Broke Ground today."Bad News. Bad Soil" Need Piers?!

iamskcAugust 7, 2014

After waiting 10 months we broke ground this morning. Took the family out to take pics. 4 hours later got an email from builder saying they dug down 4 ft below basment level and the soil isn't good enough...

"We will have the engineer come out to take a look to verify , however it looks like we may need to pier the home. We will not know all of the final details until a pier plan is drawn up, the engineer has approved it, and my foundation contractor can bid it. There is nothing to be worried about with the structure of the home on piers, however it is a large cost. I have only had to pier a handful of homes, however the cost is usually between $12k - $25k"

We just shrunk the house 300 sq ft due to cost. It it still came in higher than our limit. We were in the process of trying to cut 40K from the bids by removing windows and exterior stone. Now this. My husband and I were nearly in tears. Has anyone encountered this and walked away from the build/lot? Do we have any options? Even if we couLD afford this huge surprise cost how does if effect the safety or look of the home? Isn't it something that could have been tested before we put 10 months of time in and 10% down? We are the last home to build in the sub-division. Hello? Just THIS lot has bad soil?? We are feeling... tricked. Would appreciate any and all insight/stories or similar experiences. We are at a loss in more ways than one.


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Sophie Wheeler

Don't you have the recommended 20% contingency fund that this can come out of? Surprises DO happen during construction that you have to be prepared to handle. Sounds like you were possibly too close to the edge from the beginning.

Do you own the lot, or does the buider? If the builder owns the lot, walking away might make sense. If you own the lot already, it's a whole different situation. And not a good one. If you were already over budget, you need to find out what the absolute minimum requirements are from your municipality and HOA to get a CO. That is, if that will even allow you enough funds to slowly replace plywood counters and cheap vinyl floors over time after you take occupation. Realize that what usually happens in a situation like that is that doing all of the interior finishes on a cash only basis takes YEARS and you would beliving ina constant construction zone during the time.

Stopping construction and trying to sell the lot might make the most sense for your family. If your bank doesn't want to repossess with as little fuss as possible. But, they don't wan't to be left holding the bag either.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 7:31AM
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Wait and see what the cost will be before you decide anything.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 7:48AM
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Did you have a soil test done before? Just looking at the soil isn't a really accurate way to determine the plasticity, etc. If you had borings taken, they should provide you with information to determine what's needed. Good luck!

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 9:39AM
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The safety and look of your home will be just fine with piers. They should be able to do it so that after it is built, visitors won't be able to tell any difference.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 9:49AM
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we have very heavy gumbo in the soil in our area (very sandy soil would be bad too)
anyway our builder will not build a home without putting in piers- says he has to guarantee the home for 10 years and he can't see doing that without the piers

between the house, garage and shop, we have over a hundred piers costing about 300 dollars each..

when the piers are in, the tops are at ground level and you can't see them

don't build unless you are comfortable with your budget....

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 10:23AM
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Bridget Helm

We bought a lot, hired an architect, completed plans, then ended up selling the lot because the cost was 80k more than builders originally thought. We were already pushing our budget with what we thought it was going to cost before the additional 80k. The plans were 300sf more than we expected due to the lot being narrow/60' wide. we needed a long foyer down the middle of the house to connect all rooms. I decided I'd prefer to not build than to build a cheaper skimpier version. The neighborhood has strict restrictions anyhow.

Anyway, long sad story short--we had to walk away from it right after we got the permit.

We are renovating an older house now that I will like as much- has great bones and the square footage we need and in the same great location, but I'm not as crazy about the neighborhood. The houses aren't as pretty in this neighborhood. A lot of the neighbors are pushing 80 and their yards etc are getting to be too much for them to upkeep. Soooo, I'm not surrounded by beautiful homes and yards, but the house itself will be great once the renovation is complete. I'm hoping to start a trend ;)

NOT suggesting you should walk, but of you do, I'm here to tell you that as upset as I was to sell the lot, here I am 18 months later smiling. Maybe one day we can build what we planned. But we have 4 kids and private school is a must in Baton Rouge, so that takes priority now. Didn't want to be "house poor" so we sold

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 10:33AM
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I asked my builder about doing a soil test prior to breaking ground and he told me we didn't need to, he was familiar with the soils is our area. Day comes to break ground and we needed an engineered foundation. Ended up costing $15,000, which was our entire buffer. Never went over budget after that, in fact we were under budget and he owed us money in the end.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 2:28PM
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House here in Old Leawood (tear down) that we bid on and lost, thank God, needed 52 piers under footings. OUCH. never heard what the bill on that was, min. of $25k I'm sure.
we tore down 2 blocks away and soil test were good here, no piers. If you are over budget now like you say, as mentioned above, it won't get better. Also, is your builder familiar with the new codes being enforced in Leawood? They are getting very strict on water retention and run off, hope the new codes are in your budget, neighbor was hit w $8K 'drain pool' of some sort.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 6:15PM
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It's always good practice to have a perc test and a soils test if you are buying raw land, especially if you have a well for domestic water and/or if you have any concerns about the bearing capacity of the soil for foundations in your area. Why should one have concerns about the bearing capacity of the soil? There's lots of information that may be available for potential buyers: 1) information from the local building department; 2) historical information from previous owners in the area; 3) climatic and soils examples based on history in the area, i.e., soil movement, slides, sink holes, foundation movement and cracking from houses in the area, etc.

In other words, foundations and soils performance are one of the most fundamental areas for home owners to do their research and due diligence. Do not simply depend on what a builder tells you before signing a construction contract!

JuniperSt, I am very sorry to hear about your experience. There's no question, however, that piers and grade beams will provide a sound foundation for your house based on expansive soils. Hopefully your budget will allow for these. If not, your options are limited to selling the property and building elsewhere. The only two realistic options in expansive soils may be piers and grade beams or a continuous mat slab.

Good luck with your project.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 8:08PM
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Does seem strange to me that you're the only lot with issues in a subdivision...especially based on the size of subdivision lots I'm used to (usually 1 - 3 acres). I know I had a similar issue when it was time to build. Our initial excavation showed 100% silt, which you can't build on. They wanted piles (similar to piers) drilled, but the large stones in the area drove the cost up hugely because we couldn't use a standard piling company (that works in clay soils around here).

Our engineer offered us a number of options: He said we could do piles, OR we could do a slab-on-grade (no basement), or even to over-excavate the land down to a more suitable soil type and then backfill with granular material. For us, the backfilling would have been the best option since there's a lot of gravel pits in the area and we could hopefully pay someone to crush the boulders we pulled out during the excavation.

Keep in mind, we took the soil sample in OURSELVES to get tested by the lab, not trusting what contractors and people who can reap the financial benefits might say.

That said, our Building Inspector argued PROFUSELY that there was no silt in our area. Not a lick of silt he assured us, not on our neighbours' place 100' away, not up the hill, nowhere in the municipality. :P

In the end, the soil test came back 30% silt at the house-site, and 100% silt in our back field. PHEW. We also discovered that we hit bedrock at 6' of excavation depth. Meaning we built directly on bedrock, silt be damned. (and I can assure you the neighbours have silt has a slab-on-grade, the other is down-hill from us with a walk-out basement sitting on bedrock. The thing was, our building inspector was new, the old logs were crappy and it's not that common of a soil around here).

So in part, we really lucked out, but there were a number of options we could have taken to alleviate the problem. I would consider a proper soil sample, and taking it to the lab yourself. The cost is cheap and worth it. Ask your engineer for ideas on what can be done, even things like wider footings.

As for financing, I can understand money being tight. I went over budget, and no, didn't have this huge 20% contingency either. Some of these folks would say I shouldn't have built, but I couldn't afford to buy a home, I couldn't keep living where I was, and I built the least home I could, managing the finances carefully and cutting things out where I needed to, for later. In the end, I have a beautiful home that I can afford, for FAR less than I could have bought a much older home for. Consider doing more of the the labor yourself to save money; I ended up digging my own foundation, shoveled all the pea gravel for the basement floor, did the basement floor myself, ICFs myself, installed all the carpet, tile, hardwood, painted, plumbed, HVAC, landscaped, pulled my own electrical permit and completed it, shingled, hung doors, hung baseboards (well, still doing those a year later lol), insulated, vapor barriered, put in all the small windows, hung all the cabinetry, designed my own kitchen so I could pay less for cabinets...

What I'm saying, is if you don't want to scale back on the size of the house or the finishings anymore, but need the $25k to cover the piers, maybe you guys can do a bit more work to cover the costs?? Some of that stuff isn't so hard and costs a FORTUNE! Or downgrade stuff that's easy to replace later on, like lighting or countertops :) Heck, I'm not even 30 and between me and my 60 year old parents and the odd begged help from some friends, built a 1400 sq. ft. house in 8 months, for 50% of the cost had I GC'd it. You can do this. If you want it, you'll make it work.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2014 at 3:17PM
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Definitely get a soil test. It's another $2000 or so, but it could save you $20K if the builders are wrong.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2014 at 1:04PM
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