Can I make this Sears kit house porch look more level?

honorbiltkitMay 23, 2010

I am renovating a 1922 Sears kit house with a front porch that runs across its full width, anchored by three piers. Although the porch is solid and without cracks, visually it slopes from the leftmost to the center pier. The first step down slopes in the other direction and has a higher riser than the other steps.

We know from working on the piers that the structure of the porch is concrete over terra cotta block. I really do not want to cut into it, and so am hoping that I can do something with the first step down that would both raise the step itself vis a vis the porch floor and make the slope of the porch itself less obvious.

Please note that the problem is not primarily a functional one. I would just like to make the steps/porch look less askew if I can do so without cutting into the terra cotta.

Is it possible to somehow rough up the second step down and apply a layer of concrete that thickens enough right to left to even them up? Would the new concrete adhere well enough to wear a few years once the entire structure is painted? Would some special mix be needed?

I adore this small house and am trying to give it the work it deserves without investing a whole lot more than is could ever conceivably be worth in the marketplace.

I will grateful for any answers or suggestions for alternative approaches. Thanks.


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If you fiddle with the level of the first step, then it will make the second step look unlevel and you will be frustrated.
Would you consider leaving it alone and camouflaging with some potted plants, maybe 3, set on the steps, coming down?

    Bookmark   May 23, 2010 at 3:53PM
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I wish I could look at it in person with a mason's line, but from the picture I see two things you may not be aware of.
The floor sights (using a straightedge on my screen) as almost straight. It's slightly higher on the left end, but not as much as the left side of the stairs have sunk. They must have been built on the backfill. In addition, the left end plinth and posts are thrusting out to the side; they are quite a bit out of plumb; again I think because they are on an unstable or uncompacted soil.
This is just conjecture, but I wonder if some part of the cause for the center and right hand plinths/posts being lower is the additional load of the cantilvered overhanging wall and roof above.
It's a really great-looking house, BTW.
There is a technique of injecting concrete under foundations called mud-jacking. It may work in your case if you carefully take the roof load off of the foundation with temporary shoring timbers on the ground, and somehow straighten the left plinth at the same time. If you can find a mud-jacking contractor in your area, it may be worth a look.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2010 at 7:41PM
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What if you did just disguise it--paint the first floor and steps the same color, use accent colors for interest where you can on the first floor that would not draw attention to the unlevel looking spots?, and also do the potted plant type thing? It is an adorable house.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2010 at 9:40AM
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I have nothing useful to contribute whatsoever - I just wanted to say what a cool house you have. Feel free to share more photos!

    Bookmark   May 25, 2010 at 2:43PM
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Unless you know for sure what the problem is, I would contact a structural engineer and have him/her analyze it for you. Our engineer told us exactly what to do. it was messy, but now that porch looks as it should. Our neighbors did the pour-more-cement-on-the-lower-side "fix" and as stated, now the second step looks funny. To me it is always better to fix it right.
Good luck,

    Bookmark   May 25, 2010 at 4:42PM
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LOVE your house. The porch posts are amazing!

    Bookmark   May 25, 2010 at 5:21PM
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I would venture a guess that this house is an a city that has freezing winters and nice/hot summers. I would also guess that your porch sits on 4 ft footers and the steps are only down 1 ft or so. Heaving would be my guess at the cause.

I don't think there will be anything you can do to level the steps PROPERLY unless you tear them out, sink 4 ft footers and rebuild them.

If your porch has also moved, you can spend $3000 each for helical anchors to stabilize the porch.

Don't ask me how I know this:) Our bungalow's porch and steps USED TO be crooked as well...but not any more and I'm no longer retired either:)

    Bookmark   May 25, 2010 at 6:43PM
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Many thanks to everyone who offered advice. The spectrum of approaches bounded by camouflage at one end and major structural changes at the other defined our decision-making space. I think we have ended up about in the middle, which is where we started.

As of this evening, I think the second step from the top has been cross hatched with some kind of power saw. The layer of whatever will not be added until after we have tried out some dummy layers and looked at the results from across the street. (The shot posted above is Google earth's street view, from last summer.)

Lest someone thinks this house is getting a slapdash rehab, I just want to reiterate that in the 14 months we've owned it, we have found no structural problem with the porch or the steps, just the extra high riser to the top and the fact that -- as a spirit level shows -- the floor of the porch and the top of the step slant at almost the same angle from level, but in different directions.

A moderate-cost attempted fix for the steps is demanded by what we have already invested in this 1354 sq ft (not counting the basement) house. New drywall throughout, because the plaster board was pretty widely damaged; lots of insulation in the exterior walls; a Space Pak AC system; substantially upgraded plumbing and electricity; scraping and patching of the 90-year-old cypress siding (most Sears kit houses in the neighborhood have vinyl or hardie board); and (although I expect to be excoriated for this decision) new (not replacement) super efficient double paned wood framed windows throughout (except the tiny basement windows.)

I cannot afford a structural approach to the crooked porch unless something turns out to be structurally unsound.

Casey: Thanks for the quality of your attention. I had in fact been fretting about the crookedness of the left posts, but redeployed my concern to the steps. I can for sure see now that it is mostly the steps that are crooked, but messing with anything that could shatter the terra cotta terrifies me. We have already cannibalized two old chimney flues to stabilize the piers, but that work was from the surface in.

arlosmom: Your approval is especially appreciated because I spent a good part of today drooling over your kitchen. For the same reason that I cannot bring in an engineer for the porch, the kitchen is getting a careful plan, but the cabinets and appliances that are going in right now are all from craigslist. Good quality, newish, but nothing like as appropriate to the house as yours are to yours. And I had to let the drainboarded cast iron sink go, because there would have been no room for a dishwasher.

lesterd: The house is in a city with horrible muggy summers and pretty mild winters. Plus, the soil is really dense clay (having dug up the "lawn" this spring and planted what I hope will become a cottage garden, I have have an intimate knowledge of that clay, as does my spading fork). There may have been heaving at some time in the distant past, but the porch really does seem quite solid now.

I will never be able to retire either, whether or not our porch remains crooked. When I became besotted by this decrepit bank-owned charmer in early 2009, I convinced myself that it would be a good investment of my retirement funds relative to stocks or money market funds. It is cheerfully eating me alive and, although I think I am largely giving it the renovation it it deserves, my dreams of spending months biking through Finistere and Calvados have receded dramatically.

So far, it seems to be worth it. I love the fact that someone bought two freight car loads of numbered parts and built his or her own home. I love the house itself, and I think it is going to turn out to be a reasonably energy efficient and quite pleasant not-so-big family house.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2010 at 10:08PM
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I have only one thing to add: Beautiful!

That's a fine, fine home you have there and it's in amazingly good condition.

Click on the link below and scroll to the bottom to see a supersized Americus in Annapolis.

author, The Houses That Sears Built

Here is a link that might be useful: Sears Homes in Annapolis - and the Americus

    Bookmark   May 28, 2010 at 6:43AM
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What a fine, fine house. You've got a real beauty there.

Here's another comparison to the original catalog image.

Here is a link that might be useful: Sears Homes

    Bookmark   May 28, 2010 at 6:54AM
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Honor, On the left side of the picture, I see a downspout coming from the roof....whatever you do, make sure you have extension pieces on all downspouts at ground level to ensure that water runs far away from the foundation. Clay soil retains water and wet clay soil creates heavy duty pressure.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2010 at 5:45AM
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Update: As of two days ago, the new layer of concrete has been added to the top step. Because of the color difference, it is difficult to say how well it will address the crooked look of the steps, but it for sure makes going up and down much easier.

Casey: Now that the step is fixed, my contractor wants to jack up the porch roof a bit and try to realign the posts on the left pier. I am afraid that something in the old bones of the house will crack if he does so, but he has worked on lots of old houses and (gulp) apparently knows what the structure will take.

lesterd: What good eyes you have. We have large and not cute corrugated plastic hoses carrying water away from the house at all downspouts, pending the final disposition of the guttering. (Except for the porch roof, the original copper gutters are in place, although they have been painted and therefore will never be verdigris.) Even with that, we have installed a new sump pump in the basement.

Rosemary Thornton: I am so gratified that you, of all people, think our Americus is a good one. If you have any ideas about how the exterior colors should be divided up among house, trim, steps/porch floor, piers, and the vertical surfaces of the porch base, please weigh in. I am trying to avoid either a monolithic look or the one-color-on-top/another-on-the-bottom look of the house when we bought it. The facade of the house has now been primed, and I will need to make some decisions soon.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2010 at 12:05PM
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