Q: I am a real estate agent involved in the sale of a two-story house that has sloping floors and ceilings on both the ground and upper levels. There’s a full basement with low ceilings (less than 6 feet). The house was built in 1901 and the foundation has apparently settled. New drywall and painting have been done, and, except for the sloping floors, the house shows pretty well.
My question is: How does one level the floors without cracking the walls?
A: You probably don’t! Any way you slice it, leveling the house is a huge undertaking with multiple unintended consequences. If all the doors and windows work and the slope of the floors isn’t too terrible, we advise you to leave well enough alone. But, if the house is unserviceable as it sits, it’s going to take a ton of money to make it right.
If you’re representing the buyer, this is probably not the deal for them. If you’re representing the seller, he has a problem.
We’re at a loss to understand why anyone would go to the trouble and expense of new drywall and paint knowing full well that the foundation has settled over the last 111 years and should be fixed.
Here’s what’s involved in leveling the house: The first order of business is to determine why the foundation settled. And, more important, whether it will continue to settle. This means employing a soils engineer and a structural engineer.
We bet the 111-year-old foundation is brick or stone. If it’s concrete, there is certainly no reinforcing steel (rebar) in it. In any case, it’s probably inadequate by modern standards and needs to be replaced.
Once you find out what’s going on, the next step is to level the house. Going from top to bottom, stout beams are placed perpendicular to the floor joists, which rest on house jacks supported by wide platforms on the ground. This system allows the house to be supported during the leveling process.
House jacks are essentially heavy-duty steel screws with a plate on the top contacting the beams and a plate on the bottom resting on the ground. Several jacks and several beams are required for support during the process. The jacks are slowly and separately raised and lowered until the ground floor is level.
Presuming the second-story floor is relatively parallel to the first, this should take care of the leveling problem. It’s also pretty much guaranteed to decimate the new drywall, as well as change the ways the doors and windows work.
But that’s not all. If the 1901 house has original plumbing, you stand a good chance of springing several leaks, probably behind finished walls. The pipes are probably galvanized steel and well past their useful life of about 50 years. The weak link is the screw fitting where the pipes are joined. Water and electricity are turned off during the leveling process, so when the systems are turned back on, look out for the flood.
Finally, with a renovation of this scope, it’s likely the house will have to be brought up to current code. This means upgraded wiring, plumbing, and possible asbestos and lead remediation.
If this sounds like a sequel to the movie "The Money Pit," we mean it to. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do. But unless your client is ready, willing and able to take on a huge do-it-yourself project at significant costs, count on multiple tens of thousands of dollars in renovation costs.
To repeat, if the slope isn’t so bad and the doors and windows work, let it be. We love older homes. Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to renovate.