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Deck Slowly Moving Down the Hill

Post in 'DIY and General non-hearth advice' started by Mo Heat, Jun 4, 2007.

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  1. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    As I mentioned in another thread, my deck seems to be moving slowly down the hill in back of my house. In doing so, the uprights are splaying and the deck rafters (joists? whatever) are coming loose as the nails are slowly being pulled out where they penetrate the perimeter lumber and enter the joist ends.

    I'm feeling like this may be over my head, maybe not, but since I don't know, it seems that way. Who the hell do I call?

    Intuition tells me I may need a retaining wall so this won't happen again. But my intuition is often way off base. Of course, it took 20 years for the deck to get like this, so maybe I could just jack up the deck, move the uprights (and the concrete they sit in... can you do that?), and hammer things back together, maybe adding some of those joist hangers on the one side that is coming apart and that didn't use them (the other side attached to the house has them).

    That still leaves the patio slabs that are also moving. Mud jacking? How much is that? Will all this stuff continue to slide down the hill if its fixed without installing a retaining wall?

    How complex is a retaining wall? Can they create problems with drainage, maybe saturating the dirt behind the house and actually making the problem potentially worse if the wall ever "gives"? And what about the sewer and irrigation tubes that the wall would straddle? Can you just plunk a damned heavy stone wall on top of all that stuff? Damn, my head is spinning!

    What would you do? Who would you call first, second, etc.? Insurance company, carpenter, landscaping, structural engineer, all of the above, who?

    I figure if I call a landscaper that builds retaining walls, they'll recommend a retaining wall (duh!), whether I really need one or not. Reminds me of when I went to a surgeon asking if I should have surgery, he reminded me that he was a surgeon, and that's what he did, at least that was honest of him.

    A carpenter won't necessarily know if I need a retaining wall since he's a carpenter. Right? A structural engineer sounds expensive, but would probably know about all of the stuff involved, the hill and earth movement, the disintegrating deck, the moving and spreading patio slabs, everything. Right? Overkill? How much $ for one of those guys?

    If I start calling these people, and getting estimates, how do I know they are reputable? I don't trust BBB, as I've had bad experiences with them before. IMO they are a joke. I know this is probably basic stuff to some of you DIY seasoned and trial by fire home owning commandos, but believe it or not, this is my first house and I've never really had to deal with any of this kind of stuff before.

    Since I'm probably the only person in Missouri who has earthquake insurance, should I call my home owners policy people and ask them if I'm covered for "moving earth", which is how I think it is stated in the policy. If they said yes, can they typically recommend some reputable people and a reasonable course of action? Should I even trust them? They're conflicted, right?

    Ain't it wonderful owning your own home? I keep having visions of the Tom Hanks movie, The Money Pit. Man, I've got to get beyond the hand-wringing phase on this thing. Help me DIY'ers, please.

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  2. BrotherBart

    BrotherBart Hearth.com LLC Mid-Atlantic Division Staff Member

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    Don't know jack about construction but here is an appeals court decision in Missouri that says if the policy is worded right your insurance company is off the hook if the earth moves for ya.

    http://tinyurl.com/2b35kp
  3. begreen

    begreen Mooderator Staff Member

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    Mo, did you ever get a qualified contractor to look at the deck? If I remember right, it was not put together too well. I'd get a few experts in to look at the problem before deciding on a course of action. It could be that the deck is falling apart due to gravity and improper construction. If the earth really is moving, I'd still want to get an expert opinion or two before starting off doing anything.
  4. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    Well, now I know what you do in your spare time, BB. ;)

    That was State Farm, and they are notorious for denying claims. My company, Fireman's Fund, will hopefully be more kind hearted. ;) Right...
  5. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    BG, Which experts or which contractors? My problem is, I don't know who is qualified to give an expert opinion. Then I don't know who to call next. As a homeowner, I'm pretty much like a turtle on his back.
  6. GVA

    GVA Minister of Fire

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  7. Mrs-GVA

    Mrs-GVA New Member

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    Hey Mo. I've been in Insurance Claims for quite some time now. You could call your insurance company, I personally have never handled an earthquake claim, but generally for your homeowners to cover an event, it must occur which can be measured by a specific event. For example, if there is a sudden earthquake, or hurricane it can be determined that the damage resulted from that specific event. In your case, it has occurred over time, therefore, I am doubtful it would be covered under your earthquake or homeowners. I could be wrong....like I said, I've never handled an earthquake claim. For example, lets say a tree fell on your house and put a large hole in your roof. You are responsible to have that hole covered until the damage can be fixed. If further damage results because the homeowner failed to prevent further damage, the claim can be denied. My reason for bringing this up is, you mention it has occurred over a period of time. Now it is really bad, but nothing was done to prevent the worsening when it was first discovered. Does that make any sense? You could also talk to your agent and they'll have a claims adjuster come out, they could probably advise you on who to call. If you don't do something, it is just going to continue to get worse. Good luck!
  8. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    It seems kind of futile to run out back and start pushing on the hill like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam. :cheese:

    Since I first discovered this, nothing much has changed. The problem is, it wasn't noticed (or discovered) until there was some visible space between the joists. I'm trying to do something, but I don't yet know what to do, because I don't know who to call.

    Somebody, help me out here. Who do I call? Who is the expert on moving hills beneath patios and decks?

    Applying the "reasonable man test" so popular in legalese, who would a reasonable man contact about a moving hill with a house attached? I'm stumped.

    Is it as simple (if somewhat expensive) as getting a retaining wall built and adding some dirt?
  9. GVA

    GVA Minister of Fire

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    Try a surveyor.
    When the area was first developed the area had one of those maps with the elevation thingys (lines, don't know what they are called) done most likely.
    This may give you an idea of how much erosion you have going on in the area...
    he at that point may point you toward a Geologist or someone that can help you fight the sliding that you have going on.
  10. BrotherBart

    BrotherBart Hearth.com LLC Mid-Atlantic Division Staff Member

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    If was me Mo I would call a company that does foundations. Explain the situation to them and ask who they would suggest look at it. They deal in shifting soil situations all of the time.
  11. Harley

    Harley Minister of Fire

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    This is just a guess, but I think ultimately a retaining wall is what's going to have to be done. Probably the first person I'd look to is an excavation contractor to have them take a look at it.

    I'd also agree with Mrs-GVA - I think its unfortunately a big stretch to try to go the homeowner's insurance route, given that it seems to be slow erosion, rather than a single event. I probably would not even call them, unless you are pretty friendly with the agent and speak "off-record" to see if they have any advise. Just my opinion, but I don't think the insurance company would want to hear about potential risks (i.e., deck collapse, and someone getting hurt, etc.) on a claim which is realted to the problem. The end result of your call to them might be: first - deny the claim, given everythin Mrs GVA spelled out, but sedondly: may either drop you or increase rates because of their percieved additional risk.
  12. begreen

    begreen Mooderator Staff Member

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    Are we sure the hillside is moving? Is there other evidence? If not, a surveyor could be expensive.

    From what the pictures show me, I see bad construction, not earth movement. Wood moves. Decks shrink and swell a lot. If the wood was put up green, this might just be shrinkage. I'm not there to see the whole picture but generally when there is earth movement, there are other signs like cracked sidewalks, humps in the lawn, or other items pulling apart.

    As to where to start re:finding a decent contractor - check with the company that sold you the house. Explain the issue and see who they would recommend for a repair. Also, go to the best local lumber yard in your area (not a Home Depot or Lowes). Ask who they would recommend for a deck repair. Then have a few of the recommended contractors come out and look at the issue. It won't cost you anything but some time to meet with them. Let them draw there own conclusions as to what is wrong and what needs to be done. After they've said their piece, then ask them if they think that this could be earth movement or just bad construction.

    If the consensus is earth movement, then ask the consulting contractors about who they would use to build a retaining wall before the deck is repaired.

    My two cents - if the deck is properly tied to the house, it's not moving unless the house moves.
  13. restorer

    restorer New Member

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    If you really want to get an unbiased evaluation you need a geologist or soil engineer. It may seem to be just the deck and patio that are moving, but it's more than likely the house and foundation are also slipping. We are in a geologically active area and we have entire subdivisions of new homes that have moved as much as 10 feet down a hill, kind of screws up the property lines. What they are just now finding out that the movement was known years ago and certain properties were red-lined. The studies disappeared and building permits were issued... let's say, it is still being investigated, but now criminally.

    There are specialists in the field. If you really want to lock down what's going on find the consulting geologist, sometimes they are moonlighting college professors, some surveyors have a consulting arrangement. They can give you a list of options for remedy. You might be able to negotiate something with the insurance company, but that's real slim. Here they refer to earth movement as an act of God, no coverage. Good luck.

    An after thought, it's Summer and Geology students usually have practicum field requirements, you might contact the schools around to see if they want to take on your property as a study..... Problem is you may get a lot more information than you really want.
  14. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    I think you forgot the smiley face, GVA. ;) Geologist and surveyor was pretty funny, though. You were kidding, weren't you? The fact that I can't tell should tell you how clueless I am. And I hope you didn't think I was slighting the Mrs. or being snippy in that last post of mine. Just trying to inject a bit of humor into a personally frustrating situation.

    And I do appreciate the insurance claims perspective (thanks Mrs. GVA). It makes sense that there would need to be an acute type event rather than erosion, but on the other hand, I was hoping for something out of the small fortune I pay for hazard insurance every year. Together with Harley's reco, I think I'll just skip the insurance route, at least for now, and go directly to someone who might shed some light on the soil and deck situation.

    BB, a foundation company sounds like a good place to start, or an excavation contractor (thanks Harley).
  15. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    Yes, there is some other evidence. But also it may just be erosion. I also notice stuff is suddenly appearing out of the dirt that I didn't remember out there.

    I'm not ruling anything out at this point, but from the overall look of things, the earth is moving. The deck may be junk, too, but only time and some expert carpenter will tell.

    [qutoe]As to where to start re:finding a decent contractor - check with the company that sold you the house. Explain the issue and see who they would recommend for a repair. [/quote]

    I didn't buy the house from a company. I bought it from an individual that swore there were a few nail pops, then I had to put a whole new roof on a year later due to massive water damage to the ceilings. Thanks Mr. Realor and your certified expert home inspector!

    I like this idea. Seems like a logical way to approach it.

    Lots of good advice here. Thanks BG.
  16. begreen

    begreen Mooderator Staff Member

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    Mo, I missed page 3 of the previous posts. Still have the dino ruler? Measure the gap again, and mark the exact spot of the measurement. This will give you a reference if there are any changes to the patio slab gap.
  17. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    You're freaking me out, UR. Maybe GVA wasn't kidding about the surveyor and geologist. :gulp:

    Man, if builders "lost" red line maps, that just sucks. With my luck, I'm on one of those maps. Interesting suggestions. If the local lumber yard deck builders don't sound convincing, I may go the extra mile and get some scientists involved. :gulp:
  18. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    Will do. May be tomorrow. It's dark out there now.
  19. restorer

    restorer New Member

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    Not to freak you out, but you may be on one of the largest geological faults in America. Only recently discovered and very inactive, but there is movement. Movement is measured in years, decades, millenia. It may be nothing, but soil erosian, and loss of ground water, but you should find out.

    A case of being screwed, 30 years ago, I worked for a College and helped set up a geology summer intern program. They did a geo-plasticity study for a county north of here. I lived in that county. I got the study when done and found I was less than a mile from a redlined zone, occupied by an oil refinery. I was looking at buying some real cheap land then and found it was in the same zone. I got nervous, because the study said there was active movement. Now it's thirty years later, the study doesn't exist at the state geologist's the county or the local communities. But those cheap land zones are now full of houses, and low density retail. If we get a 4-5 quake here, they will disappear. Not be damaged, but the soil will liquify and swallow the buildings and improvements. There is no bedrock for at least 300 feet, no one is safe, but that's not what the tales are from the developers and builders.

    One interesting, and positive side line is the same geological team recommended that a sand pit (that's basically a mining operation) be closed down when a certain level was reached. It was closed and the community wanted to make a park of the cheap land, but Walmart got an option and they did their usual push and built one of their super stores. Lately we have had some 2+ reichter quakes, it just needs to go over 3.5 and we get our park as Wally World disappears.
  20. begreen

    begreen Mooderator Staff Member

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    Good plan. If there is earth movement, dated, accurate documentation will be important as to establishing the urgency and extent of the fix. It would be a good idea to measure the gap on a regular basis and document it. And if no change, you can relax a bit.
  21. restorer

    restorer New Member

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    OK, the link is to the comments for an article and broadcast locally. It's for property owned by Rulon Gardner, America's own heavy weight Olympic champ. I can't seem to get the article to copy, so you will have to back track to the article, but the comments are truly worth reading. This is what happens when you mess with Mother nature: http://www.ksl.com/index.php/index.php?nid=148&sid=1155334
  22. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    Now I wish I had measured and photoed the gap in the joists, too. I've got a feeling I can't wait too long on those. A lot of nail is showing up there. In fact, that is my first order of business. Getting some timber or something to prop up the deck so I can feel safe up there.

    I just took some more photos. I'll post them below when they finish uploading and I resize them.
  23. Mo Heat

    Mo Heat Mod Emeritus

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    Too bad there is no Olympic contest for holz hausen building. I might have medaled from lack of participation and have the kind of clout to get on the news and city hall docket. I'd first sue for the roof I had to install a year after moving in, then we'd see what the earth movement brings.

    I've watched Rulan during the Olympics and now in Mixed Martial Arts. He's fought a couple times in Japan. He won. Man is that guy strong and while lacking some in technique, he more than makes up for it in heart and hammer (with his hands). He's still learning the craft, but if he continues, he may just go to the top of that sport as well.

    It's a bummer about his house. I'll bet more people lose more money each year on real estate transactions than in all the store front, bank, jewelry store robbers, and white collar crime combined. And I'm talking about the ivory tower boys (and a few girls now) too. In this one transaction, Roulan is out $220,000, not counting court costs, lawyers' fees, his time, and oh my god, what a headache it must be living just above that broken retaining wall. I wonder if he's even living in there? Is it safe? They didn't cover many of the details, seemed to mostly focus on the celebrity and the drama. Nothing new there. :smirk:

    UR, you've somewhat validated my intuitive fears about the "design" of retaining walls. There just seems like there should be a lot of thought to a lot of stuff before stacking a bunch of stones on top of one another and I wonder how much of this my neighbor's school teaching buddy, who is building retaining walls for his second summer while waiting for his real job in the fall, will be thinking about. He may not have the experience or training he needs to do the job properly.

    Of course, most walls are probably pretty simple, small, and fairly straight forward, but what if there is some critical factor that is overlooked? Like collapsing my sewer pipe that will run beneath it? Is a plumber the only one who thinks about sewer pipe? Who's the best person to build a retaining wall, anyway? A foundation company? That might just be the one, BB. I think I will call a couple of those types and shine the moonlighting school teacher on.

    But you see, I've already jumped to the solution. That's a classic mistake in systems analysis. I'm pretty much assuming I need a retaining wall. And I suspect anyone who builds retaining walls, that I get to come look at this problem, will simply recommend a retaining wall. Like going to a surgeon for an opinion on your aching knee and leaving the office with an appointment for knee surgery.

    Keep those cards and letter coming. I am learning some things. Hey elk! Hey Sandor! Got an opinion for me?
  24. keyman512us

    keyman512us Member

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    Mo...
    ...You "got some leg work ahead of ya"...I'll say that. I would start looking for a "certified public adjuster". This particular type of individual...USUALLY is the person someone consults after having suffered a loss...(usually a fire, flood or other major 'catastrophic upset') and has to deal with their insurance company. I would start to gather all the information you can. Are you in a sub-division? When was the house built? What was the prior land use? What is the topography? and on and on. This is quite alot to have on your plate....especially as a homeowner. Is your house "built on fill"??? And if so...what type of soil is it.

    General experience (as someone "in the trades") has educated me to one very important fact: The vast majority of housebuilders...don't have the first clue on "getting it right". Sliding decks, settling foundations, sinking lawns...and on and on...are almost always either the direct or indirect result of one thing: poor drainage. Groundwater, if not properly adressed can wreak havoc....especially, believe it or not...if you live on a hill. Proper drainage systems along footings, walls and slabs can be rendered useless...if they are not properly backfilled. Hopefully...a good all around drainage management plan can alleviate your problems...but if your house is built on "fill" whether it's junk soil or just plain "junk" in general (clay,tree waste,stumps, demolition debris... etc) means real trouble.

    Your problem is quite broad...and your train of thought is correct: A landscaper, a carpenter, etc is not going to do much good. Your best bet is to find a good, knowledgeable, all around general contractor type with a background towards excavation. Being in Missouri might make it tough to find the right contractor...I'm sure there are tons of these type of contractors in California. Depending on what lengths you are willing to go to....in order to resolve the problem...you are definately leaning towards an "engineering" firm. I would try to consult with a firm that has experience, or specializes in "Dewatering solutions/Soil stabilization methods & principles"...I do work along these lines...but on a much smaller scale...and obviously for alot less money than they charge...because I don't have the certifications they do. :)
  25. keyman512us

    keyman512us Member

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    Mo...
    ...After looking at the pictures in the other post...your situation isn't (from what I can see) all that worrysome...YET. I would seriously consider some drainage planing "all the way around the house". Keeping the ground stable...can only be done when you manage your "water problems".

    Be carefull about how you build a retaining wall...you can actually make the situation worse sometimes.
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