Homeowner’s Guide For a Structural Engineer Inspection

A structural engineer inspection keeps structures safe and saves homeowners money. But, most homeowners don’t know about these inspections.

Because most folks think structural engineers only design bridges and skyscrapers. To many people’s surprise though, they also do all types of structural inspections. It goes without saying, the best design is only as good as the construction and maintenance.

That said, structural inspections can be for large bridges or a remodeled home. My focus will be on the latter, with residential homes. We’ll go over everything you need to know when it comes to structural inspections for a home.

In our discussion, we’ll answer all the following questions:

  • What’s a structural engineer inspection?
  • Do you need a licensed structural engineer to do your home inspection?
  • When do you need a structural engineer inspection?
  • What’s the cost of a structural engineer inspection?
  • What are the deliverables from a structural engineer for a project?
  • How to find a licensed structural engineer?

What’s a structural engineer inspection? 

structural engineer inspection

It’s a visual inspection of a structure done by a licensed structural engineer. The engineer checks the structural integrity of a structure or building. They also check the structure for compliance with all applicable standards and codes.

For example, the structural engineer would inspect the following in a home:

  • Beams
  • Columns
  • Foundation
  • Framing
  • Posts Trusses

A passing inspection means the home is safe for the public and nearby infrastructure. At the same time, the engineer would point out potential problems and how you can remedy them.

And sometimes, the inspection sets the stage for structural modifications. Because before you can modify a structure, you need to know its current condition.

Do you need a licensed structural engineer to do your home inspection?

Every human-made structure can collapse. No matter how well done the design is. A residential home can collapse and hurt or even kill a family. While a bridge collapse can put the lives of hundreds of people at risk.

So, a licensed professional who knows structures in and out should do your inspection. It’s no different than going to a board-certified surgeon to cut you open to operate on you. You don’t want a random person who’s not licensed to do surgery on you, putting your life at risk.

Plus, all licensed engineers follow the code of ethics in engineering. This ethical code places public safety at the forefront of any and all engineering work.

In short, hire an engineer who holds a Professional Engineer (P.E.) license.  They have the skillset to diagnose and then treat any structural problems. When lives are at risk, you don’t want to take chances with a non-qualified inspector.

You can look up and verify a structural engineer’s license in any state you live in. Simply type the following into Google:

“Professional structural engineer license lookup, California”

Swap ‘California’ with the state you live in. You’ll then land on a page like the following here.

When do you need a structural engineer inspection?

home structural damage

The following are the 8 most common times you need a structural engineer inspection:

  1. Discovery of structural issues
  2. Accidental structural modifications
  3. Damage from natural disasters and insurance claims
  4. External infrastructure issues affecting the surrounding areas
  5. Before and after the completion of a newly constructed structure
  6. Selling a home
  7. Buying a home
  8. Home remodeling

We’ll now go over each in detail.

#1 Discovery of structural issues

With every passing year, there’s a chance you find a new structural problem in your home. So if you all of a sudden discover any of the following, call a structural engineer:

  • Large foundation and wall cracks
  • Sagging, bowing, cracks, and slopes in floors
  • Ceiling cracks and loose drywall
  • Foundation sinking or upheaval
  • Sagging or uneven floors
  • Bulging walls
  • Poor drainage despite new plumbing
  • Doors and windows separating from walls

If caught early, you can fix these problems or at the very least control them. But if you ignore them long enough, they’ll turn into nightmare costly fixes.

#2 Accidental structural modifications

I’ve been a part of projects, where contractors made accidental building modifications. It’s actually more common than you may think.

In one project, the contractor had to install the power feed to EV chargers for a parking garage. Accidentally though,  the contractor bored into the wrong part of the building wall. They made this mistake in several parts of the building wall too. Then soon thereafter, we found out the bores were in load-bearing building pillars.

In these instances, you absolutely need to have the structure inspected. You need to be sure the structure isn’t compromised in any way. Because every structure is originally designed with certain design criteria considered.

When you alter the original design criteria, the design can become compromised. So, the engineer needs to still ensure the structure meets all codes and requirements.

#3 Damage from natural disasters and insurance claims

Natural disasters are becoming more and more common. The damage can hit you in many ways these days too. You can experience floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes.

Each of these natural disasters can compromise the structural integrity of your home. So after a large natural disaster, get a structural engineer to inspect your home.

You want to be sure your home is still structurally safe to live inside of. At first, you may see a new small crack and think nothing of it. But this small crack may be from a compromised foundation that one day destroys your home.

Plus, a structural engineer inspection will help you get an insurance claim approved. Often, insurance companies require an inspection from a licensed structural engineer.

#4 External infrastructure issues affecting surrounding areas

Beyond natural disasters, other external issues can wreak havoc on your home. For example, drainage issues can throw your life into a tailspin. In fact, any problems involving unplanned water and structures are a reason to worry.

A structural engineer can help mitigate potential issues with water management. At the same time, they can rescue your structure from potentially costly damage.

One other common issue is extreme temperatures. This can lead to mold, high energy bills, and ice dams. These problems won’t make your home crumble to the ground, but they’ll hurt your wallet.

I’ve battled mold several times. I can tell you firsthand, mold mitigation is EXPENSIVE. It can easily cost over ten thousand dollars depending on the scope of work.

#5 Before and after the completion of a newly constructed structure

You’d think after a newly constructed project, everything would be perfect. Because everything is brand-spankin’ new. But the most important parts of structures are invisible to most people. A great example is the foundation of structures.

So, it’s important to have routine inspections done in various phases of a project. This is especially important with the construction of a structure’s foundation. Once a foundation is set, problems become invisible until above-grade exterior cracks appear. Then, fixes become difficult and insanely costly.

I suggest structural inspections before the pouring of concrete for a foundation. This way, an inspector can properly verify all foundation dimensions. Also, they can check the spacing and number of rebar installed among other things.

Finally, once the project is complete, do one last inspection. At this stage, the inspector can see the settlement of the foundation and look for cracks.

#6 Selling a home

Structurally inspecting your home before putting it up for sale isn’t a common thing to do. But sometimes, it’s the smart choice to maximize your home’s sale price. Especially, if you think your home has a stuctural issue.

Because any serious potential buyer will inspect your home before buying. They want to make sure they don’t buy a dud home, with a $200,000 problem hidden away. For example, say a buyer’s inspector discovers a series of cracks in your home’s wall. This then causes the buyer to step back due to fear of a potentially larger problem.

BUT, you then pull out your ace card. You have papers from a licensed structural engineer saying the cracks aren’t an issue. Or, your paperwork reads the cracks will cost $X,000 to fix. So, you price your home’s sale price with this fix considered.

This is smart business planning!

In return, you’ll put your buyer at ease and you can sleep better at night knowing you didn’t screw someone over. Plus, your buyer will take notice of the effort you put into hiring a licensed engineer to inspect your home. And this will help you close on the sale, especially in a slow real estate market.

Important Note: present the buyer with the documents submitted by your structural engineer. Include cost estimates from contractors to fix the discovered problems too.

#7 Buying a home

To no one’s surprise, when you buy a new home, you always get an inspection. You need to know what you’re getting into. Because for most people, a home purchase will be their largest life investment.

To point out, most people get a general home inspection done. In this inspection, you’ll get a general overview of your home’s condition. This includes structural issues like cracks and sloping floors. BUT, you won’t receive an in-depth analysis telling you why you have cracks and sloping floors.

And this is why you need to hire a licensed structural engineer. The structural engineer will tell you the extent of your home’s problems and the cost of the fix. Thereafter, you can negotiate the home price with the seller, or walk away.

You don’t want an exciting life moment to turn into a nightmare.

#8 Home remodeling

With big home remodels, you need a structural engineer to review your design plan. Especially, if you want to alter the load-bearing parts of your home.

In fact, you’ll need P.E. stamped drawings with calculations to get a building permit. Thus, always check the building requirements in your city before any home remodeling.

For example, in the County of Santa Clara, the Department of Planning Development states,

Any foundation system that deviates from the standard foundation system described in the California Residential Code shall bear the seal and signature of a registered civil or structural engineer or licensed architect and have supporting calculations to substantiate the design.

What’s the cost of a structural engineer inspection? 

It’s not cheap. But it’s worth the cost when you consider what can go wrong with an unstable structure.

Depending on the cost of living of your city, you can pay anywhere from $150 to $400 per hour. Your project scope will then dictate the total number of work hours required.

For home remodeling, a structural engineer will quote anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. In San Francisco, at a rate of $350/hour, this will cost you $2,100 to $3,500. This could be for removing an existing wall, to extend out your living room for example.

Now, several points to consider when it comes to getting a quote:

  • A cost isn’t provided until the engineer fully reviews the scope of your project.
  • It’s common for the engineer to request viewing your home before they provide you with a cost.
  • The engineer’s cost includes their travel time and in-office engineering analysis.
  • Get several quotes, but NEVER use a non-licensed engineer for structural work.
  • Aim to get a fixed cost from the engineer. BUT, if something unexpected comes up, expect a change order.
  • Provide the engineer with all the existing information you have. This includes existing home and city design plans. So, request any information from your city before you approach the engineers.

What are the deliverables from a structural engineer for a project?

Once the structural engineer completes their work, they’ll give you a set of documents. This includes drawings, specifications, and calculations to submit to your city’s building department. These are formally called the project “deliverables.”

Again remember, the building department requires engineer-stamped documents. There’s no way around this.

To better understand the deliverables, you need to know an engineer’s work scope. As an example, the following is a sample work scope for a complete home remodeling project:

Structural Calculations

  • Analyze the client’s suggested home remodel layout.
  • Calculations showing the demand-capacity ratios (DCR’s). This is for the attachment components and anchorage to the foundation.
  • Analysis showing the DCR’s for the supporting foundation/slab.
  • Discuss new design options if the client’s design isn’t code compliant.

Structural Plans

  • Structural notes including seismic, wind, snow, dead, and live loads.
  • Details of foundations and connections.
  • Inspection requirements and observation requirements, as needed.
  • Provide structural design for the client to buy and install structural materials.
  • Provide construction specifications for installation.
  • Design support and guidance.
  • Respond to building department plan check comments. This includes providing revision of plotted sheets.

How to find a licensed structural engineer? 

home construction inspection

For home inspections, first Google “structural engineer inspectors” followed by your city name. It’s important you find someone local. You don’t want to pay someone extra to travel to you.

Also, more times than not, large engineering firms won’t provide residential inspection services. It’s simply not cost-effective for them. But, if you happen to connect with a large firm, ask them to recommend you a smaller firm.

On the same note, ask around. If you’re already working with a contractor or architect, ask them for a referral. Most contractors in the business know a structural engineer or two.

But don’t forget, ALWAYS check to be sure the structural engineer holds an active P.E. license.

The structural engineer inspection wrap up

A structural engineer inspection is a critical part of every structure around you. So much so, without them, I wouldn’t feel safe in and around almost any structure.

So if you know you need a structural engineer inspection, don’t skimp out on it. It’s like breaking your arm and saying you don’t need a doctor to take a look. Because your arm will heal on its own. Not smart!

In the end, the inspections may seem pricey and overkill, but they’ll allow you to rest well at night. You’ll know your home is structurally secure and safe.

What are your thoughts on a structural engineer inspection? Have you ever had a structural engineer inspection? If yes, what was your experience like, and is there any advice you’d give other homeowners?

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