family, research

How Firm a Foundation

The house hunt continues. We’ve tweaked and expanded the radius of the search, which obviously yielded more results, but on the other hand it also brought us back to a conversation we’d had earlier in the search. What kind of foundation? 

The important bits of a house are roof, walls, insulation, but without the foundation it’s all going to fall down. We know it’s important, but… we have three options in this area. Slab, crawlspace, and basement (more on basements shortly). There are pros and cons for all three, although frankly I’m of the opinion the pros for crawlspace are very few: you can access the underside of the floor. Not very well, and so can all kinds of pests and vermin, and in an older poorly built house, there’s a lot of water down there, very close to your floor joists making them sag. But still, if you need to get to your plumbing, you can. 

Which brings me to the semi-controversy. The First Reader wants me to take every house on a slab off the list. If something breaks under the slab, he points out, or in it, we’ll spend a potfull of money tearing up the concrete to fix it. Sure, I say, but how often does that actually happen? I don’t know. And I’m not sure how to find out. I have to say the slab appeals to me on the grounds of it not rotting underneath you – we live in the Ohio River Valley area. To say that it gets and stays moist here is an understatement. We’re one of the only areas in the contiguous US to have our own fungal disease. But I digress. A slab is also invulnerable to termites. The house we had under contract that failed inspection had three major issuse: a leak in the foundation where pipes came in, termite damage to floor joists, and soft spots in the roof. Oy. 

Basements, then, seem to be the best of the options. Well, maybe. Not all basements are created equal. Some are, as I commented in one old house while I was ducking under beams and ductwork, more aptly termed dungeons. I know the kids won’t go in those. Old laid-stone foundations and seeping water and spiderwebs and eugh! what was that? are not ideal but can be lived with right up until someone gets the bright idea to put the washer and dryer down there at the foot of very steep rickety stairs that aren’t really stairs, more like a slanted ladder. Other basements are bright and shiny and dry, and some basements have even been fully finished and set up as a living area, albeit a slightly cave-like one. Probably cool in the summertime, although as we walk through them in the tail-end of winter they are more shivery than I’d like. 

So I don’t know. We come down to a bunch of houses that are all OK, and fit most if not all our criteria, but none of them sing to us. And maybe this house isn’t going to sing, it’s just going to be a roof over our heads until we’re empty nesters and then we can follow the sound of the siren singing about beautiful houses with perfect accoutrements, and… Sigh. This is hard, and tiring, and if I screw it up, has the potential to be very, very expensive! 


16 thoughts on “How Firm a Foundation

  1. If I remember correctly, we were leaning toward a house with a basement. We ended up with a house that has a crouch space on one side and a room tall enough to stand in on the other. (It’s on a hill.) There was a lot of moisture underneath when we first got here, so Hubs and I fixed it by 1) digging up and sealing the foundation, 2) creating a drainage system so the water flows around the house instead of directly at it, 3) laying vapor barriers, and 4) dehumidifiers. Oh, and 5) better gutters. It’s dry as a bone under there now and the white vapor barrier gives us the added benefit of being able to immediately see bugs and snakes under the house.

    I guess my point is that you can fix pretty much anything, if it’s the right house for you. We bought this because we loved the house, loved the land, and thought it would be a pretty neat area to live in. (And the price was very appealing as well.) We were right and whatever needed to be done to the house was worth it. You’ll find the right place for you and the honey-dos will be worth it for you, too.

    1. With the right house, you are correct! But part of the problem is that this is (at least the current plan) a five-year house. So we don’t want to take on too much project.

  2. Not sure how the plumbing was routed at one place with a slab, but I suspect the water was running all Winter long as the slab was poured long before it was considered as a habitable structure and later converted – thus the slab was all slab and no services routed through it.

    A mobile home with a crawlspace has me in agreement with you. Don’t like them.

    I am a fan of the unfinished (but well-made and well-lighted) basement. The kind that says “workshop” and if a *little* water gets on the floor, no big deal (NOT a flood, though). Finished/furnished basements just scream “wasted workshop area” and “that carpet is gonna get SOAKED” to me.

    1. the one house that had a finished basement we really loved also had workshop space elsewhere 😀 But it was a bit too rich for our budget, so we abandoned that idea.

  3. You aren’t looking for a house in tornado country or you’d be crossing those slab and crawlspace houses off the list. I remember huddling in our first house’s bathroom in the center of its 825 square feet during a tornado siren because we had no better place to go. The next (and current) house has one of those “basement garages” for refuge, access to the piping and no worries about the occasional wet spot on the floor. Though I do wonder about some eventual work on the stone and mortar basement walls…

      1. Though they can sometimes be quite nasty in southwest Ohio, they are at least infrequent. I can think of about three incidents in the past half-century, including some that were before my time. I had one come within about a hundred yards of my parents’ house near Loveland back in the late 90’s. That “freight train sound” they talk about is not a joke. An older friend mentions the “fun” of bicycling through Xenia in the late 70’s when the cluster of tornadoes rolled through. Another friend mentions a classmate who survived the tornado tearing through Saylor Park (just west of Cincinnati) and leaving her staring up from her bed at the sky beyond, after the roof was torn off.

    1. The little house in Kentucky that I’m getting ready to move to is on a crawl-space, and I really wish it was on a basement for just that reason — no place to go in the event of a tornado. We’ll have to build a storm shelter in the yard (probably safer, anyway, if the house was damaged); it can serve double duty as a root cellar.

  4. I’ll tell you why I don’t like a slab:


    Nope, a slab is not invulnerable; far from it. Under the cover of a slab, ground termites can get into the house with ZERO indication they’re present until you lean on a wall and fall through it. Every slab has cracks, and almost any crack suffices as an entryway.

    I’ve lived in two houses on slabs, and both wound up with these invisible termite infestations — in the middle of the house, not near the outside wall where you’d expect it and could see ’em going up the wall. And if there’s any moisture (trust me, morning condensation in the desert suffices) and the ground doesn’t freeze six feet down every winter, there are ground termites somewhere in that environment (especially if it’s rural and not subject to the whole neighborhood regularly applying toxic waste to control other bugs… Termidor is your *friend*)… if not now, at some unpredictable point in the future. Spawning termites can blow for miles in a good wind.

    And you haven’t really had fun til you’ve had a slab over a leaking water line… the water can come up half the house away from the source of the leak…. and that might cause frozen lines which come back to haunt you as a new leak a couple years later.

    And we won’t even discuss ground heave and walls tilting out of alignment (if you don’t think this can happen over warm dry ground, do I have a house for you). With a raised foundation, such issues can be shimmed and fixed; with a slab, you’re kinda stuck with it, unless you start tearing out walls, and if it shifts again? Ooops.

    Nope, no more houses on slabs for me. They’re fine for a barn, or a garage. Not for a house. Of course builders like ’em cuz they’re fast and cheap and young moderns don’t remember basements anyway.

    A crawlspace with a concrete foundation can be excavated into a service basement, tho sometimes there’s a reason not to (with a high water table, there WILL be times when a sump pump can’t keep up). Mainly you don’t want a crawlspace that’s so shallow it serves only to collect condensation. If you can’t see all the way under the house, and easily crawl around on your hands and knees, it’s too cramped. And generally speaking the higher the foundation sticks up above the ground, the better.

    My present house has a hybrid — concrete perimeter foundation; a small service basement with half-height concrete walls and concrete floor (herein live the well pump, the water heater, and the furnace); crawlspace under the rest of the house that’s been dug down far enough that you can stagger around bent-over and don’t have to belly-crawl. All the plumbing, electrical, ductwork, and gas lines are easily accessed, with only the bathroom plumbing out of reach of the service basement… and it’s sensibly NOT against an outside wall where it can freeze.

    1. That hybrid solution sounds like a good one. And I’m much more convinced to avoid slabs, between the comments here and elsewhere!

      Hopefully, the right house is out there somewhere.

      1. Had a neighbor who actually hand-excavated a full basement under his house — took him all summer with a wheelbarrow, but he saw no reason why he should go from free-and-clear to a mortgage just cuz the house was small and they’d started a kid in the oven.

        If something breaks under a slab, it’s more cost-effective to just shut it off and replace it with freestanding lines in the baseboards, same as you would with an old house trailer, rather than tear up the whole floor chasing after the leak, or short, or whatever pipes froze once too often.

        I can think of two advantages of slabs, besides fast-and-cheap, but they probably don’t apply to you:

        If it’s thick enough, it makes a serious heatsink. My first house on a slab was amateur-hour; guy who built it apparently just dug a hole and filled it with concrete; slab was probably 3 feet thick in the middle. It took a good 3 months to warm up in summer and another 3 months to cool down in winter, so it barely needed heat or cooling even in the high desert’s every-extreme climate. But nowadays we have better insulation, including for foundations (that’s just fitted foam blocks, so can be added any time).

        Usually takes less structural damage in an earthquake, especially on soft or sandy ground that tends to roll under the shock wave. And if the house slides off for lack of proper anchors, it’s less of a problem to fix (just jack up whatever sags for lack of support and add more slab, the house is flat on the ground anyway, tho you still have to fix all the sheared service lines).

        Another disadvantage I discovered is that being the house is just about level with the ground, a whole lot more dirt manages to wander inside, and there’s no barrier to crawling vermin either. In the desert I ended up letting the wolf spiders and wind scorpions live in the house, because they kept the long-leggers and black widows down to mere hordes, but I had to chase out the stink beetles myself. And if I’d ever left the front door open at night, come morning I’d have had rattlesnakes in the living room!!

  5. Yep. Stonycroft!
    Not having one was costly!
    Slab with a vapor liner. So it doesn’t sweat. Like that lake house you rented.
    May things to think about..

  6. Had slab and plumbing problem. The builder bribed the inspectors 40 years before the problem developed, and DadRed ended up excavating under the house, then having half the house re-plumbed. However, over the 30 years in Redquarters, all the major problems can be traced to that builder, not to having a slab per-se. Slab is much more common here than pier-n-beam or basement, because of water table problems. If you have a basement, you have a pump in it somewhere. And settling is still a problem, as much as with a slab. No one does crawlspaces because of the cold winters – code forbids it.

  7. In a new build a poured or block foundation should cost about 1/2 to 2/3 of the price of a basement. I have seen poured floors with a accessible utility channel with all the piping and wiring that would be in a basement or crawl space. A tight fit to do any work, but it was the less expensive option. I do like full basements and another “but”, they are the most costly. And going up and down the stairs if your laundry is down there gets to be a pain in the arse. Ask me how I know. Now if the house is on a hill side, a walk in basement is the way to go. I have very little to recommend a foundation with a crawl space, except the lower cost.

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