Foundation repair

Here in earthquake country (Berkeley, CA) the possibility of a major earthquake is always in the back of your mind. They tell me I live 1.5 - 2 miles from what is currently considered the most dangerous earthquake fault in the country (the Hayward Fault). Even if there wasn't that threat it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to upgrade the foundation on my 95 year old, two-story 1925 square foot house before tackling the other pressing issues, which include a new roof, removal of the brick siding (and replacement with stucco or alternative), replace windows, the list goes on.
The existing foundation is a combination of things, because they added some things. Mostly it's mortar and cobblestones and brick and mortar. There's some add-on portions at the back that have concrete foundation, too. The house is currently resting on all this, in no way attached (i.e. not bolted), as far as I know.
When I bought the house 5-6 years ago, I had it inspected and repairs bid on by a few people -- a general contractor, a termite inspection company (to fulfill requirements for a prospective loan, which was eventually refused because the house has no central heating), and the general contractor's engineer of choice. They came at different times, I paid them all and they all crawled under the house with flashlights when they were assessing the situation with the foundation.
When I first got the idea to bid on the house (the manager informed us that the owner was going to sell), I was referred by a friend to a general contractor. I called him and agreed to pay him to inspect the house and tell me what he thought -- really just tell me if I was making a mistake in even considering buying this run down house. I'd lived in it as a sharing renter for 17 years, done most of the repairs in the interim (to keep the rent low) with the exception of a replacement water heater, new kitchen linoleum, a not so hot bathroom repair (I fixed it right a year later), a leaking water pipe under the front lawn and sundry minor repairs ordered one time by city inspectors. When the general contractor did his inspection before I bought the house he saw fit to submit a bid on a laundry list of items, much more thorough than the termite guy. And, of course, he wanted a lot more money.
The general contractor and the engineer (since retired, I believe) both thought that the foundation could be made adequate with judicious alterations, based on an accurate assessment of what was in place. That included carefully considered concrete pours. To that effect, they suggested I work up a floor plan (they said that would save me some money -- do that myself instead of having the general contractor work that up), and do some excavating under 2-3 of the piers -- see how deep they go, what their footing is like (the size and shape). Then the engineer would design the repairs. Well, that was the plan at the time.
The termite guy (very experienced, like these other guys) favored a concrete cap. I hired him to do a termite report but he saw fit to do a fairly thorough evaluation (compared to just a termite report) and his report included a bid on a variety of repairs, including capping the foundation, repairing dry rot at various places, and fixes for some other obvious interior issues he noticed during his inspection.
Since the loan fell through I had to try to close escrow by scraping together enough cash to buy outright, which I did just manage to do. I was broke, but I had my house "lock, stock and barrel," clear.
I now have some money and a just got approval for a home equity line of credit, and after some post-rains windstorms last spring, the roof looks scary but I'm told I should really do the foundation first if at all possible before replacing the roof. If I go up on the roof with some of the 1/2-full 5 gallon can of roofing cement I still have and maybe some tarpaper from Home Depot I can maybe patch things up again so the house will stay dry inside through to the next dry season, when I can get the foundation and then the roof replaced. I got a couple of bids on the roof over the last 2-3 weeks. I'd like to have the foundation done before the roof, is what I'm now thinking.
The general contractor I talked to almost 6 years ago is really good, knows a lot of good local contractors, seems to know the ins and outs of the trades, but he's getting older and has a bad taste in his mouth from general contracting, especially when it involves foundation work. When he did his inspection he told me that he'd done 9 or so old houses similar to mine. But when I talked to him more recently (a couple of years ago) he told me it's hard, it's dirty and good contractors don't like to keep doing foundations if they can help it. He said it's really hard to find good foundation repair people for that very reason. He himself is now concentrating on doing stuff that's easier on him and that he's personally good at, like windows and interior remodels.
I've never hired a contractor in my life! Well, I'm shopping, obviously. I went down to the largest local lumber yard and asked them for recommendations for a good general contractor. They gave me two names and seemed to favor one so I called that guy almost a week ago. We arranged for him to come over Sunday morning and we looked the house over and talked for over an hour and he was very informative and rather personable, relaxed, and candid, though professional. If he'd asked for a fee, I would have paid him, but he didn't. He sticks his head under the house with a flashlight, gets an idea of what the foundation is like and tells me that he thinks the foundation should be replaced, not altered like the previous people said. He said that mortared cobblestone and mortared brick stuff is really not something I should retain.
He says the house isn't actually especially heavy. He says there's two ways to do it, and he explains the first (not the second): start off by supporting the house on two long steel beams running front to back. Then, a new reinforced concrete foundation should be poured. Toward the end he says he could do it, but he says he knows a local contractor who could probably do the foundation cheaper and who is better set up to do it, and he gives me the guy's phone numbers. He tells me that this guy is pretty "hyper" and will very probably try to talk me into going ahead with the foundation replacement even though rainy weather is around the corner. He says goodbye and I immediately call this new guy and he comes over later in the day. He's relatively young (mid-30's), energetic and pretty hyper, as described. He too doesn't crawl under the house, but sticks his head into the crawl space with a flashlight and makes his determinations. He tells me he's done many foundations, often a lot bigger and more complex than mine. My relatively simple two story house is not a particular challenge for him, he'd have me understand. I asked him about the engineers I was told he works with and he turns to me and says that if it were HIS house, he would forgo hiring an engineer. He would instead put the money I'd pay an engineer ("around $2000") into making the foundation extra-heavy duty in relation to the municipal requirements. He said he knows Berkeley's requirements and would pour wider and deeper, use larger rebar - if Berkeley says 6 inches wide, he'd pour 8 inches wide. If Berkeley says at least 18 inches deep, he'd pour 20 inches deep. If they say use #4 rebar, he'd use #5. I ask him if Berkeley wouldn't require an engineer's approval and he said they wouldn't. I guess he's in a position to know. The other contractors talked about working with engineers, though, so I wonder if it's a good idea not to.
I take him upstairs and describe a few alterations to rooms I've been thinking about but never discussed with a contractor and he said he could do those no problem sometime after the foundation work. This includes removing a wall, effectively joining two rooms and creating a couple of doors in existing walls. He said he'd work up a bid on the foundation and get it to me in around 10 days, and he left. He was on the premises for about 30 minutes total!!
A few minutes later I realized that I forgot to show him how the house obviously slopes in toward the center (you can very easily see if and you can feel it when you are downstairs!) -- I'd like the house leveled as much as practically possible. I immediately called and left that info on his answering machine.
I'd asked him for a card because I couldn't make out his first name. He had gone to his truck and given me a card. It had his contractor's license and I checked it out with the Contractors State License Board yesterday and discover that his license has been inactive since April! I call him and he tells me that he incorporated and has a new license number and he gives that to me (his former inactive license was for when he was a sole proprietorship). His new license checks out OK. He says he got my message about leveling the house and he tells me that will cause doors and cabinets, etc. to no longer close, and I say I'm aware of that. He also says that with a real old house you'll never get things actually level, but it can be made to feel a lot more level. He says he'll include the leveling in his bid which he will get to me in about a week (this was last night).
The CSLB tells me that this guy has been doing business as a general contractor (until recently as a sole proprietorship, now as a solely owned corporation) since 1995 and no actions have been brought against him. No complaints are evident at the BBB site, either.
However, I'm concerned about not having an engineer in on the foundation job. How do I know he's not going to cut some corners, miss something? The house, according to him and a few of the other pros I've had look at it, has had a couple of additions. The existing foundation is a bit of a hodge-podge as a result. Maybe this guy intends to remove all the old foundation and pour new, and he may know exactly what he's doing and do a great job. However, I'm worried that in his haste he might not. Also, he wants to do it rainy season or not. That's his m.o. - gung ho, full steam ahead. But the guy who came over Sunday morning who recommended this guy cautioned me that it will be tough going in the rainy season, that it will be especially messy and muddy the way my house is situated. I have a mind to tell this guy (assuming I decide to go with him) that I want to wait until the rains are largely over or completely over. Why shouldn't I? The roof won't be tackled (I assume) until the foundation's done, anyway. Why shouldn't I just tell him I want to wait until Spring? He tells me that in the course of the foundation repair, all the brick siding has to be taken down. That's a lot of bricks. Until new siding is installed, there would be exposure of what's under the bricks to the elements - another reason to wait until Spring, it seems to me.
If he'd taken the trouble to crawl under the house he would have seen what the termite guy saw 5 years ago - that some of the wood sills are rotted. I presume those should be repaired while the house is jacked up and before it's set on the new foundation, right? He has no idea about that stuff at this point. I'm sure I don't want things like that glossed over.
A lady at the CSLB says I should try to get at least 2 more bids on the foundation.
Maybe I should try to get the guy who recommended this guy to be my general contractor, to act as a buffer, to make sure he's covering all the bases.
What do you think? Thanks for any guidance, ideas, etc.!
Dan
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In Charleston South Carolina, house must by code withstand seismic requirements equivalent to San Francisco & wind gusts to 130 mph. Habitat for Humanity is building some one story houses of about 1200 square feet. We are required to provide structural drawings sealed by an engineer to get a building permit.
I'm surprised your building department doesn't require an engineering design.
If it were my house, I'd get an engineer involved.
TB
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You should check with the city to see if structural engineering is required. Either case I would still go with a structural engineer for the calculations and plans to make sure things are done right and would be easier to sell the house later on. The engineer may order a soil report too which is around three thousand dollars. Looks like you have a money pit like the one I have in San Francisco.
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I too would consult an engineer with experience in earthquake design. Even just to get started right : As a layman, my understanding is that [ unless you've evaluated from the geology that theres a significant chance of the ground subsiding directly under your house due to earthquake ] the foundations -ie footings- are not critical elements. The walls [ including 'foundation walls' I suppose] and the framing generally, that takes the beating. So it's not so much about 'tying it down' as much as 'keeping it from folding'. So, professional advice is best.
My apologies if I missed some points [ I didnt have time to read your extensive post carefully!]

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On Fri, 2 Sep 2005 15:22:27 +0200, "zenboom"
: :I too would consult an engineer with experience in earthquake design. Even :just to get started right : :As a layman, my understanding is that [ unless you've evaluated from the :geology that theres a significant chance of the ground subsiding directly :under your house due to earthquake ] the foundations -ie footings- are not :critical elements. The walls [ including 'foundation walls' I suppose] and :the framing generally, that takes the beating. So it's not so much about :'tying it down' as much as 'keeping it from folding'. So, professional :advice is best. : :My apologies if I missed some points [ I didnt have time to read your :extensive post carefully!]
Yes, I guess you are talking about the structural integrity of the building and its ability to withstand the shaking. Since I'm going to have to re-side the building in large part (I may re-side the whole thing) it will be an opportunity to add sheer support against the vertical studs - plywood, I presume.
Dan
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