What Causes Cracks in the Ceiling?

Remember when you were a kid, lying in bed, hearing all those strange noises coming from your house in the middle of the night? Running down the hall to the arms of mom or dad in fear for your life, they lovingly assured you there wasn’t any “boogeyman” in the attic, and quietly explained while tucking you back in bed, “it was only the house settling, now go to sleep”. Thank God for mom and dad back then. They knew everything. Today those creak and groin noises we hear in the middle of the night seem to be followed by strange cracks in the walls and ceilings that you rarely noticed before.

“Where did those come from?” Unfortunately mom or dad, (back then better to answer those “technical” questions you always asked), can’t help you here. You’ve got cracks in your ceiling and you want to know why they are there.

All structures move to some degree. Sometimes the movement is simply caused by the wind or changes in the temperature outside, causing your home to expand in the day and contract in the cool of the evening, and in the case of older homes, creating small but noticeable cracks in your ceiling. Other times the movement is caused by changes in the soil under your home, or movement caused by outside influences like tree roots or water leaks under your foundation. Of course if the cracks were caused by seismic, (earthquakes), movement, you should immediately call a professional to inspect your home, but you already knew that…

In the beginning, these barely noticeable foundation shifts or settlement[s] can cause cracks to appear in your ceiling first, which may be an indication that your foundation has moved, shifted, or the worst case scenario, has begun to fail. However, not all ceiling cracks are caused by foundation movement. Quite often ceiling cracks are caused by age, or leaks in the roof, or internal plumbing leaks, or sometimes in the case of multi-story structures, excess weight on the floors above. Cracks can even be caused by your new roof! By examining the location and type of crack that has occurred, you might get a better idea of its cause. Only then should you be concerned.

What types of cracks can appear in the ceiling?

There are several types of cracks usually found in ceilings, but the most common include:

Spiderweb or Very Fine Cracks

Usually caused by normal structural aging. If they are larger than 1/16 inch, they are an indication of structural or foundation problems.

Vertical Cracks

These usually run lengthwise across the ceiling, and down the wall in the same line. These types of cracks are an indication of damage caused by a weak wall stud, but they could indicate a far more serious problem with your home’s foundation. It’s best to hire a professional to determine the cause of this type of crack.

A Crack Accompanied by a Bowed Ceiling

Caused by a weakness or failure of the ceiling joists in your structure, which are meant to hold up the roof of your home. The sagging or bowing can occur along the crack, or to the side of the crack. These types of cracks are an indication of a serious overload problem with your roof, or removal of a load bearing wall that was meant to support your roof. Often in these cases this can cause even more damage to your home’s foundation. Typical examples of this type of problem occur when the roof of your home has been replaced with a far heavier material than it was originally designed to hold.

Cracks can occur in the center of your ceiling, near load bearing walls, along corners, or where your ceiling and wall meet. If you see the cracks occurring at the edge of the ceiling they are most likely caused by aging. However, multiple, wide, and long cracks that occur in the middle of the ceiling are typically a cause for greater concern. In this instance, you should definitely have the crack evaluated by a professional. You should also monitor the crack’s condition to determine whether or not it’s growing or changing directions.

How do you monitor cracks in the ceiling?

Once you’ve identified a crack, you should monitor it see if it moves, spreads, or widens. It is especially important to monitor the length of the crack. You can do this by using a pencil to draw a line along the crack, or to simply mark the start and ending. You should also draw several “alignment” marks along the crack to see if the edges are also shifting in an uneven motion. Be sure to write down the dates of the marks, so you can measure the rate of movement or deterioration.

If you have determined that your crack is growing, or if you have discovered a new crack and are concerned, the best course of action is to have an experienced foundation expert access the damage and determine the cause.

We will never replace mom or dad, but when it comes to your homes foundation, we definitely can chase away the boogeyman.