Mystery of the buckling wall

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Q: My parents’ house, built in 1962, has an exterior stucco wall that, over the past few years, has buckled about 1 1/2 feet from the ground. There is a poured concrete perimeter foundation and about 2 feet of crawl space. All of the interior walls that are perpendicular to the buckled wall have started to gap where they meet.

It is horrifying, and I don’t know where to start. Whom do I hire to diagnose this problem? What company fixes such a mess? And how do I even know that I’m getting a reasonable estimate for the job?

A: You are right to be alarmed. Any way you slice it, the situation is not good. One of two things is going on, both serious and costly to repair. Either the wood framing has been seriously damaged by termites, carpenter ants or dry rot, or the foundation is sinking.

We experienced a similar situation with our family home in the hills of San Leandro, Calif. Several years after Dad died, Mom noticed the kitchen floor was sloping toward the street. She called Don, one of the carpenters who had helped Dad build the house. Don went into the crawl space and inspected the cripple studs between the foundation sill and the floor joists. There was damaged wood, and the studs were just too short. The slope continued to worsen.

Dad used to say, "If you’re gonna do a job, do it right or don’t do it at all." Sometimes, you can do a job too well. Our house was on a hill, and Dad was concerned about water runoff saturating the crawl space. Instead of installing a sump pump, he built a retaining wall in the backyard and a French drain that diverted almost all the water around the house to the street. The unintended consequence was that over a decade the adobe soil dried out and shrank, lowering the perimeter foundation in front of the house.

Ultimately the foundation had to be re-engineered and replaced.

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The first thing to check on your parents’ house is the wood framing between the mudsill and the floor joists. You can do it yourself. Go into the crawl space and take a look at the area where the stucco is buckling. If there is major damage to the framing, it will be apparent. The framing members will be all but disintegrated, and you can be relatively assured it is the cause of the buckling stucco. …CONTINUED