Brick is one of my favorite siding systems; it is durable and elegant. When it is well-installed and maintained, it can last for the life of the building. I sometimes see brick siding that is 80 years old and hardly any maintenance has been done in all that time; imagine how many paint jobs would have been done to wood siding over 80 years! However, if brick siding is old and no maintenance has been done for years, expensive repairs are likely needed and home inspectors need to be prepared to help the buyer be aware of potential problems.
These expensive repair problems are easily spotted when you know how to look at a brick house. This article will provide concepts and strategies for looking at brick homes to evaluate current conditions or understand if expensive repairs are needed.
Brick House Fundamentals
Structure or siding?
The first thing to determine when you look at a brick house is whether the brick is structural or siding. Most of the houses you see with brick are a wood framed house with the brick siding installed over the top as a siding system. Residential houses that are made of brick – meaning the walls that support the house are brick – are rare.
NOTE: Old turn of the century commercial buildings are often fully constructed with brick and there is a pretty obvious clue on the inside: When you see those charming walls of masonry brick inside and out, you can be pretty sure you are looking at a fully brick structure.
I like to point out the basic nature of brick: it is a sponge that it loves to hold water. Drop a brick into a bucket of water and it will soak it up like a sponge. Attach that wet brick to the side of a wood framed house and you can imagine the problems, right? Master bricklayers get around this problem by installing brick siding with an air gap between the brick and the wood wall. This is a beautiful thing. It is called dry potential. Air can move behind the brick and dry the space between the brick and the wood wall. This is why you see small weep holes at the base of brick siding – to allow air to move behind the brick and dry the wall. These holes are important and something to look for.
The trick with brick
When I am inspecting older brick houses, I like to probe the mortar between the brick with my screwdriver. Sometimes this causes the mortar to fall out like sand. This can be a sign of old failing mortar but it can also be a clue about the hardness of the brick. Good masons build masonry wall assemblies so that the mortar is the same hardness as the brick. This is one of the real arts of masonry work. Choose a mortar that is too hard and it will cause the brick to crack and spall as the wall expands and contracts from heat and moisture changes. Spalling is when the brick starts to crumble and spalling brick can lead to expensive repairs.
Cutting a hole in a brick wall for windows and doors can be a problem. How do you support the weight of the brick above the window or door? The answer is called a lintel and you will see them as you inspect a brick house. Look above the windows and doors where there is brick above. You should see a steel lintel or even a masonry lintel such as an arch of granite or brick. Look at the lintels when you look at a brick house. If these are corroded or cracking or show displacement – expensive repairs could be needed.
Tuck pointing is the act of replacing the mortar between the bricks. This is when a mason removes old failing mortar and replaces it with new mortar. This can be very expensive. When inspecting a brick house, go to the weather-exposed sides of the building and check the condition of the mortar.
What do you see?
- Does it look old or new?
- If the mortar is patched with lots of different repairs it has not been cohesively updated.
- If the bricks stick out like teeth in a receding gum line and there is missing mortar, the mortar is old and likely requires repair.
- If you see new mortar check how it was done. Mortar joints should be well-tooled and have a nice concave appearance. Poorly executed tuck pointing is not hard to spot: look for clumsy mortar joints that are flat and smeared onto the surrounding brick.
Brick is Rigid
Because brick siding is such a rigid material, it tends to telegraph movement readily in the form of cracks providing helpful clues when looking at a brick house. Sight your eye along the walls. If you see bowing, that is not good – the brick could literally be falling off the house. If you see stair step cracking this can indicate movement in the brick or the structure of the house and you should point this out in your home inspection report.
Advice to avoid expensive repairs
- Look at lintels for cracking, corrosion or displacement.
- Look at the mortar between the brick: Is it old, new or patched? Do mortar joints look professional or amateur?
- Sight along the walls of the house: Be sure the brick is not bowing.
- Look for stair-step cracks in the brick that indicate structural movement in the brick wall and/or the house.
This brief article is not, “everything there is to know about brick,” but I hope it gives you some helpful background knowledge about inspecting brick houses and what to check for your clients. Remember my mantra: happy home buyers are informed home buyers.
Dylan Chalk is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare – inspection software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions – www.getscribeware.com. He is also the author of The Confident House Hunter – a book to teach home buyers how to look at and understand houses: Cedar Fort Press Due out August 2016 – www.dylanchalk.com