Photo: This photo was taken after the perimeter wooden lattice, plastic ground cover, below deck material storage, decades old debris dump piles and vegetation overgrowth were all removed by the buyer. at a cost of over $6,000. Note the complete loss of the lowest level retaining wall along the right hand side. Where this wall is still standing, it is leaning against two of the undersized vertical columns that are supporting the deck. There are two additional retaining walls above the bottom level, both of which have failed as well.
Abstract: We identify the most expensive issue to repair or replace that we encountered in 2023. This is certainly a dubious distinction, but for for the sake of resident safety and the cost value to make good… it deserves to be highlighted.
Site Conditions As Found
A little background. This particular property borders a lively seasonal stream. The lot has been cut into the natural slope with one side of the property dropping steeply down to a stream. The house was built in the early 1960’s. The deck is at the front of the house and overhangs the slope. The deck is wooden and was likely built over 30 years ago. It has severe rot issues. There are 3 levels of rock retaining walls underneath the deck, that are in various stages of failure. The lowest level retaining wall is pressing against two of the upright 8 foot wooden posts that support the deck along its perimeter.
At the time of the home inspection, the area below the deck was well hidden from view and easy access by a combination of 4 x 8 ft sheets of wooden lattice around the perimeter, black poly tarps covering the ground beneath the deck and the retaining walls, storage of lumber and other construction material on top of the plastic tarps, pest droppings throughout, accumulation of decades of yard trimmings, branches, pots and plants tossed over the slope, unrestricted and neglected overgrowth of shrubs and bushes… all combining to make access as difficult as possible.
There was no walkway up to the house itself other than the driveway. This is a serious omission and important access issue as the steepness of the driveway makes is virtually inaccessible to foot traffic during icy or snowbound conditions. The author of this post has already experienced a serious fall on this driveway on a frosty morning in November. The original walkway to the house was discovered buried under decades-old debris piles and the wooden deck was built overtop it and closed off its access. Once the plastic ground cover tarp was removed below the deck, it was evident that the walkway had failed in numerous locations due to major soil settlement.
The above ‘as found’ condition makes one wonder if the sellers and or real estate agents were aware of the situation and whether there should have been a duty of care to make a disclosure through the Property Disclosure Statement or otherwise.
Critical Replacement Considerations
- Riparian Zone: The rules and regulations for development within a sensitive ecological area such as near a fish bearing stream and its banks has changed substantially within the intervening 60 years. What was once allowed is now no longer acceptable. It may be that the footings for the deck, any necessary retaining walls and associated overhang will have to be substantially reduced or relocated to be in compliance with today’s municipal requirements.
- Structural Issues: The steep hillside imposes extra stress on the deck’s structure, potentially causing warping, bending, or even failure. Reinforcing or replacing structural elements to meet safety standards can be a substantial expense.
- Foundation Concerns: Building a deck on a slope requires a secure foundation. If the original foundation is inadequate, it may need reinforcement or complete replacement to ensure stability, adding to the overall cost.
- Retaining Walls Failing: Water runoff from the hillside contributed to soil erosion, which compromised the retaining walls’ stability and contributed to their movement and collapse in several locations. Implementing effective drainage solutions, will be necessary to prevent future damage.
- Geotechnical Challenges: The nature of the hillside soil and its composition can affect the stability of the deck. Conducting geotechnical studies and implementing specialized engineering solutions will be required to address soil-related issues.
- Permitting and Compliance: Fixing a deck over a steep hillside may involve obtaining special permits due to safety and environmental considerations. Compliance with regulations can incur additional costs and may require professional assistance.
- Accessibility Issues: The steep terrain can make accessing the construction site difficult. Specialized equipment such as a crane may be needed to transport materials safely, contributing to increased expenses.
- Aesthetic Integration: Repairing or replacing the deck while maintaining visual harmony with the natural surroundings may demand skilled design and construction techniques, adding an aesthetic cost to the overall project.
- Professional Engineering Services: Due to the complexity of the project, hiring structural engineers, geotechnical experts, and other professionals may be essential to assess the situation accurately and develop a sound repair strategy, increasing overall costs.
- Insurance Implications: Depending on the Property Disclosure Statement and the the findings of the inspection report, liability issues may come into play, potentially affecting the financial responsibility for the repairs.
Considering these factors, the extensive nature of the repairs, coupled with the need for specialized expertise, all contribute to the considerable cost estimate for addressing the deck issues over the steep hillside.
As per the provincial scope of practice, home inspectors do not provide repair or replacement cost estimates. Generally, home inspectors do not have the training nor experience to provide such a service. As well, a valuation could be referenced in a dispute between the buyer and seller.
However, as a professional engineer, I could well appreciate that the overall cost to permit and replace the retaining walls, foundations and deck could easily exceed $100,000, making this find the costliest repair/replacement of 2023 that we at EKAN witnessed for the year.
Financial Responsibility for Repair
Our recommendation to the buyers is to carefully check the wording on Property Disclosure Statement under the Structural section and consult with their real estate agent. In our opinion, this is a latent defect that the seller should have know about but is was hidden and not readily visible. Only during the course of a thorough site cleanup was the extent of the structural failure made apparent.