Avoiding foundation repair scams after wet summer season

Arizona homeowners look for ways to protect themselves against scam foundation repair assessments and exorbitant costs after summer weather wreaks havoc on the area.

After a record-breaking summer of monsoon rains, subsidence (sinking land) and swelling clay soil, the Arizona area has taken a beating. Now, with summer coming to a close and the soil drying out, the telltale signs of potential foundation issues caused by rising or settling soils will inevitably begin to appear. This includes large cracks in brickwork, floor tiles and the ceiling, as well as windows and doors that no longer open or close properly.

When this occurs, Arizona homeowners are rightfully concerned about exorbitant repair costs. After all, foundation repair can be a frightening and intimidating experience. It doesn’t help that the foundation repair industry in many ways is fraught with errors, inconsistency and conflicts of interest.

So, when you start noticing possible foundation issues, how can Arizona homeowners avoid getting over-charged or scammed? According to Bob Brown of Arizona Foundation Solutions, there are ways homeowners can protect themselves against poorly conducted inspections and over-engineered solutions that can send remediation costs into the stratosphere.

As a foundation repair industry expert for 30 years, Brown is one of two Certified Foundation Repair Specialists (CFRS) in the state. He is also a long-time advocate for homeowners dealing with foundation problems.

Brown says the first way the homeowner can protect himself is to insist on a foundation assessment from an actual engineer, not a salesman.

According to Brown, it is a common foundation industry practice to send salespeople with no engineering education, trained only by a single source product supplier, to diagnose the foundation problem, recommend a solution and close the sale in a single visit.

“I’ve met hundreds of civil engineers and have yet to hear one say he can visit a home and determine an accurate foundation repair diagnosis and recommendation on the spot,” says Brown. “Yet salespeople with no engineering experience, paid solely on commission, are routinely doing so despite the obvious conflict of interest.”

Brown adds that foundation repair salespeople are taught to “oversell just to be sure.” This can end up costing homeowners well over $100,000 on some repair jobs. When homeowners do not have that kind of money, a solution that is under-engineered may be offered in an attempt to make a sale.

Instead, Brown believes only a licensed engineer should be responsible for the diagnosis and make remediation recommendations.

That is not to say that engineers or assistants could not be used to gather data such as floor plans, floor level surveys, topography of the site and photo documentation of cracks or other signs of stress. However, all final decisions would be made by an Engineer of Record.

Brown says it is also important the remediation company is familiar with the local soil conditions in Arizona.

“This is more important than you might think,” says Brown. “Soils and building practices vary greatly across the United States. If there is not a strong track record with local conditions, the probability for errors is high.

It turns out that in Arizona many homes are built on fine clay soil that can become saturated with water. When this occurs, the soil either settles after it dries (causing the foundation to drop or sag) or heaves (lifts) as moisture accumulates.

“Arizona soil has more clay than some parts of the country, but our state has an arid climate with soil that’s been dry for millions of years,” says Brown. “This makes homes susceptible to heave when moisture drains off the roof and has nowhere to go but under the foundation and floor slab. The wet soil then swells, which can push up the foundation/floor slab.”

It is for this reason that Brown believes more than 50% of the foundation issues in the United States are misdiagnosed.

Unfortunately, both heave and settlement can cause serious damage that may appear similar to the untrained eye, although their remediation approaches differ significantly.

Given that the vast majority of the industry is oriented to products and solutions that address settling and there are far fewer solutions for heave, homeowners are often left picking up the tab for solutions that do not resolve the problem.

“The industry’s solutions for settling involve stabilizing and raising foundations using a variety of support piers, piles or underpinnings driven into the ground until it contacts load-bearing soil or rock,” explains Brown.

However, underpinning a home with heave is not only of no value, it can actually place additional stress on the structure.

“If heave is the problem, putting in support piers won’t solve it,” says Brown.

There are several ways to remediate heave, some of which can require invasive procedures and are therefore expensive. This includes the use of cutoff walls or removal or replacement of the interior slab. Grading and drainage improvements are typically recommended but may not provide the complete answer.

A simpler, less expensive approach is to essentially accelerate the process of drying out the soil. To address this, Brown developed and tested a moisture removal system in collaboration with Arizona State University’s geotechnical department and David Deatherage, owner of local geotechnical engineering firm, Copper State Engineering.

With this “MoistureLevel” approach, which costs much less than underpinning, natural dry air is drawn in from outside of the home, where it then passes across the wet soil at the high part of the slab. The dry air picks up moisture through evaporation and is vented out of the home through gable vents or another convenient spot using a quiet and energy efficient vacuum.

To date, 600 homes in Arizona have installed the MoistureLevel system since it was launched four years ago.

Finally, Brown recommends a thorough online review of any foundation repair company’s reputation. This includes sites such as Google, Yelp, BBB, Angie’s List, Rosie Romero or any other vetted recommendation and reputation online service.

“One of our proudest achievements is being a finalist for the Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Ethics the past two years,” says Brown. The award is the most prestigious honor the BBB can present to a business.

“The foundation repair industry must step up and treat homeowners fairly, accurately and objectively, using consensus industry standards,” concludes Brown. “Arizona homeowners don’t need to overpay just because we had particularly rough weather this summer.”

To learn more about foundation problems, causes and potential solutions, visit Bob Brown’s blog, Leveling with Bob, at http://www.foundationaz.com/ or call 623-748-4859.