Would you buy a house with a trickling rock wall behind it?

BhamsterMarch 14, 2013

I don't know if this is the best place to post this, but didn't know where else to do it. We're looking at a house that's under construction right now, and it's got probably the best view in the entire complex. But they cut into the side of a hill to excavate the lot.

It rained on Monday and we viewed it on Tuesday. It didn't bother us that there were puddles all over since there's no sod in yet and it's all really a mess. But what did concern us is that the side of the hill behind the house looked wet--and then I noticed a trickle of water coming out from the rocks.

Now we find that very attractive at a nature preserve, but we're not sure it's a good idea for a back yard. The agent assures us that "That's solid rock and it's not going anywhere." Also that the lot has been inspected and doesn't even need a French drain like many of the other lots--but they would put one in if we had a problem in the first year.

We don't know who could tell us if this is a problem or not. My husband loves the view but is inclined to choose another lot with a forest behind the house.

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Do not forgo the french drain.

You'll need a geo/soils engineer to tell you about the "solid rock" behind you.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 3:21PM
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I'd take forest over rock, but all soil will display drainage after a heavy rain. The question is whether or not the land slopes from the hill base down to your home, or uphill to your home. In the former, a bad slope will bring all moisture to your foundation. In the latter, moisture can pool at the base of the hill and create erosion and other issues. In both cases, you should be asking for an engineering assessment as a condition of sale....not the opinion of your sales rep.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 3:48PM
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Tony, thanks for that advice. We haven't known how to state it seriously enough to the agent. We really would like that house, but the iffy-ness about the back is a huge concern to us.

The backyard is small and level. Not much space--you pretty much look at this stone wall. There's a house on top of that hill that's probably been there 30 years--but the cut into the hillside only happened in the past year.

Kirkhall, I've been trying to look up geologists/soil engineers here in our area, but they all look like they work with big businesses, not homeowners.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 4:02PM
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Bhamster, if its a pre-existing construction, put in your offer with a typical inspection clause but also adding a soil and drainage inspection. Then search for home inspectors who specialize in that area. Then you are covered.

If its new construction it's a point of negotiation up front. Some builders will get you that assurance via an up-front warranty, others via their own engineering assessment (which might be suspect to me.)

Ultimately, it's fixable via terraforming or drainage work. Totally fixable in fact if dealt with before construction begins. Harder to fix after but not impossible.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 5:35PM
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T2T, the house is in progress right now and will probably be done within a month. I did ask the agent for an engineering assessment and she said, "Yes, we can put that in the contract as a condition that needs to be satisfied and we will be happy to have that done. We do that all the time."

But my husband has kind of cooled towards that particular house because of all this and would rather go with a wooded lot. Of course, the wooded lots are lower down in the complex, so we'll have to make sure drainage is okay there, too.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 5:52PM
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Personally, I'm with hubby on the forest. Although I've seen some cool terrascapes that turned rock exposed hillsides into cascading waterfalls emptying into koi ponds.

But with woods behind you, there's a hidden benefit to the privacy they allow in that you don't have to buy window coverings in the back unless you really want to.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 6:59PM
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Where is this house? (city, state)

In some areas it would be OK, in others that whole hillside above the cut could slide into your subdivision.

Get an engineering assessment of the stability of your plot and the whole hill above it.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 7:37PM
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We're in Birmingham, AL (hence the name ;-)

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 8:25PM
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The Soil Conservation Service (NRCS) is a Federal agency that may be able to offer you some basic info about the soils and underlying bedrock in your area. The whole country has been mapped (and there's an app that displays it on your smart phone). But having some explain the technical details may be helpful to you. Their services are free, although they are primarily focused on farmers. To find them contact you Cooperative extension Office, or the USDA Ag service center.

You didn't say where you are but if you're in an area where there is strong freezing in the winter, then weeping water out of an open rock face can be a problem. As you know water expands when it freezes and that can lead to widening cracks that could lead to a rocks breaking off. Could be big or little problem, depending .....

OTOH, what you may be seeing now is leaking from a perched water table in an area that has been freshly disturbed. It's a somewhat bizarre (though natural and completely unalarming) phenomenon that results in stratified layers of an elevated water table. Water table is point where water rises naturally in the earth. It rises and falls seasonally and in some circumstances - like where I live it approaches the surface during the wnter and early spring only to recede the rest of the year. it's not just saturation from surface run-off, it's soil water rising. There is a period in most springs here where you'd swear all my fields could grow rice in paddies. But actually during the growing season, it's prime agricultural vegetable growing soil, and well-drained.

I think you should have a geo-engineer look over the lot, and then if you get the green light, I think living near a rock face would be fabulous.


    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 11:59PM
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Thanks for the advice, L. I just emailed our local NRCS office to see what they can offer/suggest.

Oh, and I did post our location above your post--Birmingham, AL.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 10:50AM
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Well, after all this, I just spoke to my husband and he really wants to forget about this particular lot/house--not so much about the geological issues, but because choosing our own lot gives us more time for selling/financing and also we can choose our own plan/features from scratch.

So I thank you all for your advice--and I will certainly keep the NRCS folks in mind if we have any issues about the new lot!

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 11:24AM
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Be aware that one tactic of production builders is to sell "premium" lots adjacent to open space and eventually build on the open space.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 1:41PM
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"We're in Birmingham, AL (hence the name ;-)"

I thought you just liked hamsters!
I would never have guessed a location from that screen name! :-)

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 2:24PM
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Dear Invisible,

Yes, I woke up one morning recently and said to my husband, "Hey: how do we know they won't start to build on the property behind us that they are now charging extra for?" We drove down there early Sunday morning to walk around with no one hassling us and it looks fairly impossible to build further since it's the side of a hill (as a native Chicagoan, I"m tempted to say "mountain" but after having also lived in California, I guess I'd say "hill" in this case). It's hard to tell, but it looks like it's too rugged and steep.

But I've seen them put houses up where I'd never dream a house could go--so that's one reason we're thinking of waiting a few years to see how this subdivision turns out. We may kick ourselves later, but I'd rather kick myself from the security of our present house than be in the midst of a real problem.

LuAnn, it took awhile for us to live here before we found out that locals abbreviate it Bham. :-)

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 5:19PM
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Are you in the city or country? You could also go to the building dept either country or city and find out more. Some depts will even share tidbits about the builder, not saying either bad or good, but you should be able to find out additional information. How long he has been building in the area, any complaints, problems, does he get all the permits? and what subcontractors he uses. Just make sure everything that is brought on the property is paid for, so you don't get stuck paying twice. Is this an Independent contractor-or is he a tract person. Lots of things to check out before you put cash out. Good luck and I would go with the forest, because water can move dirt quite fast.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2013 at 3:43PM
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