Project #2: Structure
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
While we were under contract on the Bed & Breakfast in Tarpon Springs, we ordered a structural inspection once we got the regular inspection report back. Since it was a structure company giving us the inspection, we were not surprised when the report went like this: replace everything. The cost: $26,000.
Since our house was built in 1901, it had had 119 years to move around and sink ever so slightly, and by slightly, I mean 3 inches in the middle of the north side. The company, however, said they would not lift the house. They would simply replace the structure (beams, piers, etc.), and the house wouldn’t sink any more after that. We went to the seller for a price decrease, and eventually got it.
We tabled the structure issue for a little while after that. I find it fascinating that insurance companies do not seem to care about the structural integrity of homes they insure. They were concerned enough about the roof that they wouldn’t insure it at all, so we focused there first. The insurer did not care if we ever fixed the structure. For this reason, my husband and I wondered: if the insurance company doesn’t care about the structure, should we?
We discussed the structure for a few weeks and went back and forth. Let’s replace everything. Let’s replace some of it. Which part should we replace if we only do some of it? Let’s not do anything!
Our contractor (who was originally going to do the entire renovation for our home and ended up only doing the roof for obvious reasons) was very blasé about the whole thing. “We’ll jack it until we hear a crack.” This idea was very different from the structural company that did the inspection. They didn’t think the house could be safely jacked at all, while the contractor figured we’d jack it up until we had something to fix.
These differences of opinion gave us no choice but to seek a third opinion. Enter LRE. My husband found this second structural company through online searches. A knowledgeable, professional salesperson named Matt came to the house and told us what he thought we should do. It was a little technical, so bear with me. Our house has one main beam that runs east to west, basically cutting the underside of our house in half. This means we have two spans, which are north and south of this beam. Matt explained that if this house were constructed today, they would put in two beams, thus giving the house three spans. Basically, one beam wasn’t enough to support the whole house.
Matt proposed that rather than replacing our existing wooden beam with a metal one, like the first company wanted to do, we add metal beams on either side of the existing beam. These beams would have 5 small jacks running along them. LRE would use larger jacks to lift the house and use the smaller jacks to hold the house in place. Of the 3 inches, Matt thought we could get two of them back. Of course, he also wanted to replace everything else.
LRE gave us two options: one was $20,000 and one was $27,000. We could replace just the beams and some integral piers and footers, or we could go ahead and replace everything. Matt was also confident that they could get the engineering drawings and permit done in time to start on July 20th. Based on what we were hearing from our contractor at the time, the roof would be done by then. We had a couple of days to make a decision.
We liked LRE’s approach because it allowed for some lifting of the house. They also offered a 25-year warranty that the house would not sink from where they left it, which was transferrable if we ever sold the home. We went back and forth over whether to do the entire scope, or just the first “phase.”
Matt politely followed up with us a couple of times over the weekend. We asked if they could do everything for $25,000. If they could, and if we could get 0% financing for 1 year, we would move forward. He got the go-ahead from his higher-ups, and we were good to go.
(Note: We almost never finance anything other than our home. We even own our cars outright. We had the cash to pay for the project, however, we wanted to keep as much cash on hand as possible as we moved through the entire renovation (roof, structure, kitchen, floors, siding/paint, and yard) in order to keep our cash flow as smooth as possible.)
Despite the roofers not finishing before July 20th, the structure crew arrived on time, and was not frazzled at all by the roofers. The roofers were not happy with them, but they were the ones behind schedule.
They worked that day and the following day, and we only had one hiccup during that time. My husband was sitting in the house and was feeling hot. The AC was clearly not working, and as he investigated, he quickly realized we were air conditioning the underside of the house. As the guys moved the ducts around underneath the home, one of them tore. The foreman wrapped some duct tape around it as a band aid. It took a few days, but LRE finally did send an AC repairman out to properly fix the leak, for which we were grateful.
Our presence was expected on Day 3, when they would be lifting the house. We were nervous as we drove. What if they jacked it a little bit and every single wall cracked from floor to ceiling? What if we broke a structural member? We knew these scenarios were highly unlikely, but real damage could occur.
The foreman greeted us warmly when we arrived. They already had 3 large jacks in place along the new north beam, which again ran east to west. He used a device to take a measurement on the high side of the kitchen, and then took another one on the lower side. He left the device there so we could see the progress and yelled, “Bump it!”
We felt the jack vibrating under our feet. We heard as the house complained. It seemed annoyed we were undoing years – maybe decades – of sinking that day.
After many more “bump its” and more whining from the house, we gained a little more than half an inch. It wasn’t the 2 inches we were hoping for, but it was something. The foreman moved the crew to the new south beam, set the jacks, and repeated the process. We got half an inch from the other side.
At that point, the crew needed to shim some things, including the original beam in the middle of the house, so that was all we were getting for that day. We were told to come back in two days, at which point we could sign a release and we could jack the house up some more. LRE had done what they could.
We returned two days later, on a Friday afternoon and…no one was there. I don’t know if there was a miscommunication or what, but we were told they’d be back Monday. We expected to get another half inch with a few more “bump its,” and no additional damage, but that’s not exactly how it went.
A new crew arrived Monday morning, and they handed my husband the release, which he signed. My hand probably would have been shaking because I thought, “Today’s the day we crack everything from floor to ceiling.”
This crew had a heck of a time. Even the big jacks couldn’t find purchase as our stubborn house pushed back as they tried to lift it. Unlike the prior week, the jacks were driving themselves into the ground. We achieved a bit more lift, somewhere around ¼ inch, however, we also could see signs of stress in the corners of some rooms, and on the stairs. Since we had plans to paint the house, we weren’t too worried.
Luckily, we were also going to be redoing the kitchen (including the plumbing) because the jacking somehow caused a leak under there. We spent Tuesday with the water turned off, and again someone from LRE came out and band-aided the leak.
The structural project ended anticlimactically. We learned that redoing a roof is a bit more gratifying than redoing the structural elements of the home. You can actually see progress being made on the roof, and everyone knows you’re making improvements. Nonetheless, we enjoyed working with LRE much more than the roofing company. It’s apparent that’s a well-run company, with a culture focused on the customer. At 119-years-old, this home is more structurally sound than it ever has been. When they install kitchen cabinets and countertops in a couple of weeks, we’ll have the piece of mind that the floors won’t be moving underneath them.
Project result: moderately successful
Update: Once we moved the furniture in preparation for the floor refinishing, we noticed some bows in the floors. We called, and they came within a couple of days to adjust the system under the house. We're still very happy with them.