“Red flags” are clues that something is wrong or potentially wrong. They’re the hints that we need to investigate something further, the sign that we should be on alert.
Some parts of San Jose, and Silicon Valley generally, enjoy beautiful older homes with classic styling and beautiful finishing work. These properties and neighborhoods are prized because they are not cookie cutter, not ranch, not too new. They may be Victorian, Craftsman, Spanish, or any number of other interesting architectural styles.
One area of Santa Clara County that is well known for both charming historic homes and unfortunately also some structural issues among those older houses is the Willow Glen district of San Jose.
Back in 2015 I showed some clients about a half dozen homes, all in Willow Glen, and we saw a lot of “red flags” which hinted of foundation problems, among others. I thought I’d share a few pics I snapped at one of them with my old treo camera here. All of these were taken on the front porch of this house – all visible structural “red flags” before we ever set foot into the house.
The first image is one taken from the walkway leading up to the Spanish style house. Please note that there seems to be separation between the wall and the step, from the wall and the foundation and from the step and the walkway. Also find that some of the stucco is crumbly. These are all things to be concerned about.
Next is what greets the visitor who makes it to the front porch. These are not just red alerts – they are more like emergency sirens going off!
It goes without saying that this is not a good sign. If it looks like this where it’s plainly visible, what does it look like in the crawl space?
And finally, there were issues looking up as well as down:
Only a structural engineer can have a look, do some tests and make a determination as to what is going on here. What may be happening, though, is shifting – the home is moving or the ground is moving, or both are moving.
How can this happen?
Earthquakes can, of course, make things move. But so can changing levels of moisture in our clay soils. In wet years, the ground swells as it becomes engorged. In dry years, the ground constricts. Clay soil, adobe, is stronger than the concrete that goes into making our foundations. This is powerful movement, and the house isn’t going to win!
In Willow Glen, there used to be a great deal of swampiness in some areas when the valley was first being settled by non-natives. My understanding is that either the water table is high in places or that there are underground aquifers there, and this made homes in Willow Glen more susceptible to the soil issues related to water quantity. As aquifers rise and fall (with El Nino years or drought years), so would the homes above them.
In recent decades, though, the percolation pond system and other systems in place by the water district keep the ground from heaving as much as it did prior to these systems being in place. Unfortunately, due to repeated drought, many of these ponds have remained empty in recent years, so the valley is likely to be experiencing more of that drying, compacting movement.
Older homes may be more vulnerable to construction issues such as cracked foundations, floors out of level, etc. In the Willow Glen area of San Jose, especially in the older and historic parts, those vulnerabilities are compounded by soil and water challenges. (These challenges are also very true in hillside areas like Almaden, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, and Saratoga as well as many others.)
When looking in historic Willow Glen especially, watch for red flags. Watch for separations that should not be there (chimneys separating from the house, walls separating from the floors, etc.). Watch for floors being out of level, or doors or windows that don’t close. These are only a very few of the areas about which you should be on the alert.
A good property inspector, preferably a member of ASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors) will find many more “red flags” during an inspection. A Realtor should be on the lookout for red flags too. As a consumer, you are more empowered if you can learn about these things and spot them on your own too – being educated is an asset that will help you to protect your investment in Silicon Valley real estate, so keep learning!
For more on red flags, water damage, and inspections check out the following articles: