Structural issues can wreak havoc on your home. They can cause cracked walls, sloping floors, sagging roofs, and leave your residence vulnerable to pests and water damage. Though the risk of finding structural problems increases in aging homes, in new and old homes alike sloppy construction can be another culprit.
While serious structural defects are rare, when red flags pop up, general home inspectors often refer buyers and sellers to professionals, like structural engineers, who can conduct further specialty inspections.
“A structural engineer is a licensed civil engineer in whatever state they’re working in,” explains Gregg Cantor, president and CEO of Murray Lampert Design, Build, Remodel in San Diego, California, who has over 35 years of structural experience and whose company specializes in architectural aspects including structural engineering for new and existing homes.
“Structural engineers have a stamp — and when they provide a report, they stamp it, and that has a lot more ‘teeth’ than just a report by an inspector.”
If this is your first go-around with a structural home inspection, you probably have some questions, like, how much do they cost? When are they needed? And how do you prepare for one?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll answer all the hows, whens and whys of structural inspections. We’ll also share advice and insights from top-rated professionals with years of experience in both real estate and home construction. To get started, let’s kick things off with how structural inspections differ from home inspections.
Structural inspection vs. home inspection: What is the difference?
Structural inspections and home inspections may sound similar, but each plays a unique role in ensuring a home’s safety.
While it’s not uncommon for home inspectors to also be structural engineers, it is rare for structural engineers to also be home inspectors. Being that most structural engineers don’t perform routine home inspections, they are typically only brought in when their skills are required to further examine concerns with a home.
A general inspector can often provide a structural engineer referral. These professionals do need to be licensed (check with your state’s engineering licensing board) to give a qualified opinion.
A home inspection
Home inspections are performed by a certified home inspector who visually assesses a home’s basic systems. They are not looking at cosmetic issues or anything that requires minor repair, but looking for issues that could affect the home’s safety. This includes things like the property’s plumbing, electrical, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), and roof.
Home inspectors are typically searching for signs of:
- Water damage
- Structural issues
- Old or damaged roofs/attics
- Damaged electrical systems
- Plumbing issues
- Pest or insect infestations
- Problems with the HVAC system
You can learn more about home inspections and the best ways to prepare for one, here.
A structural inspection
“A structural inspection is something that is done by a structural engineer, or someone who has a lot of experience looking at the different structural elements of the property,” says Collis Clovie, a top-selling real estate agent in Atlanta who works with over 65% more single family homes than the average agent in his area.
To break this down further — home inspectors look at the overall picture of the home, while structural engineers zero in on specific structural issues. They look at the building’s foundation, beams, or investigate further if anything’s signaling that the property’s structural integrity is at risk.
“If the homeowner or buyer suspects there could be some existing structural issues or conditions, the structural engineer comes in and does a deeper assessment of those conditions,” explains Cantor.
The goal of this inspection is to make sure that:
- The home was properly designed and built to securely withstand the weight of its anticipated loads.
- The integrity of the structure has been maintained, so it will continue to perform safely as intended for the foreseeable future.
Upon completing the inspection, the structural engineer will offer their findings and expert opinion in the form of a post-inspection report (more on that below).
As a seller, it’s important to note that most states require sellers to disclose any material defects with the property to the buyer upfront in writing on a property disclosure document. The National Association for Home Inspectors defines material defects as any large home issue that puts residents at risk, or could significantly lower the home’s value. This does not include aspects of the home that are outdated or running beyond their life expectancy.
Even before hearing from the inspector, I encourage the buyers to hire a structural engineer if the house has a distinct slope as you walk it, diagonal cracks above the doorways or multiple doors that are out of alignment.
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When do I need a structural inspection?
“Even before hearing from the inspector, I encourage the buyers to hire a structural engineer if the house has a distinct slope as you walk it, diagonal cracks above the doorways or multiple doors that are out of alignment,” says Paul Holub, a top-selling agent in Houston who specializes in relocations.
Both homebuyers and sellers can request to have a structural inspection done. From a buyer’s perspective, they may ask for a structural inspection to address any concerns about the “bones” of a residence. Or, more typically, if a structural inspection is recommended following a general home inspection.
As for sellers, they may hire a structural engineer before putting their home on the market if they’re spotting possible structural concerns that signal failure of a primary component of the building, or careless craftsmanship. But even if your home is in tip-top shape, earning the seal of approval from a trusted structural engineer can give potential buyers peace of mind, which might just lead to a quicker closing process.
Wondering if your home needs a structural home inspection? Keep an eye out for these eight common signs:
Cracks in the foundation, walls, and windows
“The easiest problem to spot is excessive cracking on the inside drywall, or if it’s an older house, it can be plaster — those would be vertical or horizontal cracks on wall surfaces, at door openings, and at window openings,” explains Cantor.
Though a lone crack may not signal a foundation issue, if you’re seeing several cracks along the floors and walls, or are seeing cracked windowpanes, this could signal a shifting foundation — which can be a big, expensive problem for a homeowner.
“There are hairline cracks and there are wider cracks than hairline. If it’s a crack that’s the size of a dime or nickel in thickness, that would be concerning,” adds Cantor. “The same thing goes for exterior, like stucco.”
The timber used in homes has to be treated and protected from the elements and moisture to keep it from growing mold and rotting. Keep an eye out for areas in or around the house like attics, basements, and bathrooms where timber is exposed to moisture. Busted pipes, leaking roofs, or poor drainage around the house can also cause wood rot.
Warped, sloped, cracked, or uneven floors
Foundation problems can be costly to fix, but a healthy foundation is essential to make sure the structure of your home is stable. Though some settling of the house is expected over time, too much can cause structural weakness.
“The other sign of structural issues is that you can feel it on the floor,” explains Cantor. “Some homes are built on a slab, and some are built on a raised foundation where there’s wood floor joist. If the wood floor is spongy, that’s a sign of a structural condition.”
Cantor says to also monitor tile that’s laid over slab as cracking can be a sign of ground movement. And if the house is carpeted, it can be worth rolling back the carpet to take a look at what’s beneath.
“There are ways even without a structural engineer to access the floor area of a home,” advises Cantor. “You can shoot it with a laser to see the differential in the floor’s surface area to see if it’s settled, and there’s also what’s called a monometer report where they go in and do a full survey of the slab or floor area to make sure it’s level.”
Cantor explains that if there’s concern about the floor, doing a laser or monometer report would be a less expensive first step. From there, if findings conclude the floor isn’t level, then it may be time to bring in the expertise of a structural engineer.
Gaps between walls and floors
Gaps can form around a sagging floor or moving wall supports due to a shifting foundation. These telltale gaps can be found on both internal and external walls.
Cracked or leaning roof/chimney
Roofing issues are notoriously expensive and labor intensive to repair. A roof that sags either on the ends or in the center can indicate shifting or settling that may compromise the integrity of the structure.
Standing water and drainage issues on the property
Water damage in brickwork or masonry can cause serious damage to any structure, especially in colder climates. A structural home inspection will let you know whether your home’s chimney or walls have been compromised by water, age, or the elements, and will give you an idea of what to do next.
Doors and windows that won’t open/close
One of the earliest signs of a shifting foundation is when doors and windows throughout the house stick, signaling that they are moving out of alignment. Homes built on clay or on concrete slabs are at heightened risk of a problem known as foundation heave, where the ground beneath the concrete expands and puts stress on the home’s structure.
Wood inside/outside of the house has small holes
A structural engineer can assess how much damage has been caused by a termite infestation and identify what steps you’ll need to take to get your home back on track.
What if I can’t afford to fix major structural defects?
Major foundation repairs can run a homeowner upward of $20,000-$30,000 in extreme cases, and not all homeowners have the upfront funds to fix the issues and get their house in marketable condition.
If you’re not confident your home would attract a conventional buyer in its current condition, there is another option on the table: to sell your house to a cash buyer “as is.” If you work with a cash-for-homes company, you can generally skip showings, agent commissions, and the back-and-forth negotiations which can prolong the selling process.
All you’ll have to worry about is making the cut-and-dried choice: take the cash offer, or leave it (though depending on the company you work with, you may still need to adjust the price for repairs).
Curious how much you could get for your home? HomeLight’s Simple Sale platform makes selling your home an easy, low-stress experience. HomeLight provides a cash offer to buy your home so you can complete the sale in a matter of days, not months. Just fill out some information about your home and location and we’ll present you with a purchase offer.
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How much does a structural engineering inspection cost?
Typical costs for a basic residential structural engineering inspection can range anywhere from $350-$700 based on the home’s location, size, and age.
The following determinants are included in pricing:
- Inspection costs and report
- Structural engineer’s rate per hour
- Cost per square foot
Unless you decide to hire a structural engineer on your own accord, the buyer will be on the hook to cover the costs of the structural home inspection.
If you’re hoping to have the engineer draw up new plans for additions, an extensive remodel or new construction, be prepared to pay anywhere upwards of $1,500. On average, design work accounts for 45% of a project’s cost.
To help cut down on this cost, give the structural engineer any already drawn-up plans for your home or existing blueprints.
What is included in a structural inspection report?
Similar to a standard home inspection report, a structural inspection report reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Good news is, things can be repaired,” says Cantor. “A structural engineer provides a report and defines how to make the repair, and that’s not going to impact a sale as bad as if you just ignore it.”
Each report provides:
- A detailed assessment of the property
- A list of any areas that raised concern (and whether there’s cause for alarm)
- An explanation of what caused the damage
- Recommendations on how to move forward with repairs
The official report can then be used for refinancing, to address any concerns regarding the property’s structural condition, and can be included in purchasing agreements.
In some situations, sellers may want to obtain a report from a structural engineer after an initial inspection, even without a referral. In these cases, the inspector might penalize the home for a flaw that isn’t actually as problematic as it looks — like hairline cracks in the foundation, for example. A structural home inspection can give you a leg to stand on when refuting these issues and can help to assure buyers that the home is indeed in good condition.
In addition, if you’re selling a home in an area that’s recently experienced a natural disaster, don’t be surprised if your prospective buyer wants to bring in a pro to make sure the building’s structure remains in good shape and free of water damage.
How can I prepare for a structural home inspection?
Once an inspection is scheduled, as a seller, you can take steps to prepare your property ahead of time. To help ready your residence for the inspection, use the following checklist prior to the inspector’s arrival:
- Clear any dirt or debris from around the foundation of the home
- Cut back plant growth near the home
- Repair any minor damage to siding and/or trim
- Clean out the gutters and repair any cosmetic issues
- Clear off brush and debris from the roof (a broom works well)
- Clear out the crawl space and/or attic for easier access
- Repair any minor leaks in the plumbing or water heater
By completing these steps, you’re ensuring the engineer can easily access all areas of your home, and showing your property is well maintained.
What can I expect after the structural inspection?
If the engineer’s report flagged some structural issues in your home, as the homeowner, there are a few things you can do. A lot of this will depend on the severity of the issues and what the buyer requests to have fixed.
With any type of inspection negotiation, you can choose to hire a professional to remedy the issue, offer a credit to the buyer at closing, or reject the buyer’s request (and risk that they’ll walk away from the deal).
Most buyers won’t purchase a house with serious structural defects, so if the issues are major, there’s a good chance you’ll need to pay to have it repaired, get a clear inspection, and provide proof of repair to the buyer.
With smaller requests, you may be able to negotiate a credit — this can be beneficial if you’re on a tight timeline to close, but it all depends on what the buyers demand and how much leverage you have.
How do I hire a structural engineer for an inspection?
“Make sure after an inspection is completed — if it’s not a structural inspection — you have the inspector explain what they saw,” advises Cantor, adding to pay close attention to any photos.
“Typically, a good report has photos in it, and if the inspector has concerns, then you need to bring in experts to investigate.”
If you’re ready to hire a structural engineer, then the next thing you need to do is find one. Luckily, it’s easier than it sounds. There are plenty of ways to get in touch with a trusted, experienced structural engineer in your area.
Here are five ways to track down one of these experts:
- Ask your real estate agent or home inspector for a referral
- Ask a reputable local contractor for a referral
- Visit trustworthy online sites like HomeAdvisor, Fixr, or Angi
- Ask your city building department
- Google “structural engineer near me” (don’t forget to check out online reviews!)
Now you’re ready to face a structural inspection
It’s natural to worry that your house might have structural flaws. But a structural home inspection isn’t the kiss of death for a seller. Foundation issues don’t mean your house is going to collapse, and even the most expensive problems aren’t the norm.
If an inspection turns up a few surprises, just remember to take them one step at a time; review the results, decide what you’d like to do, and then determine the best course of action with the help of your real estate agent. A good agent brings forth market knowledge, problem-solving skills, and professional connections so they’re ready — and equipped — to tackle any surprises when selling your home.
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