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What to look for on a brick foundation- 1904 home

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Hi Guys,

I am scheduled to perform an inspection on a 1904 2 level home today with a brick foundation (basement). The home is located on NW 23rd in Portland.

It has been quite a while since I have inspected a brick foundation home. Besides the usual evaluation for drainage concerns, loose bricks and deteriorated mortar joints, cracks/settlement is there anything else I should be keeping a close eye on?

If I do locate issues with the foundation, should I recommend a masonry contractor or foundation contractor?

Any help would be greatly appreciated-


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I'm not sure that I agree with Chris' approach. One should be conversant enough about houses that they can intelligently answer questions put to them at the time of the inspection, without replying, "I dunno. Let me take a picture and post it to the inspectors' forum I hang out on, so that more experienced inspectors can tell me whether or not anything is wrong here."

Brandon, have you done any research on the BIA site? They have a pretty exhaustive technical library over there, perhaps there is some discussion there about what to look for in aging brick foundations. Barring that, shoot of a message to Kurt M. He's the undisputed vintage masonry guru here. (Hmmm, that didn't come out right. Oh well, he is kind of old too.)



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My advice is he same as Mike's. We have lots of brick foundations in Michigan and the most common problem is poor repair and/or tuckpointing. They all settle, crack and shift and have skilled homeowner type repairs. Photos are critical during the inspection.

I take a more laid-back approach to brick founations. If they are working and not broke, then likely they will continue to work. Problem is the changes within the superstructure that impact the foundation. If things have been left alone, then likely the foundation will perform past your "prior acts" clause in your insurance contract.

One more comment: All foundations are systems and a 100yr old brick foundation is one of the more simple systems.

Ever heard of Chicago Brick? That is Kurt's nome du plume!

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I feel embarrassed. I want to believe that good inspectors have a good understanding of what they are looking at most of the time. However when you start visiting some of these forums you start to realize that all of the books and training that you have had so far should not be assumed to be sufficient to count that you know enough. I earnestly strive to be a better inspector everyday. Your allegation is that I and maybe other inspectors use this forum and others as their sole support and that these guys are not going out and getting the real training that they should be seeking not “hanging out in a forumâ€

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Hi Chris,

No, you aren't wasting anyone's time, especially your own, by being here. We're happy to answer any question from any inspector when we can.

However, your post did sort of come across as saying exactly what I implied. If you had recommended Brandon visit the BIA site or one such as that, and then had said to take pictures at the inspection, if he'd seen anything that site didn't help him understand, and tnen post them here, I wouldn't have said a thing.

I think you ask very good questions. Keep it up, we need more folks asking these kinds of things here.

By the way, there's no need to feel embarrassed, we're all friends here. Heck, I'm always doing or saying something that makes others lift an eyebrown, I don't let it bother me. Life's too short and there's too much to be learned.



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On another thread, it was proposed there be a TIJ Summit somewhere.

Wouldn't that be something. . .a batch of inspectors congregating in some town or city. The 'host' inspector in that area might schedule an inspection on that Saturday and all of the attending TIJ folk would descend on that poor soul's home and inpect it.

I think it would be fun, not to mention a total added bonus for the client / buyer. Everyone could get to learn from each other, see how each other works and the seller of the home wouldn't know what hit 'em!! The inspection fee could cover the Saturday night BBQ or beer fund (for those of you that like to engage in the adult beverages).

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Some of the worst things I see done to brick foundations are performed in the name of "maintenance and repair".

Beware the interior parge coat w/rich mortar; it doesn't do anything but hold water in the wall & accelerate the deterioration of the brick. If it is parged, go around the entire perimeter & tap test all of it; if you get some hollow sounds, it means the parge coat's lifting. That doesn't mean you have a major problem, but it does mean the parge coat is peeling & not doing anything.

Eyeball the walls carefully; it's not uncommon to find some bowing inward. This is much more common in areas w/successive freeze/thaw cycles, so you might not get that in Portland.

If there's a little efflorescence, don't sweat it; if there's a lot, the brick will be falling apart, and then you have to do something about it. Again, this isn't that big a deal, but if you don't have folks that are familiar w/repairing old foundations, it might get confusedly expensive.

After that, what Les said. If it's been hanging around for >100 years and isn't showing anything particularly significant, it'll probably hang around for another hundred years.

The enemy of old masonry is retained water; not necessarily water, but retained water. These old foundations have amazing resilience and ability to absorb and evaporate water due to their sheer mass. If you don't put anything in the way to hold water in the wall, it will usually find it's way in and back "out" again. If you mess around w/the interior parge coats, it's like trying to stop a boat leak from the inside; doesn't work, and the parge coat retains water that eventually messes things up.

And, I'm humbly flattered that folks in here consider me to be expert in something; thanks much, it means more to me than I can express.

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I appreciate all of your comments. I have been inspecting homes in the Portland area for about 5 years now. I do read plenty of technical manuals, forums, etc. I realize that I will never know as much as I would like to. The problem is that I often get conflicting info. regarding the proper way to install/ repair etc. I just wanted others opinions (closer to expert than mine) on what to look for, etc.


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Originally posted by mthomas1


Who do you recommend for brick foundation work in the Chicago area?

Boy, the $64,000 question. I usually call over to the Pointers & Cleaners Local 52, and run down the list. Take a few proposals, and see who sounds smart that week. It's an ongoing challenge to find decent masonry folks.

Another thing....

The dipsquat "tuckpointing" that we always see is worthless. Everyone uses Type S because they imagine they're supposed to because it's "structural". All it does is royally screw up the wall for the same reason interior parging does; it holds moisture in the wall & it can't breath.

Old walls need to have the mortar matched for compatibility; can't get that @ Le Depot de Maison. Talk to Bill Mayer @ Local 52 for mixing advice.

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I can share my experience in NJ; (I am also a construction manager, so I see a lot of rehabs / additions etc and see the components when exposed). I do not know much about the construction practices in your city, but this info may be of some help.

We have some brick foundation in older parts of Jersey City (NJ). Vast majority of these have lime sand mortar (Portland cement became prevalent only after 1908 here). And vast majority have no footers (or footings). Where you do see some, there are no steel re-bars. This type of foundation is generally prone to very high moisture retention (there are rarely any moisture barriers etc). Brick is more porous than cement and lime makes it even worst. This leads to heavy spalling (even the best of kaolin clay would be prone to it; except when it porcelain faced). Tuck pointing is for replacing lost mortars not brick (lost face).

(Side issue: I do not recommend on how to repair, at least in writing, but caution, do not use Portland cement admixture for mortar on old lime mortars; that will make it even worst).

Besides the usual i.e. cracks, mortar, spalling, sagging, alignment etc I generally test for moisture retention (if you do not have a moisture meter) touch of hand may reveal colder spots (or darker color).

There are no authoritative papers on brick life spans but it is generally being assumed at 100 to 150 years. (Lime sand mortar has much longer span).

Depending upon the soil bearing capacity of the land it is built on and the water tables in your area (vast majority here are on solid rock formation so we do not have sub soil water problems (even though it is very close to Hudson river), that could be another area of concern (it would be same as any type of foundation). If that were to be case, weep hole (should be recommended; if excessive hydrostatic pressure is suspected).

Interior plastering is a poor choice for repairing 100 year old brick (if it has to be done, then there are very special systems for that application)

Other than that, if you shoot me pictures, may be I could provide my 2 cents for it, for what ever it is worth.

It should not be that hard though,

Good luck



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Forget brick lifespan charts. If stacked and dry, they'll hang around for a thousand years. If subjected to lots of water, they can crap out in 40 years. It's about water.

Brick foundations do have "footers". It's just more brick laid on stone; the bricks are spread out wide, and "corbeled" in to form the foundation. I've got a really great pic of this, if I could only find it.

What would be the right name to describe the "corbeled in" brick?

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Can anyone recommend a good read regarding history of foundation construction. I have found a couple at my local library, but nothing that covers a wide array of construction types.

The reason I ask is that when I went on an inspection with a seasoned inspector he was able to guestimate the age of the homes by the foundation makeup. It impressed me that he could at least have a general feel for the age of the building (no matter what other exterior embellishments had been added) without stepping in the door. The listing had said 1950's, but he estimated a probable age closer to the 1920's. Wouldn't you know, he was right on it. This may be something only time can teach, I'm not sure yet.

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Guessing or estimating build-year by foundation type has to be a regional thing - different methods were used at different times in different areas. Just as important will be knowing the neighborhoods, when they were built and methods therein. Not going to get that from a book.

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This was my first brick foundation. A small, single story, 1901 home.

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Probably best described as a potpouri of foundation materials. I was only about 20 inspections into my career but it didn't take a genius to call for a structural or foundation engineer. I think I was actually more concerned about the central beam resting on the "dubious" basement/crawl retaining wall than the damage by the door. I think I found the BIA site very shortly after!

The client sent me this photo of the "repair" at the door (I can't remember if he told me what they did about the retaining wall).

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I've only seen one other since, and that was only partial and short (nasty tight crawl). That one also needed some repair due to loose mortar, but the home had so many other issues my clients walked away.

While I'm sure that an un-reinforced brick foundation (in good condition) is great for the vertical forces back east, this is shakey ground and everything I've read before and since seeing this topic strongly recommends doing something about a brick foundation in seismic areas. I believe Portland, OR, is one zone below Seattle, but still at risk. Number one suggestion seems to be replace the foundation, with re-inforcement running a distant, and still very expensive, second. So my questions are...

Has anyone seen an older, un-reinforced, brick foundation, in the seismically active zones, actually in good condition? And if so, how do you report it?

If I ever have to cross that bridge, I just can't imagine saying "looks fine and is good to go". I know our BrickMeister, Kurt doesn't live here, but I'd be very interested in his opinion too.

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