GIMME SHELTER- Giving way: Do sagging floors mean big trouble?

Steve Shiflett
owner, A. Shiflett Hardwood Floors

PHOTO BY Courteney Stewart

Q: I live in an older house, and our floor boards are starting to give. Does this mean my floors are falling apart, or is this just a natural part of the aging process a home goes through? What if I need to replace my floors, but I'm not sure what's under them?

A: One time, down on East Market Street, I visited a house where the owners had already taken up four layers of carpet and a layer of linoleum when they reached a layer of tile. They were in tears because they figured there was no way they were going to get that tile up and replace their floors. Six layers later, we were able to recover the original hardwood.

That's the beauty of wood: very often the problem is not the floors themselves, but the boards underneath. Sometimes the foundation of a home will naturally give a little bit or the joists will need to be replaced because of termites or bugs, but the floor itself is fine.

In order to fix a sagging floor, it usually isn't necessary to replace the entire floor. Typically, you can just leave the original floor and support it by going underneath and bracing it. If there isn't enough crawl space to go under the floor, however, you may have to take the floor up. 

Another common problem with older homes is squeaky, creaky floors. This can be easily fixed by putting screws and putty in the boards or even putting paper under the floor so the floor boards don't rub against the support beams.

One of the biggest reasons a floor will start to sag is foundation problems such as moisture or termites. A structural engineer can help find the source of the problem and come up with a solution. The settling of a foundation, however, is a natural part of the aging process a house goes through, and is more a reflection of the character of the house than an indication of future problems. A lot of old homes don't have a level floor anywhere. Part of the charm of an old floor lies in its minor imperfections: the familiar creak of a floorboard, a gentle undulation in the hall, the gouge mark so ancient that the scar has a patina.

Some truly older homes were built under different building codes, and therefore the support beams may be placed further apart than is customary today, causing them to give slightly. In some rare cases, houses were actually built on logs, which are more susceptible to decay over time.

Investigating the cause of the problem will provide clues to the solution.