Depending on what part of the country you live in, buy enough houses and odds are great that you’ll eventually end up with a house that needs pier and beam foundation repair of some sort.
The word “foundation” and “repair” are enough to strike fear in many investor/homeowner hearts, but its actually not always the nightmare one might expect, especially with a pier and beam foundation.
A pier and beam foundation is exactly that, a system in which your house basically sits atop beams that in turn rest upon piers (which typically sit on concrete footings). The piers are evenly spaced underneath your house so that the load on them from above is balanced. All the weight of your house is transferred down to the beams, which in turn transfers it to the piers, and so on.
Over time (and we’re talking decades here), even the best pier and beam foundations are going to show signs of age, as settling of some of the piers is pretty much inevitable as the ground freezes and thaws, soil moisture changes, and Mother Earth takes its toil. This can result in uneven floors inside the house, sticky doors, cracking of sheetrock, and all the other signs of a foundation that’s out of kilter.
One thing to note, though, is that other issues can cause the same signs of foundation distress with pier and beam foundations, including rotting sills and beams, so you can’t just assume that the issue lies with the piers. And foundation issues can be a mixture of both, as far as needing to replace rotted sills as well as addressing problems with piers.
The “good” news about repairing and leveling a pier and beam foundation is that it’s much less labor-intensive and less expensive than repairing a slab foundation, for all the obvious reasons. As long as you can access the piers (and you usually can in most homes, as long as there’s a decent amount of room under the house), it’s relatively inexpensive to replace the piers or shim them so that the beams beneath your house are once again level.
This really isn’t a DIY job, although some hardy souls do indeed tackle it themselves. Most people (myself included) aren’t that comfortable jacking up floors and working underneath houses in tight, dark spaces. It’s also not the simplest task in the world getting everything level and good to go, as you’re talking about a pretty large structure you’re tinkering with, with interconnected parts that shift and affect one another, etc.
As far as what to expect cost-wise when leveling a pier-and-beam foundation, like anything the answer is “it depends”. For our primary residence (a 2000 sq. ft. home built in 1954 on a pier and beam foundation), we got initial quotes ranging from $1,800 to $3,500 to $5,750 from three different contractors. When we actually had the leveling done 1.5 years after buying the house, we paid about $2,500.
Which isn’t cheap exactly but it’s also not as insanely expensive as some people assume it will be, when tackling something involving foundation repair. Don’t necessarily be intimidated or scared off if you’re looking at a propspective property that needs foundation work, especially if it’s an older home on a pier-and-beam foundation. In severe cases, yeah, indeed, you could be talking about a major expense of $10,000+ to fix the problems, but in some instances it’s much, much cheaper to get the foundation leveled and back into shape.
Obvious foundation problems can actually be a huge plus for investors when buying a home, as sellers often over-estimate how serious an issue it really is, and overcompensate by discounting the price of the propety too much. For investors, it’s easier to negotiate a lower price when you can point to failing foundations, as everyone “knows” that foundations are insanely expensive to repair.
One thing to keep in mind is that no foundation repair company I’ve encountered will provide a warranty for repair work on a pier and beam foundation, and you shouldn’t expect a 100% level, rock-solid foundation that will stay that way for the next 30 years when they’re done. Leveling a pier-and-beam foundation will fix most of the major issues, but it’s unrealistic to think that an older home will suddenly spring back to dead-level condition and stay there.
If your house needs significant leveling, you should also expect a good bit of cracking in your sheetrock, especially around doors and windows, and some cracking of grout around tiles can also occur. You may also have to re-hang or sand down doors that are suddenly sticking now that your foundation is level. Be sure to get any foundation repair or leveling done first when renovating a property, as you’ll likely have a good bit of sheetrock repair and painting ahead of you after its done.