Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

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Joe Jones
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Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Joe Jones » Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:21 pm

Steeply Sloping Uneven Floor in an Old House - When is it unsafe?

We rent in a great neighborhood and have an amazing landlord. We have a great deal and so handle maintenance, etc. without bothering the landlord—sort of an unspoken agreement. We contact him for major repairs, or out of respect, to let him know when something is going wrong with the house but we also understand some things just aren't in the picture. We brought the issue of sloping floors up briefly and he said "Yeah someday, someone will lift the whole house up and rebuild the foundation."

So my question is: At what point do steeply uneven floors become a risk of the house falling over or the floor suddenly falling through?
How far can the house bend before it breaks? It seems the house is on top of a spring or sort of soft bubbling soil that... well sort of bubbles up and sometimes you can see pieces of white sea shell in it. We're up on a hill about 200ft above sea level above an estuary. We've had seasons of heavy rains that have possibly accelerated the process.

On the downhill side of the house, there is about a 12" drop in 6 feet across. The hard wood floors curve down. I don't see any separation in the structure. It doesn't really squeak. It seems to have happened over a very long period of time. It's getting to be like a skateboard ramp. Pretty extreme. The house is about 100 years old. Built of solid wood but has some makeshift add ons. It is a beautiful, charming old place and we love it. I just want to make sure it isn't about to literally fall over while we sleep.

Thank You,
Joe
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Pajamas
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Pajamas » Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:24 pm

Have you had a certified inspector in to check it?

A 1:6 slope in a floor is dangerous. Even a handicap ramp slopes much less than that, ideally 1:12.

If you are not worried about someone getting hurt but only about the house collapsing, it depends. It could be perfectly stable as it is now or it could completely collapse at any time, especially if it is in an area with lime sinks or similar.

Rupert
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Rupert » Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:27 pm

Are the walls cracking? (I'm assuming they're plaster given the age). That does sound very severe, even for a 100-year-old house. The possible consequence of having a structural engineer look at it, though, is condemnation, in which case you will be moving out.

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celia
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by celia » Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:53 pm

Forget about the house bending and cracking. The people inside (and visitors) are more important. I'm pretty sure they get older each year and their chance of falling increase. :D So with the house shifting more each year and the people getting older, you have a double whammy waiting to happen at some point in the future.

What do you think will happen in an emergency? Say, there is a fire in the middle of the night and everyone has to get out in the pitch black (electricity is out). Does your area have earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes? If you call the fire department inspector, what do you think she will say about the floor? Would the building be condemned?

I would think of safety first. We had a recent thread where someone couldn't get homeowners insurance until an uplifted walkway was fixed where someone could fall. Most replies were about the homeowner's liability and the fact that he has been warned not to ignore it. This sounds much worse.

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Joe Jones
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Joe Jones » Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:57 pm

The walls are cracking a bit here and there yes. They are plaster. I think the structure is cedar and redwood. Lots of redwood. The house was built after the 1906 earthquake. (SF, CA)

The steep slopes are down into the walls on the perimeter on the downhill sides.

I'm not worried about someone tripping and falling, I'm worried about the house suddenly giving way.
A slow collapse would be survivable. We could get out. I'm more worried about the house sort of suddenly breaking.
We do also live in earthquake country, but somehow I think this house might be the last one standing.

I would say, on two sides, the down hill sides, the 6' nearest the walls slope down 6" to 12" in within that 6' span.
Really mostly the last 3 feet next to the wall.

The rest of the house has it's ups and downs but it is mostly those downhill walls where the foundation has clearly sunk a foot or two.

Yes, I did consider that if I hired a structural engineer it might be condemned. We have back-up plans in place... for just about every scenario. But prefer to survive here as long as possible. I guess you could say we're hanging by a thread in the Bay Area. :wink: If I thought I really needed to hire an engineer, I would probably just move out and leave it to the landlord out of respect. It would feel underhanded to hire an inspector without him knowing. It is a sort of trust, help where you can, understand where you're living kind of deal.

Thank you bogleheads! This forum has been unbelievably helpful. Much appreciated.
-Joe
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Rupert
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Rupert » Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:59 pm

Joe Jones wrote:
Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:57 pm
The walls are cracking a bit here and there yes. They are plaster. I think the structure is cedar and redwood. Lots of redwood. The house was built after the 1906 earthquake. (SF, CA)

The steep slopes are down into the walls on the perimeter on the downhill sides.

I'm not worried about someone tripping and falling, I'm worried about the house suddenly giving way.
A slow collapse would be survivable. We could get out. I'm more worried about the house sort of suddenly breaking.
We do also live in earthquake country, but somehow I think this house might be the last one standing.

I would say, on two sides, the down hill sides, the 6' nearest the walls slope down 6" to 12" in within that 6' span.
Really mostly the last 3 feet next to the wall.

The rest of the house has it's ups and downs but it is mostly those downhill walls where the foundation has clearly sunk a foot or two.

Yes, I did consider that if I hired a structural engineer it might be condemned. We have back-up plans in place... for just about every scenario. But prefer to survive here as long as possible. I guess you could say we're hanging by a thread in the Bay Area. :wink: If I thought I really needed to hire an engineer, I would probably just move out and leave it to the landlord out of respect. It would feel underhanded to hire an inspector without him knowing. It is a sort of trust, help where you can, understand where you're living kind of deal.

Thank you bogleheads! This forum has been unbelievably helpful. Much appreciated.
-Joe
Just a thought: Are you sure it's the foundation and not sagging or cracked joists?

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Sandtrap » Wed Oct 04, 2017 3:42 pm

Time to move? :shock:
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Joe Jones
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Joe Jones » Wed Oct 04, 2017 3:42 pm

[/quote]
Just a thought: Are you sure it's the foundation and not sagging or cracked joists?
[/quote]

I am not sure. I don't exactly know what those are... but I think there is probably some of that around the middle of the house. Not so extreme. I assumed that since the floor was arcing down into the walls supported directly by the foundation, that it must be related to the foundation. I don't know anything about construction though. Thanks for the tip.

Thanks also to the poster above who mentioned thinking of safety first. It's complicated, and we're pretty tough in that respect. But I appreciate the maturity/sanity reminder.
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Joe Jones
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Joe Jones » Wed Oct 04, 2017 3:45 pm

Sandtrap wrote:
Wed Oct 04, 2017 3:42 pm
Time to move? :shock:
Haha. Eventually yes. Things are not so easy though, with regards to employment and surviving in the Bay Area. We'd like to stay as long as possible.

P.S. We're not rent control mooches. We live outside SF proper. More like we watch over the place for the landlord. Respect and love them. And they give us a great deal. So this is me just watching over the place. And watching my... well you know. ;)
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curmudgeon
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by curmudgeon » Wed Oct 04, 2017 3:51 pm

Personal opinion (not a structural engineer); stick-built houses don't tend to suddenly collapse from slow land movement. There is a lot of redundancy with all the nails and studs, so they tend to split apart and develop gaps over time as one part or another lets go. Hurricane, tornado, or landslide can definitely take them out completely. It's certainly possible that livability could suddenly get much worse. It might be worth getting a level (laser or ordinary) and taking some measurements so that you can track how things are changing (or not).

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Pajamas
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Pajamas » Wed Oct 04, 2017 4:06 pm

I agree that wood-framed houses rarely suddenly collapse, but in the San Francisco area, any house can collapse at any time because of earthquakes. I have never seen a plaster wall that didn't have cracks in it unless it was new or the cracks had recently been patched.

The problem in San Francisco with houses built after the 1906 earthquake and fire is that many of them were rebuilt quickly to poor standards. People think that older houses were super sturdy and well-built, and many of the ones that have survived to become older are very solid, but not all of them are. Construction methods and standards were different than they are now. For instance, your house might well have ballon rather than platform framing. Some older houses have makeshift foundations of piled rocks or even logs on end.

http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/art ... 520018.php

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Joe Jones
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Joe Jones » Wed Oct 04, 2017 4:28 pm

Great tips! Thank you so much! Bogleheads always nails it. So much wisdom here.

It was my instinct after looking around and watching it over time, that it wouldn't suddenly collapse.
It seems like it would slowly pull apart. It probably has been for 50+ years. But it seems pretty comfortable in its curves.

I think this past extremely heavy rain season, followed by the extreme heat, gave the house a little grief.

I actually just ran into a water district fellow outside and asked him about a spring or a water way under the house—because of the bubbling soil. He said "There is a water main under, but the water is contained." There was water actually flowing down the street all summer though ha. He was using some kind of electric divining wand to take measurements of some sort. Life in the burbs. ;)

I'll check out that sfgate article. The place is built with some seriously solid materials. Redwood and plaster.
There are makeshift add-ons. It was originally a summer cabin I believe. It has it's charm to say the least. (not sarcasm)
After living here, whenever I go into a house built in the 70's or 80's I think "What is this a cardboard box?"
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by barnaclebob » Wed Oct 04, 2017 4:29 pm

I also agree with those that say a fast collapse is not likely without some major warnings. Think about all of the old abandoned barns and farm houses (or regular houses if you live in detroit...) you see that are sagging and clearly not safe but still standing.

In any case, the slope you describe is extreme. Personally I'd like to see pictures of it.
Last edited by barnaclebob on Thu Oct 05, 2017 8:36 am, edited 1 time in total.

mouses
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by mouses » Wed Oct 04, 2017 4:51 pm

I think I would ask the landlord if he would have a structural engineer look at it. I like old houses, but a 12" drop is something else.

I am not sure the water department guy is a reliable source of information about an underground stream. Also, the water main could have a leak.

It's entirely possible that this is fixable, and the house may be worth the investment, but it should be the landlord;s unless you want to live there a long time and have such a lease.

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Watty
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Watty » Wed Oct 04, 2017 5:11 pm

One concern I have not seen mentioned is that the slumping could cause a water, sewer, or electric line to be damaged.

I would be especially concerned about an the electricity starting a fire.

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by psteinx » Wed Oct 04, 2017 5:29 pm

12" slope in 6' is a big deal, in my mind.
6" slope in 3' is also a big deal, in my mind.

I'm not sure what the values would have to be for me to think, "no big deal". But I think you're well into the "big deal" area.

Lots of potential issues, including connections (pipe wiring), faster (but not sudden) collapse - like if it started sinking an inch or two a day, sudden collapse - weather due to outside impetus like an earthquake or just the building getting overstressed.

This should get properly assessed, by an expert, soon. I get what you say about the landlord, etc., but some things are to big to let slide. (And some big things could slide down the hill, which would be bad).

I'm not an expert on this - just one more internet person with an opinion. But if it were me and my family, or even me solo for some reason, I'd make this a high priority.

(Minor edit(s) made after initial post...)

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by dbr » Thu Oct 05, 2017 8:29 am

How is it possible to have that large a distortion in a structure and not be able to see it in all sorts of places, including a cracked foundation?

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Rupert » Thu Oct 05, 2017 9:57 am

Joe Jones wrote:
Wed Oct 04, 2017 3:42 pm
Just a thought: Are you sure it's the foundation and not sagging or cracked joists?
[/quote]

I am not sure. I don't exactly know what those are... but I think there is probably some of that around the middle of the house. Not so extreme. I assumed that since the floor was arcing down into the walls supported directly by the foundation, that it must be related to the foundation. I don't know anything about construction though. Thanks for the tip.

Thanks also to the poster above who mentioned thinking of safety first. It's complicated, and we're pretty tough in that respect. But I appreciate the maturity/sanity reminder.
[/quote]

Joists are what support your floor. There will be a series of them running parallel underneath the structure. Sometimes in old buildings they start to sag as a result of rot, insect damage, contractors cutting into them over the years to run plumbing, etc. If the sloping is over a large area of the house, it's probably not a joist problem; it's probably the foundation, as you state. But if the sloping runs along a single wall, then it very well could be a bad joist. Much better it be a joist problem than a a foundation problem. Just trying to give you some hope here.

As for cracking walls, yes, it's true that all old plaster walls crack (at least I've never seen an old house with plaster walls that didn't have cracks). But there are cracks, and then there are CRACKS. The wider and deeper the cracks, the more likely you've got a serious structural problem. Also, how the cracks run are a clue. If they are jagged or stair step cracks, there's a structural issue that may be serious. The most important thing is to watch the cracks over time. Are they getting wider and deeper? Take a series of pictures of the most severe cracks. It's helpful to hold a ruler up next to the crack in the pictures so you can really see the changes.

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by lthenderson » Thu Oct 05, 2017 10:03 am

Joe Jones wrote:
Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:21 pm
So my question is: At what point do steeply uneven floors become a risk of the house falling over or the floor suddenly falling through?
How far can the house bend before it breaks?
You don't have to worry about a stick built house collapsing. They are much different than brick or concrete structures where entire walls are rigidly one piece. With a stick built structures, typically a few nails/screws can shear off and that one rafter or stud will be able to move independent of the rest of the rafters/studs.

If a floor slopes to a wall, you are talking foundation issues. If the floor sags in the middle, you have different issues. This definitely sounds like a foundation issue. They can be fixed too but are more complex and expensive to repair and often require the entire house to be jacked up off of it to do so. Hiring a structural engineer is a great place to start for coming up with a plan if it can be repaired. However if it was me and I was renting the place, I think I would look for someplace else to rent and let the landowner deal with this problem at his leisure.

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by renue74 » Thu Oct 05, 2017 10:05 am

Sloping in an old house is going to happen. I'm currently rehabbing a 1935 house and changed out floor joists back in the spring, plus jacked up the house foundation beams and shimmed under them.

As a tenant, I would just go to the landlord and ask him to take a look. I would let him know that you were concerned for his house. It's not your responsibility to diagnose the issue.

If the landlord doesn't address the problem and have have real concerns about it, I'm sure there are government orgs that will be happy to review your claims. I hear California is very tenant friendly. But, you run the risk of alienating your landlord if you go that route.

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Hug401k » Thu Oct 05, 2017 11:13 am

barnaclebob wrote:
Wed Oct 04, 2017 4:29 pm
I also agree with those that say a fast collapse is not likely without some major warnings. Think about all of the old abandoned barns and farm houses (or regular houses if you live in detroit...) you see that are sagging and clearly not safe but still standing.
I have to agree with this. I've seen barns standing that are holding on with a thread. Look for CHANGE. If your slope happened 50 years ago, and isn't getting worse, you are fine. It's not going to collapse overnight. If it is getting worse (new or growing cracks in the walls), I would notify the landlord immediately. That's the type of information they need to know. That being said, don't buy it. You don't want to know how much it costs to level floors.

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Joe Jones
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Joe Jones » Thu Oct 05, 2017 11:34 am

Great advice all around. This pretty much confirms what other level-headed people have said when they've seen it. And of course, to quote Clint Eastwood "If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster." I won't bother the landlord about it. He knows. He told me the same as most of you have said 10 years ago.

I will watch for a change and let him know if so.

Thank you!
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by iamlucky13 » Thu Oct 05, 2017 1:40 pm

Joe Jones wrote:
Wed Oct 04, 2017 2:57 pm
I'm not worried about someone tripping and falling, I'm worried about the house suddenly giving way.
A slow collapse would be survivable. We could get out. I'm more worried about the house sort of suddenly breaking.
We do also live in earthquake country, but somehow I think this house might be the last one standing.
...
Yes, I did consider that if I hired a structural engineer it might be condemned. We have back-up plans in place... for just about every scenario. But prefer to survive here as long as possible. I guess you could say we're hanging by a thread in the Bay Area. :wink: If I thought I really needed to hire an engineer, I would probably just move out and leave it to the landlord out of respect. It would feel underhanded to hire an inspector without him knowing. It is a sort of trust, help where you can, understand where you're living kind of deal.
Sudden collapse is unlikely, but not entirely out of the question. More likely is gradual collapse in stages as individual elements fail, and there can be risks to your safety is something shifts suddenly.

What you are describing does not sound earthquake safe. While that's a call for an expert to make in each specific building, failure of the foundation to properly support the framing is a common factor in earthquake collapses of framed structures. A big part of the recent seismic code changes deals with keeping the framing well attached to the foundation.

Furthermore the soil conditions you've described may be at risk of liquefaction in a quake, and that could be a particularly serious risk for an already compromised foundation.

Even if the house survives a quake, it may be damaged to the point it genuinely is no longer safe to live in, and right after a serious quake is the last time you would want to be looking for a place to live.

You should not have to hire your own structural engineer. It is the landlord's legal responsibility to keep the house in safe condition. However, if you really want to know how safe the house is and he is resistant to addressing the concerns, that may be an option to get the ball rolling. The local building authority may be another resource, but as you noted, if you report a rental safety concern, and they inspect it, they may decide to condemn the house until it is fixed.
Joe Jones wrote:
Thu Oct 05, 2017 11:34 am
I will watch for a change and let him know if so.
From what you said earlier, it sounds like you have already been watching slow change for years, and that it may have accelerated due to the wet spring you had. This isn't an old barn that has had a consistent sag in the roof for 50 years, and even if it was, would you sleep in that barn during an earthquake?

This does not sound like a static situation. What you have described is concerning, slowly worsening, and most importantly, of very dubious earthquake safety and needs to be addressed. I'd seriously consider moving out at the end of your lease if the landlord is not at least willing to hire a structural engineer to inspect the place, and of course, address any serious issues that might be found.

I understand respecting the landlord, and getting a great deal in a high cost of living area that probably won't be as great of a deal anymore after the expense of replacing a foundation. There's limits to how far is reasonable to accommodate, however.

The landlord knows, but he's been complacent about it for 10 years. He's not doing anything on his own.

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celia
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by celia » Fri Oct 06, 2017 3:09 am

Joe, I think you have already seen the "changes" or you wouldn't have posted. There are red flags that caused you to start asking questions. Your intuition is telling you to start doing something about it. So do it. It is a lot better to move before you have to. When you are in the middle of "the emergency" you won't have as many choices because you will have to choose something quickly from places that are available at that time, whereas if you tell yourself and your family that you need to move before the end of this year, you will have lots of choices of where to move to. But don't put it off. You know it has to be done. You have to look out for your family and yourself first, before the wonderful landlord. Give him your notice and start looking elsewhere.

As you know, California is also earthquake country. Not only are we overdue for "the big one" (8.0+), but we are due for "the big one" after that! They say something like California should have a "big one" every 50 years. Yeah, most people think of that as "in 50 years" since they don't see evidence of it right now. But they said that 49 years ago, and 48 years ago, and 47 years ago, and so on.....

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Ready3Retire » Fri Oct 06, 2017 5:32 am

Sounds like a situation my in laws had on their 1926 beach cottage a few years ago. Its build on sand about 50 feet above the Atlantic and had settled over the years - many of the windows could not be opened. They had a specialized contractor come in and screw a number of helical pilings into the ground under key foundation supports. The pilings (think the augers from power post hole diggers) get screwed in until a certain resistance is achieved. The house is then slowly and systematically jacked up and fastened to these new stable pilings. I think it was expensive ($20k) but a whole lot less than lifting the whole house and rebuilding the foundation. May want to suggest this to your landlord.

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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Point » Fri Oct 06, 2017 9:57 am

Take a crawl underneath the house and look at the supporting beams. Are they decaying? Are they missing? Are the posts supported by the ground or are they floating? The foundation is the likely cause of the sloping, so that’s the first place to look.

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Joe Jones
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Re: Steep Uneven Floor in an Old House

Post by Joe Jones » Fri Oct 06, 2017 8:02 pm

Thanks for the advice on checking under the house, the foundation lift and also for the voice of wisdom regarding earthquakes.
We all but sleep with helmets on and are ready to be out of the house in <15 seconds with zero warning at any time.
So we're ahead of the game in that regard, but having an earthquake-ready house... yeah that will be nice some day!
Soon... soon.
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