Ceiling Cracks: A Structural Warning Sign or Cosmetic?

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Cracks in ceilings may be cosmetic or a structural “Red Flag.” The importance depends on their shape, size, location and the cause of them.

Often we don’t even realize there are cracks or how old they are; did they just happen or have they been there for years? Once noticed, then it may be wise to do a little investigation of them. It’s not uncommon for homes to get a crack or two in their ceilings over time, therefore older home will generally have more ceiling cracks.

 

New homes will often develop a few cracks in the first year or two, but most of them will be at door and window corners or at the areas where the walls meet the ceilings, rather than the ceiling itself. One of the common reasons for this that many homes will settle a little in the first year or two and the wood framing lumber usually drys out some which causes the studs, joist and rafters to twist or bow slightly. Major track builders know that they will get a number of calls about these cracks in the first year or two and just consider it part of the construction business.

Hairline and spiderweb type of cracks

Hairline type of spiderweb cracks due to paint issues

When repeated coats of paint are applied over other coats; then over a period of years the chances of crazing or alligatoring cracking increases.

The layer(s) under the top coat get brittle over time and expand and contract due to thermal and moisture changes differently than the more flexible top coat. These lower coats tend to crack first and then the cracks work their way up to the top coat; thus patterns of thin cracks develop in the top coat paint film.

Spiderweb or hairline type cracks due to drywall mud issues

At drywall joints where two pieces of drywall butt one another, drywall installers tape the joint areas. They use drywall tape and drywall joint compound, often called drywall “mud.” If the drywall joint compound is put on in one or more coats that are too thick; then when the mud dries, it shrinks, creating hairline spider or crazing type cracks. When too much water is added to thin the mud prior to application, small hairline cracks may occur. These types of cracks are merely the result of poor workmanship.



Straight cracks at taping joints

Cracks that appear at the side of drywall joint tape used when mudding the joints between two pieces of drywall are often the result of two little joint compound being applied when taping and mudding the joints.

Usually the crack will be very straight because it is at the edge of the tape. This is insignificant and again evidence of poor workmanship.

Cracks on a sagging or bowed ceiling

If a ceiling is bowed, sagging or dropped down, then the reason may relate to a structural issues. Causes could be:

1. Spacing of ceiling joist or trusses

If the ceiling joists or trusses supporting the ceiling drywall is spaced too far apart, then sagging may result and the stress from this may create cracks.

2. Improperly sized ceiling joist

When the ceiling joist or trusses are undersized for the drywall ceiling weight that they’re carrying; then sagging may result and the stress from this may create cracks.

3. Damaged ceiling joist or trusses

Occasionally a ceiling joist or a truss becomes damaged or cracked, this weakens the framing member and the ceiling will bow or sag in one or more areas. Thus, stress is placed on the drywall and cracks develop.

 

Framing of house

Cracks caused by a load bearing wall being removed and proper supports not installed

Bowed ceiling cracks may also be caused by a load bearing wall being removed without proper structural support being added. At times the ceiling may not be bowed, but one section has dropped down. This movement can result in cracks. Read more on load bearing walls.

Cracks caused by truss uplift

Cracks that appear where a ceiling intersects a wall may be due to “Truss Uplift.” Roof trusses tend to move a little when there is a seasonal change of temperature or humidity. These fluctuations and changes may result in the trusses moving or shifting a little. This is common and most homes are engineered to handle movement due to truss uplift.

Truss uplift cracks are normally noted on interior walls, not exterior walls. The cracks will usually appear on walls that are perpendicular to the direction that the trusses run. Generally these cracks are not considered to be a structural concern and may even open up and close somewhat depending on the season. Read More On Truss Uplift.

Higher level of concern with ceiling cracks occurs when:

A crack is continuous though the wall and ceiling

Ceiling cracks that run across the ceiling to the wall and then downward on the wall; basically a continuous crack going through the ceiling and the wall. This type of crack suggest that there may be a structural issue, i.e. a foundation issue or framing issue.

Ceiling cracks running diagonally across ceiling

A crack ( a 16th  of an inch or larger) that runs at a diagonal angle through a sheet(s) of drywall requires a lot of force to create this crack. It’s like the drywall is ripped apart. This type of crack generally would be considered a “Red” flag, depending on width, length and location.

Wide cracks and areas that have a number of cracks

Ceilings that have multiple cracks that are more than just a small hairline crack are a concern. Cracks that are an 1/8 or 1/4 of an inch wide or more would easily fall into this category. A crack that is an 1/8 inch wide and only two feet long in a corner will not be given as much weight as a ceiling with 1/4 inch wide cracks, three or five feet long and that appear in a number of locations.

Ceiling cracks become more of a “Red” flag if there are other signs that the house may have movement or structural problems

When ceiling cracks become a concern you should look for other factors that indicate possible structural issues to determine the severity and importance of ceiling cracks.

Signs of possibly structural issues include:

  • Cracked foundation or slab (Read more)
  • Sloping or sagging floors
  • Doors and windows that stick or won’t open
  • Roof sagging

Cracks may also be caused by:

  • Small earthquake tremors
  • Settling of the home
  • Soil movement from slope creep or landslides
  • Sink hole issues

 

The Bottom Line

Bottom Line

Ceiling cracks are common and usually not a major concern. The older the home, the more likely for cracks to appear. Usually most contractors and homeowners will view cracks a maintenance or cosmetic issue. Occasionally ceiling cracks can be a “Yellow” or “Red” flag that there is serious or structural issue; therefore it is good to be able to recognize warning signs that a problem may exist.

If unsure if there is a problem or if ceiling crack is serious an owner or buyer may wish to consult with an appropriately qualified professional; which at times may be a framing, drywall or general contractor. A structural engineer likewise may helpful in providing meaningful information.

Education and knowledge resources

Articles and Resources On Common Structural Issues In Homes 

Take a minute and review the list to see if you have any warning signs of potential issues.

  • You may only need preventive maintenance
  • If very minor, then maybe you just need to monitor it
  • If repair is needed, it is much cheaper to correct in the early stages than after it has become a big problem
  • Should it be major, then you may need to consult a qualified professional

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