We have just purchased a house, and upon the inspection noticed the the fireplace hearth has a crack in it. It's a clean crack, but it goes from the front to the back, and pretty much right through the concrete. Do I need to replace the hearth, or can I repair it?
I am not a mason, or an expert on fireplaces. (It is not a bad idea to bring in several such people to get an estimate on the repair.) However, a few things seem fairly clear.
The crack appeared because...
- The hearth may have been insufficiently reinforced, thus too little rebar, metal mesh, or nothing at all.
- Heat stresses, caused by heating and cooling cycles can cause cracks. A properly built hearth should have been designed to prevent that.
- Insufficient foundation under the hearth, which might have allowed it to settle, thus introducing stresses.
One or more of the above factors will have caused the problem. Someone experienced in seeing these types of problems will know what caused it, and thus what is needed to repair the problem so it does not happen again.
For example, it should be obvious if there is no reinforcement at all, since the crack will let you see inside. If there was settling, then one of the pieces may now be tilted relative to the other. There may also be other cracks in the walls or foundation of the house to be found.
If you do nothing, then there are some issues to consider beyond pure aesthetics. The one that comes to mind immediately is the crack will allow infiltration of air into the house from the ground. If there is radon in that air, it could potentially cause lung cancer over a long period of time. While this is not a high probability event, it is possible, and it does happen.
Repair may be a moderately difficult thing, since you really need to eliminate the underlying problem. Simply slapping some mortar on the crack will not solve a thing, even if you bother to find some heat resistant mortar. The crack will just reappear.
Again, I'd suggest contacting a good mason who understands fireplaces and foundations.
It's pretty simple if a crack was noted in the inspection report, it is not worth the risk to use it even if you fix it aesthetically. If a masonry contractor tells you that it will be sound or OK, I would stay away from them. Usually a masonry contractor will not mention a crack or problem unless it's a concern structurally and if they do it is clarified as so.
Unfortunately fireplaces are expensive to repair or replace but it's cheaper than replacing your new house from a fire that your insurance provider won't cover because you didn't repair the fireplace before using. If you're not sure I would get a second opinion just to be safe.
We are currently experiencing the same issue. It was clear that the ground level of our tri-level home's floors were installed without rebar. A previous repair to the damage involved only raising the floor, by building a new level floor above the old, collapsed floor--up to, but not under the hearth. Since the chimney sits on the foundation and the hearth on the floor, they have separated and we are now faced with having to completely remove the existing hearth. We must choose between continuing the raised floor with extra reinforcement and constructing a new hearth on it, or actually pouring new floor with rebar for the space only occupied by the hearth, then constructing a new hearth upon it. We have our contractor contacting experts on what is the safest and least costly course of action. I suggest you do the same. You should also ask your inspector if he checked the chimney liner for cracks. I would also inspect that level of your home for other things you may not have noticed, such as prior repairs that hide a bigger problem. If you notice other issues, you may want to contact an engineer to assess them, especially if you have another level above the one with the fireplace.