crumbled mortar, soft brick


Old 01-23-00, 09:01 PM
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My wife and I bought a 100 year-old, painted brick townhouse in Washington, DC a little over a year ago. We paid for an inspection before settlement and our inspector didn't notice any problems with the masonry--said it looked good (although he didn't check the side of our house since to do so one must go through neighbor's houses and yards). After a few months I noticed accumulations of mortar dust in areas of our basement that were not covered by drywall(and in the basement fireplace). Then, in September, I was in my neighbor's yard and noticed areas of mortar that were completely gone or just falling out like dust. I know that the previous owner must have known about this (especially since there was no dust when we had the inspection). While on the roof to make a repair, I noticed other areas along the roof-line where the mortar was crumbling out. Shouldn't the inspector have picked up on this?? Is it likely we would have any recourse? Even though it's one year after the purchase shouldn't the seller be held accountable for trying to hide it? Certainly, such deterioration would not develop in 12 months.
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Old 01-23-00, 10:13 PM
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May I suggest that you repost in the Law forum, since the main thrust is legal. As far as the deterioration goes, it is highly unlikey that it would occur within twelve months. It's a sign of advanced age and neglect, and could have been easily seen had someone looked.
Old 01-25-00, 11:12 AM
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Dear Greg -
You can post your questions in the forums at FreeAdvice.comor ask a lawyer live at FreeAdvice Live!
The bulletin boards are at - you will probably want to go to Real Estate Law. Or if you go to the home page -- and click the "FreeAdvice Live" button at the bottom. They should be able to help you.

Good Luck!

Old 01-26-00, 11:22 AM
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Putting the legal issue aside - what is causing this and what does one do about it? I have a similar problem and dont know who to engineer...a mason...a contractor....anyfeedback on that point?
Old 01-27-00, 07:46 PM
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Crumbling brick and mortar is the result of lack of maintenance (number one), the cumulative affects of movement, stresses, environmental factors, plus chemical and physical changes that occur along the way.

Whom do you call(?), (or whom you call first) depends on the scope of the problem. With moderate to sever damage of the foundation or supporting columns that is affecting or threatening the integrity of the building a Civil Engineer would be your first call, followed by calling Contractors. With minor to moderate damage and when the buildings integrity is not being threatened a Contractor (Masonry or Foundation) would be your first call.
A friendly mason might be able to provide some advice, and do the work, but he or she is the least qualified to assess the problem beyond the brick and mortar, nor is a mason necessarily a qualified Contractor.

On your own you can perform an assessment that will enable you to choose a course of actions. Columns are "point load" bearing points, similar to your own legs. When examining each column consider the integrity of the column itself, the weight and members above, and the ground below. Really look at things, don't just walk by, and isolate your focus to one thing at a time, column by column. Use the same narrow focus to examine the foundation, the ground, and the beams and floor above.

In the engineering department you will be looking for distortion of the columns, relevant distortion in the members above, the walls, plus any changes in the ground or points of bearing. Think "Box on Stilts" with all surfaces in either a perfectly level horizontal plane or in a perfectly plumb vertical plane.

In the contractor department you will perform a scratch test of the mortar to determine the depth that the mortar has degraded, it's softness, if it powders readily or not, and check for broken or cracked bricks. Also within the range are minor to moderate deviations that can be repaired by replacing brick and mortar.

The steps:
The first concept is called "cross sighting."
You will use it to check the columns for plumb. It relies on the fact that when two plane surfaces align zero clearance exists between the planes.

For example, with both hands in front of you and one more distance than the other, your fingers pointed toward the ceiling, move your hands toward the center of your body until the palms of your hands align (barely seem to touch). Now, move your hands so they are in a straight line, and move your head until you can align your palms. The same idea can be used to check the columns for vertical alignment or "plumb".

The first column is sighted into a corner or off a plane known to be plumb. The remaining columns are sighted from columns known to be plumb. Site A to B and C to D.
[] []
Large deviations = Engineer (Doctor) Small deviations = Contractor (Nurse).

In the following it's a matter of severity that counts. Either over all or an isolated instance.

Look at the mortar joints all the way around a column. Are the joints in the same plane(?), does a continuous crack exist between the mortar and brick at any joint(?), does one level of brick seem to be rotated or tilted from the others?

Scratch the mortar with a nail. How soft is it(?), how deep can you remove the mortar easily(?), does it form a powder readily(?) do large hunks break loose?

Look at the brick. Are there cracks in any direction running through two or more courses of brick and mortar(?), are individual units cracked, broken, powdering, or shifted?

Look at the bearing plates (upper and lower).
Does the ground seem to change radically around one of the columns(?), are the columns squarely on their supports(?), what is the condition of the brick and mortar at the lower juncture? Is the footing sound or do you see cracks running though it? Is the upper portion shifted(?), are beams sagging, twisted, loose, rotten, cracked, or broken?

Look at the foundation and walls. Do bulges,
bows, breaks or cracks exist? Do the beams seem to be rotated upward or downward where they meet the foundation or wall?

You can do all of these things yourself. It's simply a matter of paying attention to small details, then relating one thing to another.

If you have a moderate to sever problem, call an Engineer first. Otherwise call a Contractor.

Old 02-07-00, 01:19 PM
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Thank You whoever you are!!
Old 02-23-00, 06:37 PM
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How does all this apply to a similar mortar problem on the exterior side of a chimney? When testing for the depth of the soft/crumbling/powdering mortar, what depth is considered acceptable deterioration that can be pointed and repaired? The house is 75 years old and the chimney runs the height of the two stories and then down in to the basement on the south side of the house that receives a tremendous amount of weather. We live in Seattle. It would be great to be able to fix this problem myself. Are there any publications that could aid in this repair or is it as simple as it would appear to be?
Old 02-27-00, 03:41 PM
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It's hard to put a number on "acceptable deterioration" due to the variables involved. But in general if more than 1/3 of the depth could be easily scratched out it would be worth while to pull a unit or two for closer examination. If pulling units is not practical, test holes can be bored in the suspect sections, the trailings examined and be compared with the trailings from test holes bored in good sections.

There are many books available but the act of repointing brick is not terribly complex. Overview:
Chisel out the mortar to a depth between 3/4 and 1 inch. Clean, pre-whet, and when the water sheen has disappeared, with mortar mixed, force the mortar into the head joints (always using a single direction of the trowel, not back and fourth) then into the horizontal joints (in 1/4" layers compacting well as you go). After 20 minutes or when the mortar is thumb print hard, joint with a concave jointer, wait a while longer, then brush off crumbs with a broom.

Naturally, nothing is as simple as actions alone. When working with older brick and mortar it's important to understand both beyond "how to". The information happens to be free for the taking.

The first stop is the Preservation Breifs, by the U.S. National Park Department.

The next stop is the Northwest Masonry Guide online. (When I first encountered it, it reminded me of an Apprenticeship Manual). The introductory materal on Brick and Mortar will be of value to you.
The last stop is Marsalltown They sell related tools. Naturally there are how tos.

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