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ZIPLEVEL Foundation Elevations – Helpful or Hype?

We are frequently asked if we utilize ZIPLEVELs for providing foundation elevations as part of the inspection. We have spent a good deal of time researching their use, and this is what we learned about the usefulness of this tool and why we choose not to offer this service:

What is Required When Reporting Foundation Performance

It’s important to start by discussing what is required of a home inspector regarding the reporting on the performance of the foundation.

All home inspectors in Texas are licensed and regulated by the Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC) and are required to follow the TREC Standards of Practice (Standards). In accordance with the Standards, the inspector is required to “render an opinion as to the performance of the foundation” and “generally report present and visible indications used to render the opinion of adverse performance such as: binding, out-of-square, non-latching doors; framing or frieze board separations; sloping floors; window, wall, floor, or ceiling cracks or separations; and rotating, buckling, cracking, or deflecting masonry cladding.”

The following is specifically NOT REQUIRED in the Standards:

  • “Use of specialized equipment including elevation determining devices”, i.e., ZIPLEVEL.

The TREC requires inspectors to base their opinion of performance on the visible condition of the structure, specifically regarding the indicators of adverse performance noted above using their knowledge and experience in understanding the movement of foundations.

While inspectors are not prohibited from going beyond the Standards and using “specialized equipment”, and there are times when it is prudent to exceed them, the problem arises when the inspection process is exposed to legal issues when the home inspectors’ actions may be infringing on the practice of engineering for which they may not be licensed.

The Texas Board of Professional Engineers (TBPE) issued a Policy Advisory stating that so long as the TREC inspector stayed within the TREC Standards, they would not be in violation of the Texas Engineering Practice Act. Here is the Analysis and Conclusion of the Policy Advisory:

“Analyzing the cause of a condition, recommendations for repair, or providing any other expert engineering opinion associated with a foundation, including the foundations systems and components, would be considered the practice of engineering per the Act §1001.003(c)(1) and could warrant disciplinary action from the Texas Board of Professional Engineers if conducted by an individual unlicensed as a Professional Engineer (PE). We conclude that a TREC licensed inspector who conducts a visual real estate inspection in conformance with the TREC Standards of Practice does not engage in the practice of engineering.”

For this reason alone, the foundation inspection may not be a time where it is prudent to exceed the Standards of a visual inspection.

ZIPLEVEL Claims Made by Home Inspectors

Home inspectors that offer foundation elevations often advertise that this type of inspection will provide more information than other inspectors are able to. Here a few samples of the claims made:

  • “Don’t mess around with a visual inspection of your home’s foundation; get your foundation measured. We utilize the latest technology, the Zip Level Pro-2000…. We want you to move in with “peace of mind” knowing for a fact that your foundation is in great condition.”
  • “Foundation worries? If you live in Texas, the answer is probably yes. Before you call in an expensive structural engineer or foundation repair company, we can perform a Foundation Elevation, an inexpensive, thorough way to get the information you need.”
  • “These measurements will show you if, where, and/or to what degree it is out of level. If you are buying or selling a home, it’s a good idea to get this level of detail, particularly in North Texas where movement is almost a given. Knowing whether (and how much) work is needed will affect your decision making about the price of the home and/or whether or not to purchase it.”

The problem with these claims is that:

  • The home inspector is required to perform a visual inspection as they can’t form the required opinion regarding the performance of the foundation without it.
  • The most inexpensive, thorough way to get the information you need is the visual review looking for the indications of adverse performance.
  • No foundation is completely “level” when it is constructed and foundations in expansive clay soil areas of Texas will move. These foundations are designed for movement, and some movement is expected. Certainly, some houses suffer from too much movement. However, many – if not most – are undergoing normal foundation movement created by expansive clay soils.
  • Knowing whether a foundation is “out of level” cannot tell you if the foundation has experienced differential movement without having a second set of measurements taken in the past for comparison. Determining if a foundation has ever moved or deflected (adverse performance) is best evaluated by looking at the criteria required by the TREC. Additionally, it would be problematic if a home inspector gives an opinion as to “whether (and how much) work is needed” as this would violate the Texas Engineering Practice Act unless they are also licensed as a Professional Engineer.

Besides the fact that there are no required certifications or training needed to use a ZIPLEVEL, our greatest concern is that rather than providing peace of mind, foundation elevations might create unrealistic or uninformed expectations from the inspection while not providing any additional risk reduction.​

ZIPLEVEL Disclaimers

We also found that when home inspectors offer ZIPLEVEL foundation elevations they often include disclaimers that state something like the following:

  • “Elevation measurements can be useful but should not be relied on as a definitive statement of foundation condition.
  • “It should be noted that foundations may reveal some unevenness due to workmanship (as built). Therefore, measurements do not necessarily represent the actual degree of deflection from differential movement of the foundation…. these deviations/slopes are not, by themselves, a measurement of foundation movement.”

These disclaimers are in stark contrast to the claims made and it could be argued that if the elevation measurements should not be relied upon, what’s the point of using the ZIPLEVEL?

Are Foundation Elevations Useful for Home Inspections

A one-time reading of the elevations of a foundation cannot determine if the foundation has moved differentially. “Movement” is a function of time. Taking the elevations of the foundation during a home inspection can only define the configuration of the foundation at the time of the inspection. Documenting foundation “movement” is not possible without the “as built” elevations to compare with because errors in original construction may indicate movement where movement did not occur.

Without comparable measurements taken at the same locations at different points in time to determine movement, the performance of a foundation can only be determined during a home inspection by observing the performance of the structure. A foundation that is performing adversely will negatively affect the structural integrity of the home thus allowing the inspector to see the indicators. If a foundation is performing as expected, there will be no indications of adverse performance regardless of what the elevation readings are.

Unless you’re willing to pay the price, built into the inspection fee or otherwise, to have a benchmark for future elevation comparisons then real estate transactions are not the time to perform foundation elevations.

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