Drought's dry soil causes Minnesota homes to sink

Shannon and Jon Cliff
Shannon and Jon Cliff stand outside their home in Waseca, Minn., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. The Cliffs spent $20,000 to repair the house after they found out it was sinking.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

As Minnesota's drought deepens this winter and the dry conditions that became more pronounced last summer have effectively been locked into frozen soil, some homeowners are dealing with problems left behind when the rain stopped last year.

Among them are Shannon and Jon Cliff, whose four-bedroom home in Waseca, Minn., has been damaged by the shifting ground.

When Shannon Cliff moves from one room to another, she can point to dozens of cracks in the ceramic tiles, fissures along the walls and ceiling, and patched-up gaps near the windows.

These days, she can again close her bathroom door. But that wasn't the case last July, when Cliff's youngest daughter called her to tell her she was locked inside.

"We've never had doors that didn't open and shut," said Cliff, 43. "No one ever got locked in a bathroom. And who would have thought? I thought she was just being a wimp."

From Rochester, Minn., to Sioux Falls, S.D., homeowners have reported shifting foundations and cracks in basements and walls. Such damage is common for aging homes, but this year's dry weather exacerbated the problem for many homeowners in southern Minnesota.

The Cliffs say their home settled the moment their daughter shut the bathroom door.

It was one of many signs inside the house that pointed to severe problems outside. That's because the Cliffs' home sits on soil that's rich in peat moss and clay drained of moisture during the rainless summer. As the drying clay and moss shrank, a 4-inch gap started to form between the foundation and the ground.

"There isn't any type of insurance that we could even buy for this."

The Cliffs' house was sinking, and they quickly learned that insurance would not pay for the repairs.

"I'll be honest, I cried," Shannon Cliff said. "There isn't any type of insurance that we could even buy for this. Our farmers can buy insurance for droughts and their crops, but we can do nothing for our homes."

Barbara Lusardi, a geologist for the Minnesota Geological Survey, said that while drought will certainly cause soils to shrink, there may be other reasons so many homes appear to be sinking.

"If the house is built on an area that's been drained and filled, that could cause issues," Lusardi said. "The house construction could be a problem. Depending on the time of year, if it was dry in the fall and then wet in the spring, the freezing and the thawing, the wetting and the drying of the materials, can cause things to shift as well."

Sinking basements may be causing headaches for homeowners, but the conditions have been a boon for basement repair companies.

"We're seeing more and more of it because of the drought," said Nate Proper, marketing director for American Waterworks, based in Oronoco, Minn. "I mean, that's definitely a trigger for the last couple years."

There are no estimates about how many homes have sunk, but Proper said his company alone has done 80 home repairs across the region. That's five times more than usual.

Proper said the extent of needed repairs varies, depending on how much soil has shifted beneath a home. Big problems like the Cliffs' require driving long steel poles into the ground and using them to lift the foundation back into place. But that can cause other problems.

"A lot of times people beforehand have done some remodeling to cover up some of the cracks and stuff they've seen," Proper said. "And now they've remodeled on an unlevel foundation, so when you lift it back up, those inside building materials can try to go back to their original position, too, which can recrack."

That's exactly what happened at the Cliffs' home. The couple borrowed $20,000 from their retirement savings to lift the foundation. Now, the house continues to settle back into place.

"We watch daily for things to be going on," Shannon Cliff said. "When the house gets quiet and you go to sleep, I listen and I say, 'OK, where did that come from?' And the next day I get up and [say], 'OK, are we still all together?'"

The Cliffs hope this spring will be a wet one that brings moisture back into the ground. If that doesn't happen, they will try running water around the foundation. But they know there's really not much more they can do to keep the ground moist.

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