I'm considering buying a historic home >100 years old on the Chicago north shore and am trying to quantify/budget for the most expensive risks. I assume the foundation is one of the most expensive potential problems.

I'm wondering about when foundation problems tend to occur. Do they correlate strongly to the age of the home? Is there a certain age at which foundation problems become more likely?

If the foundation has repaired, does that mean that problems are more (or less) likely to return for a long time?

  • 1
    I'm not sure there's a good way to answer this without inspecting it. It's going to depend on too many factors to generalize - material, construction quality, engineering and architecture, prior maintenance, soil characteristics, drainage, and too many others to list. – Comintern Apr 19 '14 at 17:25
  • +comintern your comment might constitute an answer, even if it's a "not necessarily" – glenviewjeff Apr 19 '14 at 17:27
  • Do you plan on having a finished basement? If not this changes the equation. – DMoore Apr 19 '14 at 18:12
  • @dmoore Definitely not. – glenviewjeff Apr 19 '14 at 18:13
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    One thing to note if you are in the upper midwest is Radon...might want to get a radon test as well. – DA01 Apr 19 '14 at 18:14

Outside of naturally occurring activities like earth quakes, sink holes, etc., I'd say the current condition relative to the age is a good indication of what's to come.

There's no real answer to this without inspecting the foundation.

An old, well built foundation that has never had problems and shows little sign of damage (cracks, crumbling, staining, holes, etc.) might last 100 years longer if maintained. A 5 year old foundation that was poured sloppy and has had water seeping in since day one is more of a risk.

A home inspector would be able to give you a good opinion as to the quality and current state of the foundation.

You could also ask some neighbours with similarly aged homes what their experience has been.

Beware of something that looks too good for its age. It's unlikely something 100 years old wouldn't have cracks or some water staining. If it's been repaired, the quality of the repair needs to be looked at to ensure it's not just a façade someone put up to sell the house. A good quality repair on an otherwise intact foundation wouldn't be a huge risk in my opinion.


I am really trying to put myself in your shoes. I buy old houses and what do I look for:

  • quality of materials used for foundation
  • condition of materials
  • condition of any repairs (if they can't tell me then I get very skeptical)
  • the joists on the first floor - if the foundation has sunk then often they would change the joist angles to flatten first floor
  • and most importantly... the levelness of all of the floors in a house. In my area there are some great older homes that have been kept up with but the floors are a wreck. Too many patchwork leveling jobs. Sometimes they get the first floor done OK but then you think you are drunk walking up the stairs. I can tell the slightest angle. If you can't bring a small level and check everywhere.

You have to understand that an old house will have upkeep but if there have been no major foundation issues then I wouldn't expect one if you maintain the integrity of what is there. On the other side, if the floors aren't level there is a reason they haven't fixed it... it cost a TON of money.

  • Great idea about bringing a level. When you say tons of money, how much could we be talking? Does a proper repair mean it's unlikely to recur for a very long time? I just don't understand how foundation problems actually occur. – glenviewjeff Apr 23 '14 at 23:37

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