House movement in Spain

 The Perils Of Subsidence And Heave

UNFORTUNATELY, some of the building work undertaken in Spain during the past few years has not been very good.  This was particularly true of construction during the glory years of the boom.  At that time there were simply not enough skilled building workers to meet the demand for new buildings and some work was undertaken by unskilled workers or constructors ‘learning on the job’.

Meanwhile, of course, any building control on behalf of local authorities in Spain was often dismal, certainly when compared to the rigour applied in the UK.  Overwhelmed by the amount of buildings being constructed, local authority building control often ceased to function in any meaningful way or was subject to corruption and undue influence. 

Indeed, the building project architect rather than the town hall architect or tecnico would normally be ultimately responsible for defects, other than basic checks (mainly of the planning application only).  So, the town halls typically left it up to the builder and his architect to produce the house.  In some cases, young and relatively inexperienced architects were put in charge of signing off projects with some constructors encouraging their own sons and daughters to qualify as architects, resulting in all the signing off being completed ‘in house’.

The end result has been that structural problems with Spanish properties are not uncommon.  Indeed, deliberate cost cutting, lack of knowledge or little authoritative supervision has meant that some properties have inadequate foundations or a structure that is inherently defective. 

Of course, poor foundations can adversely affect a property and make it subject to either subsidence or heave.  These problems can affect any badly constructed building and are not, by any means, restricted to just villas on steep hillsides.  Certainly, subsidence can occur regardless of the type of property, with it equally effecting blocks of flats, town houses or casitas. 

Furthermore, properties do not have to be located on a hillside to suffer movement.  Some areas of level ground can cause subsidence, depending upon the substrate concerned.  Areas of infill or clay are notorious for causing problems, unless the foundations laid are properly done, to the correct specification.

What are the signs of movement and what should you do?

Well, assessing whether a property has movement (and why and to what extent) is not something you should attempt to do unless you are a qualified surveyor or structural engineer.  However, if you notice the following then you would be wise to obtain professional advice, as soon as possible:

1.         Cracking where the crack is wider at one end than the other.

2.         Vertical, horizontal or diagonal cracking to house walls or roof eaves areas

3.         Cracking to floors; the separation of a floor from a wall at skirting level.

4.         Cracking to ceilings; separation of a ceiling from a wall

5.         Sticking windows or doors. Doors that swing shut or open on their own. Sticking blinds.

6.         Damp filtration via cracked areas in walls or roof structure.

7.         Rotating steps or balustrades.

8.         Swimming pool water that is not level with tile lines.

9.         Damp filtration via cracked areas in walls or roof structure.

10.       Leaning walls or sloping internal floors.

Of course, not all movement is serious and you should not panic, if you see some of the above indications in your own home.  There may be no problem or only a minor one that is easily remedied. 

However (as with everything else in life!), if there is a problem then it is best to ‘catch it early’.  This is particularly true if you have a Decenal policy or ‘Builder’s Guarantee – which may well be about to expire.  The latter are only valid for ten years and the last thing you want is for there to be a problem that would have been covered by the Decenal, had you notified your insurer in time!

Nick Snelling is the author of five books including ‘How to Buy Spanish property and Move to Spain – Safely!’ and runs the information site Culture Spain

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