Dear PoPville – Finding Cracks After the Earthquake, How To Determine if they are Significant?

“Dear PoPville,

Just wondering if you know of a good resource to check and see if earthquake cracks are serious or not. I have a couple (see photo above) that I’m fairly certain are not serious (<1inch wide - though they go up the length of the walls) and don't seem very deep, but like of Petworth residents, I'm not used to earthquake damage and I live in an old house. I don't want to get all hysterical over something cosmetic, but I want to know if I should have a structural engineer come out, and, if so, whether it should be sooner rather than later. It seems fairly cosmetic (again, I'm no expert) - I'm just concerned about it's length at this point. It stretches up the stairwell from the 2nd floor baseboards to 3rd floor ceiling."

Another reader writes:

“I have a question regarding damage caused by the earthquake. I live in a four floor apartment building on Kenyon St. between 13 and 14. When I got home from work, I noticed that the earthquake has cause new cracks along the length of one wall above two large windows, above the doorway to the bathroom, as well as above a window in the kitchen. While the cracks may be insignificant, I still feel like they should be reported and perhaps an inspection should be done on the whole building.

So I guess my question is, who should I report this to? Of course I plan on telling my management company but they don’t always follow through. Should I report this to the city or is it too insignificant?”

33 Comment

  • Houses will often shift and develop cracks over time, so some cracking might have been exacerbated by the quake. I would have someone take a look and determine the severity. You can never be too careful.

  • General rule of thumb…cracks in structures, foundations, walls running vertically (floor to ceiling) are better than ones running horizontally.

    The photo above shows a horizontal crack.

    DC’s problem is that many of the structures and homes in town are of brick construction, which is less “flexible” than either stick built homes, or commercial rebar reinforced concrete buildings.

    While its pretty clear your building isn’t going to fall down and you aren’t in danger, your building management company needs to hire a structural engineering company to asses it. Give them atleast a week to do it…every company locally that does such work is already booked 24/7 for atleast that long, but don’t let it go longer than that.

  • Older brick houses have sand and mortar construction, which is more flexible. But the crack in this picture looks like it comes from the join in the drywall and the paint. From this photo, it doesn’t look structural, but I am not a structural engineer nor Bill Frist.

  • “reporting it to the city” is definitely a waste of time. how many earthquake experts do you think they have on staff? what could they possibly do to help you?

    • ah

      It’s probably worse than a waste of time, because they might condemn the building or order you to get out under penalty of law.

  • I don’t think an “earthquake expert” is required… just a structural engineer. But reporting it to the city is still probably a waste of time.

  • I’ve called my insurer about cracks in my brick facade, in the archway over the front door and in the supporting brick work around my front porch. Also found a horizontal crack inside, visible on both sides of wall. They’ll be sending an adjuster out, and I’ll go from there. Not sure if deductible will make it worthwhile, but exterior cracks will likely allow water to infiltrate, and could cause greater problems down the line

    • ah

      Does insurance cover earthquake damage? I thought it was excluded.

      • Earthquake insurance is usually specific (like flood insurance), but it would vary from policy to policy, of course.

      • I hadn’t thought of that when I called, and assume they would have told me that it wasn’t covered if I needed an alternate policy. However, since hearing about earthquake specific policies, I guess I’ll find out when the adjuster contacts me.

    • Agree that you should check to see if earthquake damage is included in your contract. Also, you should not use homeowners unless you absolutely have to – many homeowners insurance companies will cancel your policy after your first claim, and it can be very difficult to get another policy. Homeowners should be used sparingly for major disaster type situations.

  • pablo .raw

    Does the crack go all the way through the wall? Is there a downspout outside the wall near the crack? could be a result of settlement. Downspout ends should be around 5′ away from the foundations of the houses.

  • I too have a crack. Its horizontal, but I dont think its much to be worried about in my case, a lot of the cracks I’ve seen have been horizontal.

    I’m 99% sure that my crack is in the plaster and not in the masonry. I would take a careful look at it to put your mind at ease, but since you dont own the place, its your duty to report it to the owner.

    • The plaster on your exterior facing walls, if that is what it is, was directly adhered to your structural bricks. That’s not to say that you have a structural problem, but that the plaster crack is due to the bricks moving in very small amounts.

      If it’s an interior wall, it is still probably due to the joists being pushed around in the joist pockets at the party walls.

      • I assumed that it was due to the bricks moving in one direction while the plaster moved in another. There is no loose or missing masonry on the outside wall.

        I suppose the inside layer of bricks (my brick walls are maybe even 3 layers thick) may be cracked, but I wont know until I take plaster out and find out. Plaster cracks in situations like these and since my whole row of houses certainly moved in the quake, its not surprising the find out that the whole 110 year old house didnt move in absolute unison.

  • If it’s just a hairline crack in drywall or plaster on an interior wall it’s probably nothing. Frankly, the picture just looks like a drywall seam opening up, and is 99.99% nothing: the same thing will happen to a vacant house that isn’t heated/cooled due to thermal expansion/contraction.

    If it’s a hairline crack in a brick or a concrete wall (exterior/bearing) it’s still _probably_ nothing. And all you’ll really need to do is seal it from moisture. If water get’s in during the winter it will freeze and open the crack more.

    If it’s an _offset_ crack in a load bearing wall, then it’s time to call a structural engineer, although his first steps, even if it’s ‘something’ will be to seal the crack against moisture, and monitor the crack and see if it gets larger.

    • To clarify, if the crack is in the outside facing part of an exterior wall wall, not if the crack is in the inside facing portion of the wall.

      • What’s important is the size and nature of the crack.

        Hairline cracks in interior walls – particularly along drywall or corner seams: seldom a big deal.

        Hairline cracks in exterior walls: seldom a big deal.

        Google: “masonry inspection hairline cracks”

        It’s when the crack is offset that you need to start to start worrying. i.e. has the wall pulled apart leaving a gap? or has the wall shifted sideways leaving a step in the surface of the wall.

        Google “masonry inspection offset cracks”

        Also: a poster above mentions ‘horizontal’ cracks. A horizontal crack can indicate that a wall is stating to bow outward – a bad thing. If you have a masonry wall that appears to bulging, you need to get it looked at. The ‘star’ anchors you see on old brick buildings are used for this.

        Note: in DC row homes with high ceilings, drywall is often hung ‘sideways’ so an interior horizontal crack is really just a split drywall seam and is nothing.

        Google around a bit, “Masonry Inspection” or “Masonry Cracks” and you should be able to get a feel for what I’m saying then match the kind of crack you’re seeing with a picture and an explanation.

        • Im not sure I understand. If the crack is not visible from the outside, how could the crack on the inside be a result of the wall contorting? Isnt it a result of the plaster contorting?

          • “Im not sure I understand. If the crack is not visible from the outside, how could the crack on the inside be a result of the wall contorting?”

            The mortar can make the wall itself more flexible than the comparatively brittle plaster/drywall. They moved/bent the same amount, but only the plaster cracks.
            The materials don’t all have exactly the same flexibility.

            “Isnt it a result of the plaster contorting?”

            Yes. If there’s no crack on the exterior brick, I’d just patch it and re-paint. If the crack re-opens: then have it looked it.

            The exception is if the wall is bulging. To visualize: Think about bending a hunk of cheese (seriously). The outside of the curvature and pull apart and crack while the inside of the curvature just gets compressed. That’s how one side can crack while the other doesn’t. If the force is removed: it springs back, but you still have the crack. If the bulge goes too far, it cracks through and breaks. Same concept.

          • Got it. So if the exterior looks fine under a visual inspection, odds are we’re fine? I’ll patch, but my patches are pretty good – earthquakes may not bust them… I dont want to cover up a problem…

          • Yep. Just remember: patching a crack is like doing a joint. You can’t just fill it with spackle, you need to tape it.

  • Can anyone recommend a structural engineer for an evaluation? We have several cracks in our plaster along our exterior (front facing) wall. Can’t see anything from the front of the house, but seems like we should probably get it checked out just in case.

    • John S Rossi & Associates, P C, Structural Solutions
      Phone:(301) 587-1777

      I’ve hired him to evaluate cracking in plaster which ended up being a foundation problem. He supervised the contractor that underpinned my house.

    • Hadi, the owner of HRA Structural.

      He is professional and a no-BS kind of guy. Very comprehensive. An inspection with a report will cost you around $600. Generally you don’t need a report unless you have structural issues that you plan to remediate.

      • Thanks for these suggestions! I thought we were fine, but we just spotted a diagonal crack in the exterior brick wall of our second story that is accompanied by a hairline crack to the interior wall in around the same place. We’ll be calling one of these guys soon.

  • Is anyone else in mine and my fiancee’s situation? We’re closing on a house on Tuesday morning, and we’re now getting a structural inspection done because we’re freaked that we could be stuck with damage if we don’t know ahead of time.

    Honestly, 75% of me thinks I’m paranoid. But it’ll be too late to do it on Monday if we see cracks during the walkthrough and with my luck something will have happened.

    • You should have a structural inspection before you close on a house in DC regardless of whether there was an earthquake or not. You may not have anything serious or earthquake related, but will find out what may need to be fixed/rebuilt in the future, as general maintenance. Good luck with closing.

    • You’re about to make a life-long commitment/purchase. You’re not being paranoid. 95% of these concerns are going to turn out to be cosmetic, but homeowners are already stuck. You’re not stuck…yet.

    • Get every inspection you can think of. It’s an enormous commitment. Don’t let anybody make you feel like you’re inconveniencing them.

      Closing is stressful- I was shocked at how stressful it was. Read everything carefully, check finals against promises made by the seller and your loan officer, and make your own calculations on closing costs.

      Good luck!

      • austindc

        Agreed! We worked with an incompetent inspector and had to deal with a whole bunch of problems as soon as we moved in–stuff I wish we had known about ahead of time. You’re going to have plenty to do with unpacking and home improvement projects, so you don’t want to have to fix a whole bunch of crap at the same time. Closing is wicked stressful and you really have to be your own advocate. Move the closing date back if you have to get another inspector in there. Structural inspection sounds like a great idea if only for your own peace of mind.

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