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 ½ 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
A lady at the CSLB says I should try to get at least 2 more bids on the
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
What do you think? Thanks for any guidance, ideas, etc.!