Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Foundation Repair Cost, is it an apples to apples comparison?

Yesterday I stopped into Starbucks for my weekly "Ugh, it's Monday" treat when a gentleman standing next to me asked me a very key question.  "How much does foundation repair cost?" I thought about it for a moment.  Obviously without seeing his home I had no idea what a project to repair his foundation would cost, so I shot back "How much does it cost, or how much should it cost?"  See, overall job cost is a tricky thing to quantify to the home owner.  I came home and started doing a little internet research and found absolutely nothing informing homeowners of the cost involved in the process.  I hear the customers fears about the $20,000 dollar repair, and I also hear the concerns about pier pricing.  I wanted to start a little dialogue over what drives pier price, and a reasonable expectation for a project cost here in Houston.

There are several key factors that go into job cost, but basically I'm going to narrow it to three: Materials, Labor, Hidden Costs.  These are what I believe the three biggest driving forces in job cost, and I'd like to do a brief overview of each over each of these topics and try to explain what should go into the project cost.

1) Materials:
        a)  Number of Piers - One of the most common statements I hear is "Company X tells me I need 6 Piers, Company Y is telling me I need 17, and you are telling me I need 12.  You all agree that the same thing is going on with my house, why are you all so different?"  The number of piers on a repair plan  is directly correlated between how much of your house needs piers, the spacing between each of those piers, and the weight of the house that will be distributed on each pier.  Some companies have a philosophy of spacing their piers a set number of feet apart, no matter the size of the house.  Obviously, the closer the piers are spaced, the higher number of piers will be on the repair plan (and despite what they say it doesn't necessarily make it a better repair plan).  Some companies will spread their repair plans from distress line to distress line.  This will widen/narrow the zone of the repair, and once again add to the number of piers. Also, the type of materials used is a key factor.  Pressed pilings are pre-fabricated, but they aren't all fabricated out of the same materials.  For example, a 6" x 12" concrete cylinder should be made out of concrete that tests out at a compression strength of 6,000 P.S.I. However, just like with anything else you can find cheaper cylinders to do the job, and the less strength these cylinders have the less weight they can hold.  I've also seen companies actually take one standard cinder block, press it in the ground and re-adjust the house.    No matter which pier type they are recommending, you can find a cheaper version of each. 
Addicks Fine Sandy Loam



 b) Pier Depth - Obviously the deeper you press or drill, the more materials are used.  The key question here is "Why does depth even matter?"  To answer this, we need to go through brief lessons in both geology and pier function.
Foundation lifted out of the soil via pier heave.
     In Houston, there are two predominant soil classifications.  1) The sandy loams in the north (Aris, Gessner, Addicks, Clodine, and Wockley), and the clay rich soils of the south (Beaumont, Bernard, Brazoria, and Lake Charles).  Each of these soils has what is called an "Active Zone" which is the depth of the soil that shrinks and swells due to moisture influences.  These active zones can range from as shallow as 6-7 feet, to as deep as 18 feet.  To function properly, the pier depth needs to extend into stable soil.  You can stick a block in the ground and have a strong enough base to lift your house, but that won't stabilize it.  If the pier is sitting in unstable soil, what is going to happen when this drought ends and we start getting some rain here in Houston?  If the piers are still in the active zone of the soil, they move with the soil.  When those downpours hit, one of two things are going to happen and it's not going to be pretty.  Either the piers will settle because the soil below them weakens and is unable to hold the load on it, or the piers will actually work their way back out of the soil because the soil below them has swelled.  Almost all foundation repair companies do not cover pier heave in their warranty, and it's virtually impossible to fix and or stop.  I've seen piers work their way so far out of the ground that it actually hadcompressed the home to the point that windows have shattered, doors were jammed and inoperable, roof leaks had popped up, and plumbing leaks had formed.  Both of these scenarios can lead to constant headaches from a repair that was supposed to end headaches, and can actually lead to having to go through the entire repair process again.


The last section that I'm going to put under this category is instillation materials/miscellaneous.  Obviously, to press or drill a pier 15-30 feet in the ground takes some pretty nice equipment.  Most companies use hand held portable hydraulic devices to install their systems, however not all companies do.  The one specific system that I'm going to pinpoint here is a pressed piling.  To achieve a depth of 15-30 feet in the soil a hydraulic ram capable of achieving at least 12,000 P.S.I. is necessary.  These small hydraulic devices are pretty fragile and require constant maintenance in order to function properly on a daily basis.  If you are in oil and gas here in Houston, I'm sure you are familiar with the constant maintenance that goes into hydraulics.What about the price of gas?  We aren't driving around hauling several tons of materials and equipment in a hybrid/electric vehicle. It takes a lot of gas to haul the equipment around the greater Houston area, and with gas at $3.25 a gallon that's an enormous fixed cost that companies have to account for.



2) Labor - We all are aware that you can hit up just about any home improvement store or overpass here in Houston and find a group of guys who are willing to do some work for you.  The question is, are these people you are willing to have fix your foundation?  Let's look at a very common repair plan, and the labor costs involved in each.  A good rule of thumb for project time is an hour per pier instillation.  By the time they dig the access point, install the pier, and clean up the site that's about an average instillation time.  So, take a standard 6 man crew and just hypothetically let's give them a minimum wage salary working on a standard 10 pier job.  That's 6 guys x $8.50 per hour x 10 hours.  That comes out to a total of $510.00.  That doesn't seem so bad.  But.....what if you have crews of highly skilled, highly qualified workers?  They aren't working for minimum wage :).  Also, add the price of the crew chief/foreman and the operations director over seeing the project and cost goes up.  Add workman's comp. and general liability insurance for the workers and the cost goes up again.  The more qualified the workers are, the more the job is going to cost.  My favorite saying is that lifting/stabilizing a foundation is "a very complicated simple process."  It takes both knowledge and skill to do it correctly, and doing it correctly helps prevent you (the homeowner) from having to go through the process again be that a warranty call or having to do it all over again. Finished product is something that also is very important to our company, and many others.  Leaving a job site as neat and orderly as possible is something we take pride in, and hopefully that's important to the readers out there as well.  Cleanup however takes time, and time = cost.

3) Hidden Costs - now, not all hidden costs are bad.  It's not a big secret way of foundation repair companies stashing money away and stealing from homeowners.  Some of these costs are actually set up to protect the homeowner.  What are some of these costs?

Engineering Reports/Permits.  In order to get a permit for foundation work, you have to have an engineered stamp of approval to show the city/county.  One thing I can promise you is that on the outskirts of Houston doing work without a job, someone will find you and pull you off the job until you get one.

Warranty Work.  Warranty Work is paid by the homeowner one of two ways, you help pay for it up front or you directly pay for it on the back end.  Regardless of what the warranty states, there is no truly free warranty work.  Why?  Because even though you might not pay for an adjustment or replacement, the company has to pay the workers to come do the work.  Warranty work is a cut in profit from a job, no matter how you look at it.  Now most of the more reputable companies are aware of this, and budget for it out of the overall job cost.  Other companies actually charge you to come back out and re-evaluate, to re-adjust, or to replace their work. I've even seen astronomical costs just to transfer the warranty.  Hopefully warranty work isn't ever necessary, but just in case, should you have to constantly pay again for the same work over and over again?  Make sure that you read the warranty before you decide on the company that you are choosing.

The Brass.  Every company has management/office staff, and they have to eat :) We all know why corporate infrastructure is important to the customers that are purchasing from them.  I'm not going to go too much into detail here.

Marketing: Why is this important?  Because where a company advertises depends on their cost.  The reason why I list this is why you can see a difference in price by 10% for the exact same materials and labor.  It's not a bad thing, it just is what it is.  The key is though, don't let their spokes person do the selling for them.  Do your research, and pick based on your opinion.


So look at all of these things that are listed here, and think to yourself "Can I really fix my foundation for less than I can fix my car?"  The answer is no.  I've seen competitive estimates as low as $99.00-$200.00 a pier. My response to the customer is usually "I can't even get materials and labor to do this job properly for that price."

I'll leave that to a collegue of mine who has it detailed a little bit better.

And remember if you have any questions over your homes performance, don't hesitate to give us a call:


You can call us here: 888.434.8232  
You can email us here evals@permapier.com
or you can click here to sign up for a free evaluation.
Or you can email me directly with any questions at: brian.gilchriest@permapier.com