Home Renovations: Leveling the Floors

Last I left you, I was talking about how the first major renovation project we undertook at our new house was leveling the floors.  Our house was built in 1969 by the former and original owners, Mr. and Mrs. STK.  It’s common for older homes to settle over time thereby creating a slight slant in the floors.  To fix this pitch is a complex and expensive renovation so most homeowners choose to live with the home’s quirk and chalk it up to old house character.  Unfortunately for us, the slant in our floors was extremely obvious – so much so that Mr. S and I would joke that we had to go “climb the hill” to get to the bathroom.

According to the experts, usually when houses settle into the ground, there are tell-tale signs: cracking along the walls and ceilings especially where there are windows and doorways, cracking in the foundation, uneven gaps in the doorjambs, etc.  To the confusion of the contractors we met with, our house exhibited none of these symptoms.  One contractor had the theory that our house didn’t sink, but that it was actually built crooked.  Because the basement in our house is unfinished, he was able to show us exactly the root of the problem.

The horizontal central beam supporting our house is held in place by several vertical posts.  There are technical terms for all of these things, but I’m going to stick to the layman’s version and some crappy Power Point visuals.

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The vertical posts (in blue) toward the center of the beam were placed slightly higher than the rest of the posts thereby allowing the horizontal beam (in red) to bow at either end.  The result was that the floor on the street level bowed as well.  It was obvious to the contractor that someone had tried to rectify this by cutting notches into the horizontal beam, but by then it was too late.

We had three contractors come out and take a look at the house to give their professional opinion and estimate for the job and each had a different recommendation:

1) Raise the house.  This would entail slowly adding pieces of wood (I believe the term is “shimmy”?) to the outer posts so that eventually they would be at the same level as the center posts, thereby lifting the horizontal beam in the places where it was too low.  The cost of actually raising the house was on par with what we expected, but the real cost of this method was in the consequences.  We were told that certainly our walls, ceiling, and possibly exterior brick would crack as a result of lifting the house.  We corroborated this prediction with all our research and found that the cost of fixing all the problems that follow leveling a house in this manner are what deter homeowners from actually making the fix.  The contractor told us to expect to pay around $60K when all is said and done.  Ouch.

2) Lower the house.  What goes up can also come down, or something like that right?  The second contractor explained that because the house did not actually sink (it was just built slanted, go figure), the foundation was in fine shape and therefore could withstand cutting down the taller center vertical posts so that gravity could do the rest of the work.  Though there was likely to be less cracking in other areas of the house using this method, from a structural standpoint, he recommended that we replace some of the vertical posts (with the correct height) and the horizontal beam (as it was notched in too many places to be 100% structurally sound).  He quoted us $15K to get the job done.

3) Level the subfloor.  The final option was to rip up all the beautiful hardwood planks to level the concrete subfloor underneath, and then replace everything with new flooring.  The contractor advised us that buying new hardwood flooring that was the same quality of what we would be ripping out would be quite expensive.  And because the STKs lived pet-free all those years and kept their floors almost completely covered in carpet and area rugs, the hardwood throughout the home was practically virgin.  We asked if the original hardwood could be salvaged, but the answer was no.  It seemed a waste to just tear it all up only to have to spend more money to install something not as nice, so we decided this was not the option for us.

So what were we left with? A $60K option (raising the house) and a $15K option (lowering the house).  Guess which option the two yuppies who at the time were also paying for a wedding went with?  To our credit, dollar bills aside, the decision was quite easy as we felt most comfortable with JoeSal, the contractor who proposed lowering the house. He was very candid, answered all our questions in an easy to understand manner, and it was obvious that restoring old homes was his passion – not just his way to make a quick buck.  He confided in us that he usually doesn’t take on projects of our small size (his company tends to focus on larger commercial clients), but projects like ours – a small house for a soon-to-be wedded couple starting on hopefully soon-to-be family – were what made him happy.  Furthermore, he wasn’t subcontracting out the work (the guys working on our house were his employees) and that told us a lot about quality and reliability of his business.

Before signing the contract, Joe (of JoeSal) explained that the whole process would take about two weeks, but timing was really contingent on how the house would respond to gravity.

“What if you cut the post and the house does not move?” I asked, wanting to know the solution for a worst case scenario.

In his thick but friendly Austrian accent, Joe said, “Well, then we pull it down.  We put weights and we PULL! (with forceful arm motion) the house down.”

Skeptical Sally (yes, that’s me) piped up with, “What if the house still doesn’t move?”

“Oh that’s impossible.  It has to move.  It is just physics.”

At some point (and later on, again and again with the other renovation projects in our house), Mr. S and I had to trust and rely on the word of the professionals.  So we signed on the dotted line and ran back to NYC so that we wouldn’t have to watch them literally saw our house in half.  Luckily, my parents live right across the street from our new house and my dad loves this kind of stuff, so he has thankfully taken on the oversight of the day to day work being done at our house.

And guess what?  It actually worked!  As Joe expected, within two weeks our house was fully level.  We hadn’t realized how severe the grade was in our floors until we saw the finished result.  The floor dropped away from the wall and baseboards by a good two inches and in some places more.  It was enough that I could fit the toe of my shoe completely underneath the hovering wall (adjusting the baseboards flush to the floor was an easy fix).

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A few floor boards were removed to allow the hardwood planks to level without buckling on each other.

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The only damage was a crack in the arched opening between the living and dining rooms (which had already showed signs of weakness prior to leveling).  Instead of repairing it, we went ahead with plans to remove the entire wall, thereby opening up the kitchen and dining room to the living room.  Open concept, we haz it.

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With the kitchen fully exposed we opted to forge ahead with the complete gut job lest the first thing someone sees upon entering the front door is the orange and yellow vinyl kitchen.  And while the kitchen is the most visually drastic renovation, there were lots of other changes going on behind the scenes – electric, plumbing, conversion to gas (from oil heat), etc.  All stories for another day…

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t think I’ve ever been so fascinated by the idea of leveling a house…. in college I lived in an apartment where you couldn’t have rolly chairs, because you would slowly end up on the other side of the room, you’re missing out on some fun there 😉

  2. says

    It really makes you wonder if the original builder thought the center would sink/settle so much that he did that on purpose or if it was an honest to goodness mistake. But wow.

    Our floors are ridiculously tilted–visibly off-kilter from one room to another, as well, but it *is* mostly a case of 100+ years of settling. The funniest thing to me was when we started unpacking we were setting up bookcases in two adjoining rooms (the library and the dining room) along the same interior wall. For the shelves in the dining room we had to add shims to keep them from pitching forward and bottles and glassware from sliding off. In the library, though (along that same interior wall, remember), the shelves were naturally slanting back towards the wall!

    Sometimes walking around our house is like being in one of those carnival funhouses, but yes, we consider it “charming” more than anything.

    • says

      That’s crazy! We did notice the pitch in the way things were hung on the walls – nothing was parallel to the floor. It really added to that woozy feeling in the house. I love the character of old homes though – slanted floors or not!

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