Why Crumbling Home Foundations Are Such an Epidemic in Massachusetts
When we buy a home, we take on the responsibility of maintaining both a building (or two or three) as well as the surrounding property. Most homeowners are all too familiar with issues like leaky pipes, drainage issues, aging roofs, and the constant need to maintain one’s lawn.
However, homeowners may not always think about what’s happening right below their feet in their home’s foundation.
Although foundations are built to last, older foundations made of concrete may be suffering from structural issues due to a particularly problematic mineral known as pyrrhotite.
Understanding the Scourge of Pyrrhotite
According to the American Geosciences Institute, “pyrite and pyrrhotite are minerals known as iron sulfides. When iron sulfides are exposed to water and oxygen, a series of chemical reactions break down the iron sulfides and forms new minerals called sulfates.”
These sulfates are larger on a molecular level than the original iron sulfides, so they take up more space. As they grow, they push against surrounding rock, causing it to swell or crack. This is similar to what happens when water freezes and expands within cracks in concrete.
As you can imagine, having pyrite and pyrrhotite in your home’s foundation can be dangerous, as these chemical processes will eventually cause your foundation to break and even possibly fail. Damage from pyrrhotite has been documented around the world since the 1950s, but it is becoming a growing problem in New England as concrete foundations that were built decades ago continue to age.
The Pyrrhotite Problem in Massachusetts
In 2020, MassLive reported that at least 2,000 homes in Massachusetts have crumbling foundations due to pyrrhotite. The state estimated at the time that the cost to fix all these homes would total $350 million.
Roughly, fixing the problem would cost $150,000 to $250,000 per house.
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Since most people don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around, homeowners have been advocating for help for the past few years, as the issue originates from a tainted source of concrete that was beyond their control. The state created a task force to help address the issue. Lawmakers have also filed bills to help address the problem, so homeowners won’t have to bear the brunt of the cost.
The Telegram & Gazette reported in March that lawmakers had filed two bills to address the issue: “One that would require all quarries in the state producing aggregate for cement be tested for the presence of pyrrhotite, and a second that would establish a fund to reimburse homeowners for their repair and replacement costs.”
Connecticut, which is also affected by this issue, had already assisted homeowners with 700 foundations at the time of the report.
Source: Telegram & Gazette
The reason pyrrhotite is such a significant problem in Massachusetts and surrounding states is that sulfide-bearing rocks are prevalent in the geological makeup of New England. Sulfide-bearing rocks that were quarried and used in cement foundations between 1983 and 2015 ended up in concrete foundations across the region.
The Telegram & Gazette said the main culprit was “tainted aggregate mined in a Willington, Connecticut, quarry and sold by the J.J. Mottes Concrete Co., according to a Connecticut governmental website detailing the problem.”
Areas of Massachusetts Affected by Pyrrhotite Infestation
The Massachusetts Legislature’s Special Commission on this problem published its final report on areas in the state affected by crumbling foundations in 2019. The report is available to download online.
According to the report, homes in the following Massachusetts towns are considered most at risk of pyrrhotite contamination:
- East Longmeadow
A total of 20,704 residential structures were built in these towns during the timeframe when the tainted aggregate was being used for concrete.
According to the report, homes in the following Massachusetts towns are at moderate risk of pyrrhotite contamination:
- New Braintree
- North Brookfield
- South Hadley
- West Springfield
These cities and towns saw a total of 15,846 homes created in the timeframe.
Source: The Reminder
The above map has also been circulated amongst news outlets and advocacy groups to help homeowners identify whether they are at risk. According to The Reminder, The towns highlighted in yellow are the towns that had been identified as having an affected home through testing or inspection at the time of the survey.
Repairing Foundations Affected by Pyrrhotite
Repairing the concrete foundations of homes affected by pyrrhotite is no simple matter. The complexity of the problem requires special skills and experience to assess the damage, design a repair plan, and execute it. In many cases, a team of professionals with expertise in structural engineering.
Beyond technical expertise, contractors must also understand the different ways that pyrrhotite can affect foundation structures. They must be able to identify areas where pyrrhotite has been present for an extended period as well as those areas most likely to be damaged by its effects over time. Contractors must also identify alternative solutions that may be available given local building codes or environmental regulations.
Once the damage has been assessed and a plan for repairs has been created, contractors must then implement the repair process. This can include anything from replacing foundation walls or footings to installing new concrete mixes with additives that help counteract the effects of pyrrhotite.
In many cases, the home must be raised off the ground and supported by a temporary foundation so that work can be completed. This process requires contractors to have experience with jacks, shoring systems, and other specialized equipment.
Getting Help with a Crumbling Foundation
The best way to deal with this problem is to avoid it in the first place.
If you’re in the market for a new home, ensure you hire a licensed inspector to look for pyrrhotite damage before making a purchase. If pyrrhotite damage is detected in the home, you’ll likely want the existing homeowner to deal with the issue before you buy.
If you’re concerned you may have a pyrrhotite issue, the first thing you can do is do a visual inspection of your foundation. If you see cracks in the concrete in your basement or on the outside of your house, you may have a problem. Your next step will be to get a licensed inspector to be sure.
If you’re already living with a crumbling foundation, you may be entitled to reimbursement for getting it repaired. Mass.gov has a dedicated page for downloading a Crumbling Foundations Application (However, at the time of this writing, the page appears to be inactive).
You can also call your local town government office to inquire about possible reimbursement.
Massachusetts Residents Against Crumbling Foundations, an advocacy group, created a web page with a list of resources that can also help. These include links to inspection, engineering, and house lifting services, among others.
You can also join the Massachusetts Residents Against Crumbling Foundations Facebook group if you’d like to ask the community questions or receive updates about this issue.
This is a serious problem affecting thousands of Massachusetts homeowners. If you have any questions about pyrrhotite infestation or what to look for when purchasing a new home, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at GoldCoast Mortgage.
Frank A. Lombard CPCU ARM, a licensed Massachusetts property insurance consultant, suggests there may be another potential source for homeowners to recover some of these potential repair costs.
Homeowners insurance policies, while they generally exclude damage to a home “caused by “ defective products, workmanship or materials, appear to extend coverage to other damage to the home which “ensues” or results from a defect. For instance, a defective appliance causes a fire damaging the home, the defective appliance is not covered but the cost to repair resulting damage to the home should be.
It is common for homes with the pyrrhotite problem to experience other damage to the structure, damage which results from the defective foundation lifting or shifting the structure. Bulging floors, cracked walls, windows and doors not opening or closing properly. The cost to repair this resulting damage should be a covered expense.
Homeowners policies include a “Condition” requiring homeowners, once they discover this damage, to take necessary steps to prevent further damage to the home. The cost of these necessary steps is generally considered a covered expense.
Like a defective pipe inside a wall bursting causing water damage. The cost to repair the defective pipe is not covered but the water damage and cost to open and close the wall so the pipe can be repaired and further damage prevented should be considered a covered expense.
With a defective foundation, the only way to prevent further damage to the rest of the home is to raise the structure so the defective foundation can be replaced. The cost of raising the structure should be a covered expense.
The home can’t be lived in during the repair. Most policies cover the additional costs the homeowner incurs for temporary living expenses when the home is damaged by a covered loss and is being repaired.
Instead of making a claim for the defective foundation, claims which most often are denied, homeowners may wish to consider making a claim for the cost to repair any “ensuing” damage, the cost of necessary steps to prevent further damage (raising the structure) and the additional costs incurred for temporary living quarters.
While he’s “not a website guy” he is an invaluable insurance resource. Frank may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-531-1138