASHI
Bob Peterson, Magnum Piering - 800-771-7437 - FL*
Arlene Puentes, ASHI, October Home Inspections - (845) 216-7833 - Kingston NY
Greg Robi, Magnum Piering - 800-822-7437 - National*
Dave Rathbun, P.E. - Geotech Engineering - 904-622-2424 FL*
Ed Seaquist, P.E., SIE Assoc. - 301-269-1450 - National
Dave Wickersheimer, P.E. R.A. - IL, professor, school of structures division, UIUC - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Architecture. Professor Wickersheimer specializes in structural failure investigation and repair for wood and masonry construction. * Mr. Wickersheimer's engineering consulting service can be contacted at HDC Wickersheimer Engineering Services. (3/2010)
*These reviewers have not returned comment 6/95
Technical Edits, Changes, Amendments to This Document
06/07/2007 adding text, illustrations, content
9/23/2006 editing to clarify text and add content; Technical review (partial) by Arlene Puentes.
4/17/2006 editing to clarify text in several sections.
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
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Diagnosing & Repairing House Structure Problems, Edgar O. Seaquist, McGraw Hill, 1980 ISBN 0-07-056013-7 (obsolete, incomplete, missing most diagnosis steps, but very good reading; out of print but used copies are available at Amazon.com, and reprints are available from some inspection tool suppliers). Ed Seaquist was among the first speakers invited to a series of educational conferences organized by D Friedman for ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors, where the topic of inspecting the in-service condition of building structures was first addressed.
Design of Wood Structures - ASD, Donald E. Breyer, Kenneth Fridley, Kelly Cobeen, David Pollock, McGraw Hill, 2003, ISBN-10: 0071379320, ISBN-13: 978-0071379328 This book is an update of a long-established text dating from at least 1988 (DJF); Quoting: This book is gives a good grasp of seismic design for wood structures. Many of the examples especially near the end are good practice for the California PE Special Seismic Exam design questions. It gives a good grasp of how seismic forces move through a building and how to calculate those forces at various locations.THE CLASSIC TEXT ON WOOD DESIGN UPDATED TO INCLUDE THE LATEST CODES AND DATA. Reflects the most recent provisions of the 2003 International Building Code and 2001 National Design Specification for Wood Construction. Continuing the sterling standard set by earlier editions, this indispensable reference clearly explains the best wood design techniques for the safe handling of gravity and lateral loads. Carefully revised and updated to include the new 2003 International Building Code, ASCE 7-02 Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures, the 2001 National Design Specification for Wood Construction, and the most recent Allowable Stress Design.
Defects and Deterioration in Buildings: A Practical Guide to the Science and Technology of Material Failure, Barry Richardson, Spon Press; 2d Ed (2001), ISBN-10: 041925210X, ISBN-13: 978-0419252108. Quoting: A professional reference designed to assist surveyors, engineers, architects and contractors in diagnosing existing problems and avoiding them in new buildings. Fully revised and updated, this edition, in new clearer format, covers developments in building defects, and problems such as sick building syndrome. Well liked for its mixture of theory and practice the new edition will complement Hinks and Cook's student textbook on defects at the practitioner level.
Straw Bale Home Design, U.S. Department of Energy provides information on strawbale home construction - original source at http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/designing_remodeling/index.cfm/mytopic=10350
More Straw Bale Building: A Complete Guide to Designing and Building with Straw (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series), Chris Magwood, Peter Mack, New Society Publishers (February 1, 2005), ISBN-10: 0865715181 ISBN-13: 978-0865715189 - Quoting: Straw bale houses are easy to build, affordable, super energy efficient, environmentally friendly, attractive, and can be designed to match the builder’s personal space needs, esthetics and budget. Despite mushrooming interest in the technique, however, most straw bale books focus on “selling” the dream of straw bale building, but don’t adequately address the most critical issues faced by bale house builders. Moreover, since many developments in this field are recent, few books are completely up to date with the latest techniques. More Straw Bale Building is designed to fill this gap. A completely rewritten edition of the 20,000-copy best--selling original, it leads the potential builder through the entire process of building a bale structure, tackling all the practical issues: finding and choosing bales; developing sound building plans; roofing; electrical, plumbing, and heating systems; building code compliance; and special concerns for builders in northern climates.