Photograph of - cracked  masonry block foundation wall, probably from earth pressur at original construction - notice the wavy mortar. Drop a plumb line to measure total inwards bulging of this block foundation wall.Foundation movement: how to detect & diagnose active or ongoing movement in a building foundation
Foundation crack age & probable cause diagnosis

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How to determine active vs. old building foundation or structural movement:

This article explains the difference between active & static foundation movement: how to detect & diagnose active movement or movement cracks in a building foundation.

This article series describes how to recognize and diagnose various types of foundation failure or damage, such as foundation cracks, masonry foundation crack patterns, and moving, leaning, bulging, or bowing building foundation walls.

Types of foundation cracks, crack patterns, differences in the meaning of cracks in different foundation materials, site conditions, building history, and other evidence of building movement and damage are described to assist in recognizing foundation defects and to help the inspector separate cosmetic or low-risk conditions from those likely to be important and potentially costly to repair.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

MOVEMENT ACTIVE/STATIC - Foundation Movement: Determining Active or Dynamic (ongoing movement) vs. Static (no ongoing movement)

Photograph of horizontal movement in a foundation - hill creep © Daniel Friedman at InspectApedia.comThe photo at the top of this page shows a bowed masonry block foundation wall with horizontal cracking that occurred due to earth loading at the time of construction, probably by vehicles driving too close to the foundation wall shortly after it was constructed.

At this website we explain how it is sometimes possible to be confident about the cause of foundation damage which in turn helps assess the risk presented to the building.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Above: severe damage to a masonry block structural wall. This damage seems to be active and ongoing, though slowly. We suspect that the cracks in this masonry block wall occurred as a defective wall footing began to creep down a steep hill behind the building.

Photographs of types of foundation cracks and other foundation damage: we have a large library of photographs which we're in process of adding these photographs to this website. Pending completion of that work, contact the author if assistance is required.

Questions about active (dynamic) foundation movement

When we find visual or measured evidence of cracking and movement in a masonry foundation wall of any type, there are some diagnostic questions we can ask that help assess the cause of the problem and the urgency of repair actions:

NOTE: without historical data these causes can be difficult to confirm without monitoring. Active movement requires at least monitoring; present or future repair steps likely.

How to Look for evidence of horizontal foundation movement or wall displacement

How to evaluate foundation wall leaning, tipping, or bulging

How to evaluate the extent and importance of building foundation movement

Vertical crack previously repaired © Daniel Friedman at

The crack I'm pointing to in the photo above was observed in a home just a few years old. The crack had been "patched" by smearing mortar over the joint, and where that mortar has fallen away we can see some mortar inside the joint.

When I see that mortar in a patched masonry joint is adhered to one side of the crack and yet a gap still appears, I think movement is active or ongoing. But the total amount of this movement is yet less than 1/8".

Look at

How to determine the age of foundation cracks & Whether The Cracks are Active or "Static" (Not Moving)

Cracks in a newly poured concrete foundation (C)

The severely cracked concrete foundation above showed its damage within days of pour of the foundation, before framing had even begun. There was no doubt of the age of the crack; its cause, cure, and prevention of other damage required more on-site analysis.

Wavy mortar in block wall joints: damage during backfill © Daniel Friedman at

The "wavy mortar" in the joint of this masonry block wall is like a low-amplitude smooth sine wave, arcing up and down through the middle of a long wall in a home more than a decade old. Yet nowhere is the mortar itself broken. This is old damage that occured during backfill around the foundation at the time of construction, when the mortar was still soft.

Wavy mortar in block wall joint = backfill damage © Daniel Friedman at

Often we'll find a history of water leakage through these open mortar joints and sometimes we'll find wavy mortar, damage during backfill, at a wall that has additional damage from frost or other sources. Keep in mind that multiple conditions may be present at an older building foundation inspection.

Details About What is Inside of a Foundation Wall Wall Crack Suggests Crack History

Ongoing movement in a block wall © Daniel Friedman at

In this New Jersey office building I saw that the foundation wall had been painted, but there was no paint actually inside of this large "wavy mortar" like crack. My question is: am I looking at an initial backfill damage situation or has there been further wall movement? If I found dust, dirt or other stuff in the crack, even a little paint in the crack I'd think it was old. The building is more than a decade old.

So I've got a contradiction:

Wavy mortar argues for old damage from time of original construction. But the cracks looked so darn clean inside they looked new. But if the wall was painted with a fairly dry roller there may be no paint inside even an old wall crack. But if there had been additional movement in the wall after the "wavy mortar" backfill event wouldn't the wavy mortar itself be broken up? Wouldn't there be other evidence? Closer inspection was needed.

Watch out: don't let yourself get too wedded to your first guess at a diagnosis of any building problem. If you do that you may unconsciously see and accept data that confirms your view and reject data that contradicts it. Try to stay curious as long as you can stand it. Let's get some more data about this crack.

Old crack in wall © Daniel Friedman at

The close look above and just below gave me more information about this foundation wall crack.

Detail shows that this foundation wall crack is old © Daniel Friedman at

The two photos above show that there was both dirt/dust at a thick level in portions of this crack, and in some areas along the wall green paint had flowed into the crack as well. How long ago had this wall been painted? Is the paint much newer than the wall. The paint sure looked new.

Paint on dirt in an old wall crack © Daniel Friedman at

This last "cracks in the green block wall from New Jersey" photo clinched the argument for me. I found not only a good dose of green paint inside the crack (so the wall was painted after the crack occurred), I also found blobs of dirt and dust in the crack that themselves had been painted.

I was satisfied that this was an "wavy mortar" old crack situation that had occurred at the time of initial backfill when the building was constructed. It makes sense to keep alert for other clues that support or make you question such assumptions.

How to measure the amount of lean or bulge in a foundation wall

Driven rod indicating prior foundation anchor repair © Daniel Friedman at

When I inspected the home above (in 1997) it was more than 40 years old. My client is pointing to a rectangular metal plate serving as a giant "washer" beneath a nut on the end of an anchor rod that was driven through the wall into the soil below.

We know some of the history of the home from just this observation: someone was attempting to repair a bulging or leaning foundation.

The natural questions is: Is this wall OK? Is there a threat to the structure? Are more repairs needed? One step is to take a look at how much movement has occurred in the wall - measure its bulge. Another is to look for signs of repeated or ongoing movement.

Photograph of our sketch of a simple way to use a plumb line and measuring tape to determine the amount of lean or bulge in a foundation wall

Measuring foundation wall tip, lean, or bulge: is simple: drop a plumb line near the most-bulged area (usually the center) of the wall, perhaps fastening it to a nail in a floor joist overhead, about 4" in from the wall. Measure from the string in to the wall at various heights up the wall.

Foundation Wall bulge caused by water and frost © Daniel Friedman at

The concrete block foundation wall above is visibly bulged inwards and water-stained. Let's look at a couple of details.

Foundation Wall bulge caused by water and frost © Daniel Friedman at

Above I see mud and dirt coming through the wall; there's little question that the other side of this wall has been exposed to soaking wet soil, wet soil pressure and maybe frost pressure too. Certainly there will be frost pressure if the home is in a freezing climate. (It is, or it used to be before global warming.)

Foundation Wall bulge caused by water and frost © Daniel Friedman at

Above I'm demonstrating that there is also horizontal dislocation in the wall: my pen laid against the upper block is about 1/4" away from the surface of the lower block in an imprecise but interesting observation. This is a wall that is ugly, bulged, moving, and needs to be re-built. In my OPINION it's too messed up with too many broken joints to just stiffen with pilasters or horizontal earth anchors.

At DIAGONAL CRACKING, SEVERE you can see some walls about to collapse. Below you can see what could be coming. As Chip says "You don't wanna go there".

Foundation collapsing © Daniel Friedman at

You'll be able to easily pinpoint the height of the most bulge or lean. This is not engineering. It's simple a simple mason's method to measure a wall or chimney during construction to keep it plumb.

[You may need to hire the services of a licensed professional engineer, one who is experienced with foundation troubleshooting and repair, especially if there is need to design a special building repair method or if there is apparent risk of possible building instability or collapse.]

The Position of Most-Bulged Point in Wall Is Diagnostic

Details: a plumb line, that is a string suspended by a weight, gives a perfectly vertical line from which to measure back to the wall surface. We don't care about the absolute value of the various measurements, we care about the difference between these measurements.

Usually the very bottom of a building wall will not have moved inwards, particularly if a concrete floor has been poured against the foundation.

The entire building floor slab is acting as an "anchor" to hold the bottom of the foundation wall in place. So we take the distance between the foundation wall and the string at the bottom of the wall as our "home base" or point of assumed "zero movement".

We compare this measured value with the other measurements between the wall and the string. If the foundation wall or any part of it higher than the floor has moved, tipped, or bulged inwards, those measurements from wall-to-string will be less than the distance, wall-to-string measured just above the floor level. That's because the wall has moved inwards, towards the string.

An example of measuring the amount of foundation wall bulge inwards

  1. We "eyeball" the "bulged" foundation wall and guess at the point at which it is bulged inwards the most - perhaps close to the center of the length of the wall (right-to-left dimension)
  2. We hang our string or plumb line from the nearest floor joist, keeping the string a few inches away from the foundation wall
  3. We measure 4.00 inches between the foundation wall surface to our vertical plumb-line string at 1" above the concrete floor - this is our "zero point" or "home base" measurement
  4. We measure 2.00 inches from the same foundation wall surface to our vertical string at a height of 5' from the floor
  5. We measure 3.25 inches from the same foundation wall surface to our vertical string at the very top of the wall just under the sill plate.
  6. We check that we've measured at the area of greatest inward bulge in the wall by moving our plumb line to our left, then to our right on either side of the ceiling joist we used to hang the string for our first measurement. If the distances we measure, wall to string, are greater than the distances we measured at our first trial, then that one is the point of greatest inwards foundation wall bulge.
  7. Finally we do the math: subtract our "higher on wall" and "closer to string" measurements from our "at the floor" and "farthest from string" measurement. We see these results:
  8. Foundation Wall Bulge-in at floor = 0 inches
  9. Foundation Wall Bulge-in at 5'up from floor = 4" - 2" = 2" of inwards bulge
  10. Foundation Wall Bulge-in at the top of the wall = 4" - 3.25" = .75" of inwards lean

How to distinguish between a "bulged" foundation wall and a "leaning" foundation wall, and why we care

Characteristics of a leaning foundation wall

If all of our measurements of inwards movements in the foundation wall increase in distance (wall to string), from floor up towards the top of the wall, the wall is leaning inwards. In this case we'd expect to not see horizontal cracks (if the wall is masonry block, for example).

Characteristics of a bulging foundation wall

If our measurements anywhere between the floor and the top of the wall is greater than the distance measured (wall to string) at the floor bottom and at the wall top then the wall is "bulged" inwards at that point. If the wall is masonry block in construction we'd expect to see horizontal cracks in one or mortar joints in the bulged area, with the widest horizontal crack at or close to the point of greatest inward bulge.

Even a concrete wall which is bulged is going to be cracked horizontally, though perhaps not in such a straight line. But a bulged reinforced concrete wall would be very rare unless perhaps the concrete wall bulged, or its forms bulged, during the time that the concrete was being poured and was still wet.

Other cases of leaning or moved foundation walls may produce different measurements

Horizontal foundation wall movement, creep, non-leaning lateral shift

On less frequent occasions we've found that an entire masonry block wall (or portions of it) were pushed horizontally inwards by some outside force, without causing the wall to lean or bulge. In a pure example of such a case, all of the differential movement measured (wall to string) between the wall bottom point (held in place by the floor slab) and the inwards-pushed wall section, will be a horizontal movement of that portion of the wall, and if it's masonry block, you'll see that the inwards-moved blocks are "hanging over" or projecting past the surface of the masonry blocks that did not move.

Combinations of foundation wall movement

You may encounter a foundation wall which has moved inwards in a combination of forms, both bulging at its most-pushed-in point (with horizontal cracks in the foundation wall) and the wall may have also been pushed inwards sliding some of the masonry blocks inwards past others which have remained in place.

In this case you'll see both that some masonry wall blocks will overhang or protrude past others in the wall (usually upper inwards pushed blocks hang over lower more stable blocks closer to the floor), and there may be bulging and cracking at another elevation of the wall.

Step cracks in building foundations may also be present in bulged, leaning, or horizontally pushed foundation walls if they were constructed of brick or masonry block, or possibly (though less common) of stone.

In fact since the building foundation corners are stronger than the center portions of the foundation wall (the opposing wall at right angle resists movement of the wall being pushed), wall bulges, leans, and cracks tend to occur towards the center of the wall, resulting in step-cracking closer to the ends of the same wall.

Other step cracks will of course also occur in building masonry block foundation walls that are not leaning or bulging particularly, where frost or settlement have been causing an "up and down" movement in the foundation or footing.

Other vertical cracks can occur in a masonry block or concrete or brick or stone foundation wall without leaning or bulging if the wall is moving due to footing settlement or frost.


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