Indiana homeowners discovering millions in winter damage

Sara Casebolt found three broken trusses in her attic.
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Even as this week’s temperatures climb into the 80s, thousands of Indiana homeowners are still dealing with the aftermath of a brutal winter. Record-setting snow and cold temperatures caused hundreds of millions of dollars in home damage, and many Hoosiers don’t yet realize their home was affected.

From the outside, Sara Casebolt’s Carmel house looks perfectly fine. But inside, it’s a different story.

Her children were the first to sense a problem.

“I couldn't sleep at first. I thought I might be hearing things,” said Bryce. “I heard cracks like ‘errrrrrrrr.’”

“Errrrrrr,” that’s what it sounded like,” agreed little sister Madison. “Kind of like something was cracking and something was moving against the ceiling. That was scary.”

The kids weren't just hearing things. When their mom climbed up into the attic to investigate, she said she panicked.

“This is the first thing I saw,” said Casebolt, leading WTHR to her attic to see a snapped piece of lumber. “It’s a broken truss and it was just hanging here. I started to wonder if there were more.”

She found three broken trusses above her children’s bedrooms and bathroom that were supposed to be supporting the roof. She soon discovered that was just the beginning of the trouble. One of the trusses pushed through the ceiling in Madison’s bathroom, and cracks were starting to develop throughout the house.

“The ceiling actually started to lift up off the walls. It lifted about one and a half, two inches off the walls. There's actually blocks holding our ceiling down right now,” Casebolt explained. “This is definitely not normal.”

A structural engineer diagnosed the problem as truss uplift.

It can happen with big temperature and humidity differences in an attic -- especially in the winter when the bottom part of a truss is buried under insulation and stays warm, and the upper chords of a truss are exposed to extremely dry, cold air. Those upper pieces of wood can expand and flex outward, lifting the bottom of the truss and, sometimes, pulling up the ceiling along with it.

“That should never happen in a home,” said Casebolt. “As a mom, I'm worried [if] there’s a piece of ceiling that's going to fall down on them. Is there a board that's going to break in the attic again? Is it going to come through the ceiling? Basically from the ground up, we're having to re-do every room and area in our home.”

The Casebolts are not alone.

Extreme numbers

This year's brutal winter wreaked havoc on houses all across Indiana.

13 Investigates has learned record-breaking snowfall and bitter temperatures caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

“It was a historic winter, and that brought a big increase in claims,” said Michael Niland, government affairs advisor for the Insurance Institute of Indiana. “Insurers are reporting the highest number of winter-related home claims they’ve seen in the past ten years. One of the biggest insurance companies [in Indiana] says it has seen claim occurrences for freeze damage up more than 74%.”

He said another large insurance company, which reported $60 million in winter-related home claims in Indiana during 2013, is now projecting a 35% increase in winter home damage payouts for 2014.

“These are really extreme increases, but it was an extreme winter,” Niland said.

WTHR meteorologists point out the 52 inches of snow that fell on the Indianapolis metro area this winter and the extended sub-zero temperatures Hoosiers endured in January both made it into the National Weather Service record books.

As the snow melted and the temperatures warmed, Hoosiers began to see the impact – most notably, on our roads.

Hoosiers are all too familiar with the impact of a freezing and thawing cycle on asphalt, resulting in cracks and large holes. A harsh winter can do the same to houses. But because many homeowners do not inspect their homes closely, they are just starting to notice the damage. And because many winter-related problems develop over the course of several weeks or months, homeowners may not realize the problems are directly related to harsh weather from months earlier.

“Tip of the iceberg”

“We've got significant cracks on the outside of the house, as well as the inside,” said Chris, another Hamilton County homeowner who is dealing with winter-related home damage. “You look, and the more you look the more you see. We've never had anything like this. Most of this really was not there six months ago.”

Most of the issues around Chris’ house are subtle, but they're everywhere. Walls, flooring, closets and window frames all show cracks, and on some parts of the home’s exterior, bricks are starting to separate away from the walls.

“You’re thinking – worst case scenario – my house is collapsing,” he said.

Chris called in home inspector Steve Ambro to diagnose the cause of the problems and to identify a remedy.

“I wasn’t sure what to do next and if these were big problems or small ones, so that was really a big help,” Chris said.

Ambro was able to follow small cracks in drywall and tile to expose hidden water damage behind a dining room wall, and he also discovered some larger cracks that extended from the inside of the home to the outside brick.

“We really are seeing a lot more damage this year,” Ambro said. “What’s sitting on the surface may be the tip of the iceberg. We’re having to tell people ‘You not only have this issue, but this issue, this issue and something else that’s broke.’ Then they say ‘I didn’t know that. This wasn’t like that last year.’”

The veteran home inspector says last winter's severe weather turned many minor home issues into more urgent repairs caused by settling and shifting around a home’s foundation.

Here’s how it happens:

Each winter, the moist clay soil around your home freezes and expands. That puts some extra pressure on your foundation, which is normal.

But last winter's extreme temperatures and snowfall caused the frost line (the depth to which groundwater in soil is expected to freeze) to extend deeper than normal. Soil expanded more. Pressure increased more. That pressure caused some home foundations to slightly heave upward, resulting in cracks and other problems throughout the houses.

In some homes, the damage is largely cosmetic.

“Homeowners shouldn’t panic. In a lot of situations, there’s not a lot that needs to be done other than keeping an eye on things,” Ambro said.

But in other houses, the damage is much more significant and costly.

Lifting the whole house

Just ask Ron Bowen.

This spring, he’s been busy rescuing homes that suffered significant structural damage from severe winter weather. WTHR found him assessing a duplex in Brownsburg.

“The foundation has literally dropped an inch and a quarter,” he said, pointing to large cracks on an outside corner of the home. “The brick wall is actually leaning over. It really needs stabilized.”

The 2-day project involved removing all of the soil from around the back of the home, placing jacks under the foundation and raising the house several inches. The process instantly closed large cracks that had developed throughout the structure and reunited separated brick with the side of the house.

“This house had some problems but it was stable for several years. Then, all of a sudden, a lot of little problems turned into big problems this past winter. It's not a cheap fix but sometimes when it gets this bad, that's the only alternative,” Bowen said.

The cost for that type of repair is around $3,000 to $6,000, not including landscaping expenses to replace areas torn up by the soil excavation.

If you need a foundation specialist like Bowen, you might have to wait a while. He told WTHR his current wait time to get to a new project is 6-8 weeks because so many Indiana homes are in dire need of repair following winter damage.

That damage has impacted both older homes like the Brownsburg duplex and newer homes like the Casebolts, which was built in 2012.

What to look for right now

Home inspectors and structural engineers say there are steps you should take right now to help prevent further damage – and to help you better understand whether you need some professional help.

  • First, walk around your home to identify any cracks in drywall, flooring, ceilings or brick. Look both inside and out. Bowen suggests paying special attention to basements and crawl spaces, because those locations can show some of the earliest signs of trouble. Moisture spots on ceilings or carpeting can suggest hidden cracks or openings somewhere in the exterior of the home, as well.
  • Next, if you see cracks that are wider than a quarter inch or any that extend all the way from the inside to the outside of your home, call in a home inspector to get some advice. “That’s pretty significant when they start expanding to a quarter inch. That should really catch your eye,” Ambro said.

    “If it’s a hairline crack, something you cannot slide a business card into, chances are that may be a normal crack due to normal building movement,” agrees Wes Jordan, a structural engineer with Rimkus Consulting Group. “But if it’s a quarter inch or a half inch or more – or goes all the way through a wall – that’s cause for concern that might need attention.”
  • If you do see cracks -- even small ones -- take pictures and monitor them to see if they get bigger over time. Cracks that grow in size are another sign you may want to call in an expert.
  • The best piece of preventative advice: make sure your gutters are working properly and that they drain water far away from your home.

    Many winter home problems are caused by gutters that are clogged or that drain melting snow and ice close to a home’s foundation. That causes extra moisture in the clay-rich soil near your basement or crawlspace, and when that extra moisture freezes and expands, it raises the likelihood that your foundation will suffer damage.

    “Eighty percent of all winter damage that I see could have been avoided by having downspouts that worked properly,” said Bowen.

Who will pay for the damage?

Homeowners may not get stuck with the repair bill – if they act quickly.

According to the Insurance Institute of Indiana, many home insurance policies will cover winter-related damage, as long as insured homeowners can show that damage was the result of a specific event – like a winter storm – and not caused by a failure to do proper home maintenance.

Time is of the essence. As time passes, it may be more unlikely that a claim will be approved.

“It’s not too late to file a claim for winter damage,” said Niland. “Insurers realize many homeowners are just getting outdoors now and finding problems. Insurers are eager to hear from homeowners if there are problems because it’s in the insurers best interest to get those fixed quickly so there’s not more damage over time.”

For homeowners and the insurance industry, many of the problems caused by Indiana’s harsh winter may not be fixed until well into the summer.

Contractors arrived at the Casebolt today to begin repairs throughout the home. It’s expected to take several weeks.