San Francisco’s housing inventory often includes older Victorian homes that still have their original brick foundations intact. When these properties hit the market, buyers often have questions about the ins and outs of such foundations. And the reality is that there aren’t easy answers.
First off, brick foundations are definitely inferior to newer, concrete ones. The bottom line is that concrete foundations are engineered to allow a building to handle movement without serious consequence. However, many older buildings on brick have been standing since the late 1800s or early 1900’s and may have survived the 1906 earthquake, as well as the 1989 one. That being said, there is a certain level of risk with a brick foundation in this day and age, particularly when scientific experts predict that we’ll have a huge earthquake in the foreseeable future.
If you’re considering purchasing a home with a brick foundation, it’s a good idea to verify whether the brick is in serviceable condition. I recently toured a house in the Mission with a brick foundation (see photo). The brick did not appear to be in very good condition, and was cracking and sagging in places. In this case, I would factor a foundation replacement into the list of near-term home improvements. There’s no point in remodeling a kitchen, for example, if the foundation itself may not hold up. Depending on the size of the house, foundation replacements can range from $150,000-$250,000+. That’s a substantial cost, and one you should be aware of at the time you decide on an offer price.
On the other hand, if the brick is in satisfactory condition, some professionals advise those on a budget to “cap” the brick, or use concrete coating to cover the brick (called “parge coats”). Another strengthening option is building a concrete buttress up against the brick. These strategies won’t result in a foundation that’s comparable to concrete, but could buy you time and are improvements over plain brick.
A big factor is the ground on which the property sits. One combination you don’t want is a brick foundation in a liquefaction zone. In that case, the foundation isn’t ideal, and neither is the soil. I wouldn’t risk living atop those conditions for the long term.
You’ll also want to consider limitations on your ability to address a brick foundation with respect to the property type. Unless you’re buying a house or an entire multi-unit building, it will ultimately be up to an HOA or TIC group to make a collective decision on a foundation replacement. Check out HOA meeting minutes to see if the group has been discussing such an endeavor. If not, everyone is likely fine with the brick, and you’ll also have to achieve that comfort level.
We’ve been in a strong seller’s market for quite some time, and it’s often not feasible to include a lengthy inspection contingency in a contract. However, I advise buyers to first review any inspections that are available. If those reports raise red flags and strongly recommend a structural engineer evaluation, you may want to request access for a pre-sale engineer inspection to make sure you’re cool with all the details.