174 year old house joist question

I dont care when this was built or if it looks ok or if the species of wood used. These pictures dont look good. The amount of joist bearing on that beam is almost none existent. Just because its been there even 1000 years doesnt mean it will not fail after you leave the inspection and I am almost sure the client will be calling you. Nobody here really knows what loads are being applied to this structure and what possible loads may be applied in the future (ex- equipment or addition) . In my opinion this should have a closer look.


If the upstairs subfloor is nailed into joists and it’s got another floor above, how are the walls going to spread?
I’ll bet it hasn’t been that way for 174 years. I’ll bet it was notched later.

Who can say from the pictures how much of the joist is bearing on the beam? And how or why would the joists possibly be notched later? We are all assuming the joists once fit tightlly against the beams, but it isn’t necessarily so. It could be that they weren’t cut accurately. I dread what would happen if a structural engineer were turned loose on this poor old house…some would just plain destroy it for possibly no good reason.

Wood doesn’t shrink very much in the direction that runs with the grain.

Look closely at the end of the joists in the photo near the wall. You can see marks on the beam where the joists used to be pushed up against it. Also note that those joists also have water stains on them – can’t tell without having been there whether that is significant.

I doubt that the house was built with those gaps. Those joints are usually assembled tight together. Also, workmanship in house framing was much better 174 years ago than it is today. They didn’t just rough cut everything and slap it together. It was fitted.

Look at the gaps in the photo along the center beam. The gaps are fairly uniform, so those joists were all cut and notched to about the same length. They’re all pulled away from the center beam about the same distance too.

It is beyond the scope of a HI to render a judgment on structural soundness or predict future structural stability. I’ve seen enough to make me think there has been movement. As an HI, I report my observations, make my conclusion, and recommend to my client what they should do about it. The engineer needs to take the ball and run with it now.

Thanks everyone,

I was skeptical enough, and couldn’t see enough (most everything is covered) to refer to a structural engineer. I am going to call my client to see if he took my advice, and what was said. I will let you all know, when I know.


I own a post and beam house that’s about 175 years old and built the same way. Very often owners will do some remodeling such as exposing the beams, which has been done here as you can see where the laths were nailed to the beam, although not structural it has changed the original design or building practice for this home and as conservative inspector I would refer to a structural engineer.

Most of these old homes, as was done in mine, have black iron plates that are used to connect the framing members together once the change has been made.

I think it’s always best to err on the side of caution, just to be safe.

Thought I would post some picture as an example of what was done to my house. They didn’t come out the greatest but I hope it helps.

I agree that speculation is beyond the scope, but it’s interesting from a forensic POV. I disagree that tradesmen were better 174 years ago. My experience has been that there were good and bad tradesmen then, just like now.
Uniform gaps could indicate quality notching. Structural movement (wall spreading) would require failure of fasteners fastening flooring to joists. I can’t see it.

This does not look like balloon framing, its looks like post and beam construction.


For the sake of an open dialogue please explain how you came to this conclusion?

Based on the beam and joists. I have never seen a balloon framed house with this sort of interior with joist cut in the manner they have been and pocketed or resting on the beam, that is a post and beam type trait.

there is a good schematic of balloon framing at

I have emailed the buyer, he was supposed to have it looked at by an engineer last week. I still haven’t heard from him, I will try again.


Here is another good site.


When I made my previous comments I too was thinking that it is post and beam construction. This is why I made the comment about the skill of the people that built it and that the joints are usually tight fitting. From one of Raymond’s links about balloon framing:

“Although lumber was plentiful in 19th century America, skilled labor was not. The advent of cheap machine-made nails, along with water-powered sawmills in the early 19th century made balloon framing highly attractive, because it did not require highly-skilled carpenters, as did the dovetail joints, mortises and tenons required by post-and-beam construction. For the first time, any farmer could build his own buildings without a time-consuming learning curve.”

Perhaps we see more old timber framed buildings in eastern North America than folks further west might see. As settlements moved west, construction techniques were moving away from heavy timber framing and into light construction using balloon or platform framing.


*Maybe *there was a carpenter that bad who mismeasured, but usually there’s at least one carpenter on each job who has some idea of how things should be built, and he’d have fixed those joists if they were simply cut too short, even if his dumb apprentice did foul it up.

If every carpenter on this house was bad, there’d be bad carpentry everywhere. This looks like something a homeowner did…

However, no one has yet said that the walls showed evidence of bowing, nor the floor any evidence of distress. It is very possible that the joints did not fit tightly when they were first made, and shrinkage of the wood in 174 years has opened them up somewhat. The beam can shrink considerably in width, and while the joists won’t shrink so much in length, they still might shrink enough to add to the gap.

In the absence of any signs of distress, I’d say that the framing is still doing what it was meant to do, and I wouldn’t worry about it.

I haven’t been on in a while. Wow lots of good points. This sounds silly but years ago I took a chicken house down for the wood to build a barn for wild mustangs. Well turns out the 2 X 4’s (and everything else) were oak. I wore out 10 really fancy drill bits (cause you couldn’t drive nails into it) building the barn. Point being: They built things differently and out of different wood back then. The wood had tighter growth rings because the trees were old growth and the wood was stronger. And lots of other things I dont know anything about. I would have checked to see if there was any rot etc. It could be a hard call but you lay it on the line every time you do an inspection. Id bet on the house. Its been through a lot.


My experience has shown that almost any seasoned/aged lumber regardless of species will be more unforgiving to sawing or boring…

Back to the balloon vs. post & beam I found this article timely to this discussion and the change of metodology being the exact age of the original house in question http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0037-9808%28198112%2940%3A4%3C311%3ATOOBF%3E2.0.CO%3B2-C&size=LARGE&origin=JSTOR-enlargePage