**Have a sinking feeling about your home? Now you can check it out</B>
**By ROBERT MCCABE, The Virginian-Pilot
© August 12, 2007
Last updated: [size=1]11:25 PM
With a few clicks of a mouse, Hampton Roads residents can discover whether their homes could be vulnerable to costly foundation problems because of the soil underneath.
A Web site run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a virtual dump truck of data about the earth under our feet – and homes. In some cases, the information could save consumers from major headaches.
Take Maryann and Rodney Patton.
When the Pattons bought their new home in Suffolk six years ago, they had no reason to know – or care – about the type of soil on the property. But now the two-story house is sinking, and the ground underneath it might be the main reason.
Had the Agriculture Department’s Web Soil Survey existed at the time, the Pattons could have learned that their home was built on “Rains fine sandy loam,” which the Web site describes as a poorly drained soil that is of “very limited” use for residential development because it is so wet. For about half the year, groundwater can come to within a foot of the surface.
About three years after the Pattons bought their five-bedroom home in Suburban Woods, a friend pointed out a gap between the floor and a wall.
Gradually, the Pattons noticed cracks in some walls. Bricks around the fireplace began to pull away. The hardwood floor in the sunlit great room seemed to bowl in the center. In time, the floor dropped enough for a hand to slip under the wall between the great room and a bedroom.
“I kept thinking it was the wood,” Maryann Patton said.
The problem, she eventually learned, was that the 4-inch-thick concrete slab foundation on which their home rests had begun to sink as soft earth – apparently laced with rotting bits of twigs and other organic matter – slowly gave way under the weight.
While experts say structures can be built on virtually any kind of soil, the limitations of some soil types and their weight-bearing capacity have to be considered.
That’s where the Web Soil Survey can help.
**Dina Patton shows the gap between the walls and the floor in her parents’ Suffolk home that resulted from the sinking of the house’s concrete slab foundation into the moist soil beneath. **John H. Sheally II | The Virginian-Pilot
Created two years ago and recently revamped, the Web site uses digital maps to display a treasure trove of data that has been quietly and methodically collected for many years in Virginia and across the nation.
Previously, the information was largely relegated to file cabinets and office shelves. Today, Web surfers can enter an address almost anywhere in the country and get the dirt on the dirt that lies beneath.
This 21st-century consumer tool has humble roots, as Suffolk’s example shows.
More than three decades ago, a team of scientists working with Virginia Tech and an array of government agencies systematically canvassed the Suffolk landscape, surveying the soils underfoot.
Walking up to 10 miles a day, hoping to cover 200 acres at a time, team members used hand augers to drill up to five feet into the ground.
The team sifted and sorted the samples – perhaps 80 per team member on a good day. Soil experts later tagged each with one of more than 1,000 names identifying a particular type of soil, enabling those who knew about the research to learn which soils were best suited for certain uses.
From start to finish, the project took about 10 years.
It was among nearly 3,000 similar projects across the country, all part of a massive effort to inventory soil and to create maps for a broad array of uses.
The survey can give home buyers an unbiased source of data about a topic that, while obscure, is far from trivial.
A little more than a year ago, Jim and Diane Manley bought a new home for nearly $1 million in the Emerald Forest subdivision of Chesapeake, near the Virginia Beach line.
After moving in, they discovered a quick sand like condition in the crawl space under the house.
Glenn Otto, a Virginia Beach structural engineer hired by the Manleys, pointed to an array of problems in a February 2007 report. Among them: “The crawl space backfill soil is retaining water. … This is caused by the lack of drainage from the foundation.”
“We could not legally sell this house in the condition that it’s in,” Jim Manley said. “You can’t have water like that in proximity to your foundations.”
After Manley complained to Chesapeake building officials last month, the city cited the builder, Princess Anne Builders Inc., for three code violations, one of which was related to the drainage issue. The other two violations have been corrected and work to fix the drainage problem is on the company’s schedule.
“We’re trying to rectify any situations that have occurred there,” said Sid Wood, the building company president.
Richard de Triquet, a retired Marine who served in Afghanistan and had hoped to settle in Suffolk, had a similar experience that he describes as a “complete nightmare.”
After discovering water pooling under his home, he filed a complaint against his builder with the state Department of Professional & Occupational Regulation – a complaint he says was never resolved satisfactorily.
The drainage issue at his home revolved around improper grading, de Triquet said.
“I probably should have been more engaged when they were building it,” he said.
The Pattons, Manleys and de Triquet all bought homes built on sites that the Web Soil Survey identifies as “very limited” for residential development because they drain so poorly.
The Pattons hired Jon Ebbert, a geotechnical engineer with Chesapeake -based McCallum Testing Laboratories Inc., to drill into the ground under their home.
**With auger in hand, retired U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist Carl Peacock stands in a field in an Isle of Wight County subdivision where he once tested soil. **Rich-Joseph Facun | The Virginian-Pilot
He said the area had been wooded – a fact confirmed in Suffolk rezoning records – and some remnants of the root structure of removed trees would have been left in place.
But the major problem appeared to be the weight of the concrete slab and the consolidation of very soft clays under the Pattons’ home, Ebbert said.
Another factor was that man-made fill soil, normally used as a moisture barrier by builders, was apparently “not properly compacted,” Ebbert wrote in a March 2007 report on the property.
After lengthy and unsuccessful discussions with their builder, Napolitano Homes , and an insurance subsidiary of Tidewater Builders Association , the Pattons are planning to file a lawsuit this month in Suffolk Circuit Court, alleging that the terms of a 10-year warranty that came with their home are being too strictly interpreted, in favor of the insurer.
Despite efforts by Napolitano Homes to seek coverage through the Pattons’ insurance policy, the claim was denied by HW10, a subsidiary of TBA.
Though some may find the Web Soil Survey a bit complicated at first, clicking on a logical progression of “tabs” reveals the contours of various soils – digitized versions of the old survey maps generated decades ago.
Jim Fortner, a Nebraska-based USDA soil scientist and lead technical consultant for the Web Soil Survey, said the site averages about 3,500 visits a day, with a one-day peak of about 6,000 hits.
The site has logged 1.6 million visits since its launch in August 2005, Fortner said, including traffic from engineers, consultants, government employees and individual homeowners.
“Overall, it’s been very well-received,” Fortner said. “Like any other new software, there’s a learning curve involved with it, to get the full functionality out of it.”
Web users who learn that their homes are in red areas, identified as “very limited” for residential development, shouldn’t jump to conclusions, Fortner said.
“It’s an advisory kind of thing,” he said.
David Kriz, the USDA’s top soil scientist in Virginia, said that while the data is intended for general planning purposes and shouldn’t be interpreted as lot-specific, it’s a valuable guide for prospective homeowners.
“It gives them a good idea of what they should be seeing in their area,” he said. “It’s a tool for the buyer to use, to be aware of what’s out there.”
Questions raised by the data should be brought to the builder or developer of a new home or subdivision, he said.
“It is good to have that information ahead of time,” Kriz said.
Neither USDA officials nor those who collected the data decades ago make any claim of total precision, suggesting instead that the information found on the Web Soil Survey is accurate to within three to five acres.
Surveyors aimed for an accuracy rate of 85 percent, said Robert Hodges, who was a Virginia Tech soil scientist for 35 years.
Hodges, now retired, is considered among the top soil experts in the state, having worked on seven soil surveys in Virginia, including those for New Kent and Surry counties.
“It gets you in the ballpark,” Hodges said of the Web site data. “Of course, there’s a difference between first and third in the ballpark, but it gets you on the playing field.”
Hodges said that because of the wetness of much of the soil in the Tidewater area, he would advise prospective homeowners to get soil samples to be sure the foundations are designed to offset any limitations.
Soil conditions and their impact on residential development became a major public-policy issue in Virginia in the 1990s, after hundreds of homes in the Richmond area were found to have been built on “shrink-swell” soil.
Such soil, which has a high clay content, expands when moist and contracts when dry, creating a back-and-forth, push-and-pull effect on foundations, sometimes creating conditions for structural failure.
Though the 1996 and 2000 versions of the state building code listed all five South Hampton Roads cities as having the potential for shrink-swell problems – requiring them to adopt a soil-testing policy – Hodges and other scientists say the big soil issue locally is wetness or “marshiness.”
Carl Peacock, a veteran soil scientist who works at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Chesapeake, says one of the dominant soil types in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach is “Acredale,” which is poorly drained and has low to moderate shrink-swell potential.
“I have sympathy for people who are trying to develop land,” Peacock said. “The problem is most of our better soils have been developed.”
Susan Gardner, a Suffolk building inspector, visited the Pattons’ home site in the fall of 2000 and approved both the footings and foundation of the property, city records show. Footings are the concrete base supports on which cinder-or concrete-block walls – the foundations of a home – rest.
Gardner and other local city inspectors say that when they sign off on properties, they are forced to rely on their instincts and what they can see and feel by walking across a home site.
The only sure way of assessing the suitability of the soil at a given location would be to take an underground sample and analyze it at a lab, which would raise development costs exponentially, she said.
While she acknowledged that something was missed when she inspected the Pattons’ home site, Gardner said she’s not sure what she could have done differently at the time.
Those in the foundation-repair business in the Hampton Roads area say they have all the work they can handle.
“Everywhere’s got problems; it’s not just one location,” said Kenneth Lee of Hampton-based Ram Jack of Eastern Virginia Inc., which specializes in jacking homes up and putting pier support systems under them. “There’s not a neighborhood I have not been in.”
Jay Smallwood, based in Sunbury, N.C., has worked on home structural repairs in Hampton Roads for more than 20 years.
“When the walls start cracking around the doors and windows, you’ve got a structural problem,” he said.
He advises prospective homeowners to learn everything they can about the land a home will sit on before signing any papers.
“You need to find out what’s in the ground,” Smallwood said. “Everybody has a home inspector now. But you need to drill into the ground. Get a core sample.”
Lee said the only way to get a better handle on the scope of foundation problems would be to ask city inspections departments for statistics on the number of permits pulled for foundation-repair work.
Officials in all five South Hampton Roads cities said their data systems do not track permits issued specifically for foundation repair.
Luis M. Sanchez, who owns a foundation-repair company in western Virginia, serving an area from Tennessee to Maryland, said his business improves as development shifts to areas that previously wouldn’t have even been considered.
“The problem is all your good spots are basically taken up,” he said. “They’re building houses in areas where they normally wouldn’t.”