Old house w/ abruptly uneven floors/windows - should I be worried?

Hey all,
Wife and I just bought our first house - living near NYC and being on a budget sort of limited our options and we had to go with an older house. It was built in 1923 and according to the inspector has a steel(?) and wood frame on a block foundation. It's a more or less square house with a wood main beam going through the center in the basement (supported by three retrofitted permanent steel posts) and a brick fireplace and chimney going up from the basement near the back of the house through the roof.
I unfortunately couldn't be there when the inspection was done, but I have the inspector's report and talked to him afterwards and he didn't really mention any major problems that we didn't know about (and have since had fixed). He did mention in the "structural" area of his report that the floors slope a bit and that there is some previous termite damage. He said we might want to get some bracing for the frame in that area but he didn't sound too worried about it. Unfortunately, this was several months ago now and I think I misunderstood which area of the house he was talking about, and I doubt he remembers at this point. I never thought much of it because he didn't mark it as one of the "major deficiencies" on the first page of the report, and the termite infestation was 30 years ago so I figured any damage that had been done would have manifested itself long ago.
Now, though, having fixed some other problems and thinking we're going to move on to cosmetic issues, I'm starting to obssess over the fact that the floor on the second story above the fireplace is about one inch higher than the floor immediately adjacent to it on all sides, and the rear window above the stairs (which runs behind the fireplace) is similarly oddly angled. The bedroom that sits about half above the fireplace is like a carnival funhouse of strange angles - we haven't been using this bedroom (half our stuff is still packed away in it) so it's been a while since I really looked at it and it's starting to get me spooked. I can deal with it as it is, I just don't want it to continue getting worse and don't know if it will.
The foundation itself is square and true, as is the first floor of the house. It's obvious that the rear of the second floor of the house has settled from the top down, and it's settled around the fireplace. My question is, how worried should I be about this at this point? And how big of a repair is it to add bracing to the frame in that area? I have looked around for any new cracking in the walls and I don't see anything that's obviously recent - a few cracks since the previous owners last painted but that looks like it was about ten years ago at least.
The top of the chimney also leans a bit (it's quite a tall chimney); the inspector did not note this as a problem in his report so we didn't even consider it before buying the house. But now I'm wondering if this is being pulled by one side of the house or if it's simply settled on itself.
I am trying to decide if it's worth just getting another home inspection done to confirm that this is not a serious and pressing problem. I do know that most old houses have some settlement issues and that you're not going to see completely square angles everywhere. I'm just hoping this is something we can put off in favor of some other things we'd like to do first.
Thanks,
Jeff snipped-for-privacy@yahoo.com
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
snipped-for-privacy@yahoo.com says...

Another home inspect might do, but what you need is an engineer to take a look at it. You can discuss things like urgency and come up with a written plan with him or her.
For what it's worth, in twelve years' of residence I've had done some bracing on a couple areas of my house (an older addition added before code, and under a ground floor to assure stability for a tile installation), and it's not necessarily a big deal. The big deal for me was a foundation issue, which you dont' seem to have, and I can say that, in the end even with that, I find it's a matter of dealing with what you need to deal with as you go along, while in every other respect enjoying the attractive features of your older home. As a knowledgable friend said - "if it hasn't fallen down yet, it ain't gonna". But if you're anything like me you want to deal with it for your own enjoyment for years to come and for resale.
Maybe call the original inspector for a reference. A few hundred bucks, but you get a plan for action and peace of mind.
Isn't New York a disclosure state? You did know about the termite infestation - did the owner say anything about the sagging?
Regarding the termite infestation - if damaged wood wasn't replaced since then, you may want to look into it - the bigger problem (as in most likely) in the northeast is carpenter ants. They eat wood to set up house, not for nourishment, but they find termite damaged wood to be great digs to live in.
Banty
--
NewsGuy.Com 30Gb $9.95 Carry Forward and On Demand Bandwidth


Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

did the owner say anything about the sagging?
Not specifically, but it's pretty obvious if you look. I noticed it and it is in the inspector's report, just didn't think much of it at the time - figured it was just an old house. Now that I'm actually the owner, though, and now that I can see the pattern of the sagging (around the fireplace), I've just gotten a little obssessive about it. Every day now I manage to convince myself that things are a little more off-kilter than the day before.
I wouldn't blame the previous owners for not telling us about the settling. I'm not even sure it's related to the termites (as Roger said, they were probably down below - which is what the old owners told us). I think it's probably more likely some old water damage, or it could be regular settling for all I know - this is the first old house I've owned.

I don't think we've got ants - haven't seen a single bug of any kind since we moved in. Apparently the pesticide they used for the termites is now outlawed and it's got a half-life of something like 100 years. Don't know if that's responsible for the absence of all bugs but with as many little cracks in the wall and at the seams as there are (and there are quite a few, it's just that most of them are old and look like regular settling cracks), I'd have thought I'd have seen some action of some kind if we do have bugs crawling through our walls.
Anyway, I think I will call an engineer - it's another headache to deal with and even if he gives us good news I'll probably feel like I just wasted a few hundred bucks (since he'd be telling us the same thing as the first inspector did), but at least it'll put my mind at ease for a while...
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

The steel piers suggest that earlier termite damage or rot was located in the original wooden piers, and they then used steel as replacement. At that time, the first floor may have been releveled. Since first and second floors can settle differently in the same house, once you shim and jack under the house to level the main floor, certain irregularities will show upstairs, which may have had different lean angles from the first floor. There is also the possibility that the house was moved to that location, onto a new (level) foundation. This would explain the level and true foundation. Or, you have some additional termite or rot damage between 1st and 2nd floors, which has canted your upstairs differentially from the first floor. And there are many other possibilities. Houses often settle, with the chimney being more stable, with its own foundation, and if floor joists run into the chimney, that part of your upstairs could be propped up by the unmoving chimney, while the house settles around it. I suggest you find a capable structural engineer familiar with your neighborhood, paid by the hour for consulting services, have him inspect both the crawl space and the second floor - you may get some insights that way. He may also suggest that you remove flooring or ceiling in places where there are jogs in the upstairs, to inspect the cause of the shifting.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Wood frame houses frequently settle as the wood takes up a sag or as warps are bent out by the weight and by drying out. This can be as much as an inch in a two story house. In the past a chimney was often used as a support, being masonry it will not settle like wood and the resulting difference could explain the second story level problems.
Present building codes do not allow chimneys to be used as support, all wood has to be kept at least 2 inches away from the chimney masonry.

Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Eric Tonks wrote:

Yep - chimney supporting the joists is the problem (although I heard that frost heave caused the chimney to lift - but same effect) and de-coupling the joists from the chimney and adding any necessary double joists and/or headers is the solution.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

Interesting. So the basic problem is not that part of the house is falling down, but that the other part of the house is being forced to stay *up*? And the solution is to basically just let the part that's being held up to settle down? (I was thinking I'd have to do the opposite - to try to prop up the rest of the house around the chimney to prevent it sinking further.)
This doesn't sound like it's really a major fix - am I wrong? What happens when the joists are decoupled from the chimney and that part of the house suddenly drops 1-2 inches? Or is this done as a slow process with jacks (similar to straightening a sagging main beam, but in reverse)?
And if this is really the problem (and it makes sense to me, based on what I'm seeing), is it really going to matter if I just leave it alone for a while? It's to the point where I'm sure the previous owners must have noticed it and contemplated doing something about it at some point, but they obviously didn't. Is it purely a look-and-feel issue then?
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
snipped-for-privacy@yahoo.com wrote:

Assuming you empty the room of furniture - just remove the flooring around the chimney to see how the joists are connected to it.
All depends on what you find whether you need to support from below - I didn't have to when I flattened a floor around a chimney - I just cut away any connected wood and made sure it ended up being framed properly as one would for a floor opening:
http://www.hometips.com/images/hyhw/structure/116.gif
It still won't perfectly flatten out after the framing has been like this for many years, but it will be an esthetic improvement - which is the only reason I did this in a house I was remodeling for resale.
Or just leave it for a while like I did on my other property - that "while" has been about 28 years so far!
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

HomeOwnersHub.com is a website for homeowners and building and maintenance pros. It is not affiliated with any of the manufacturers or service providers discussed here. All logos and trade names are the property of their respective owners.