One of the worst possible mistakes any homeowner can make when renovating or repairing their home is to knock out or damage a load-bearing wall. These walls are vital to the structural integrity of your home, and are not always easy to discern from curtain walls, which merely exist to divide your living space.
In some cases, you may need to hire someone to identify which walls are safe to breach, but you will usually be able to locate load-bearing walls on your own with a little effort
You can locate load-bearing walls on your own by performing a series of tests. In many cases, simple observation will be enough to identify which walls are safe to cut into. Some other scenarios will require making holes or removing boards.
Inspecting the Foundation
The first stop should be the foundation. This could mean a trip to the basement, or examining the concrete slab upon which your house rests.
Exterior walls are almost always load-bearing, and internal load-bearing walls can be identified by looking for any beams which are submerged into the concrete. Walls which do not connect to the foundation are not considered load-bearing.
Inspecting Floor Beams and Joists
When in the basement or an unfinished room, you can usually see the floor beams. These are thick, sturdy beams made of wood or metal that stretch from the foundation through one or more floors. Any wall through which the beams run is load-bearing.
Likewise, floor joists are horizontal beams which span the length of a wall and easily identify that wall as load-bearing. Unfortunately, these may be very difficult to spot outside of your basement, requiring you to remove some floorboards from the floor above in order to see them.
Inspecting Your Walls
There are several simple tests you can perform on the interior walls of your home. The first is to simply note the location of a wall and whether that wall also exists on the next floor. Walls which span multiple floors are almost always load-bearing.
Another common sign of a load-bearing wall is the distance from any outer walls. In larger homes, the wall closest to the middle of the house will almost always be load-bearing. If there is a central support beam into the basement, check to see if the wall runs parallel to it for further confirmation.
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A column or other feature in the central walls which appears boxy will likely be a support beam. Due to their increased thickness, these beams are often given a makeover to appear decorative and less intrusive.
There are a few cases in which the signs may be vague or misleading. In these circumstances, it is best to look for multiple signs or consult with an external resource before reaching a conclusion.
One sign that suggests an exception is the appearance of a post and beam or steel girder along the ceiling. These usually transfer the load to your external walls, making the internal walls nearby into curtains.
Unfortunately, this is not always true, so some caution must be taken if using this type of construction as proof of load-bearing walls on its own.
Another sign which may suggest caution is most common in older homes. The older the home, the more likely it is that the structure has undergone multiple modifications or expansions. This may mean that the original exterior walls are now located within your home’s interior.
Unless the modifications are obvious, it is best to check the original plans.
Getting Outside Help
In some cases, you may be unable to positively identify load-bearing walls or may not feel confident enough to check yourself. In these cases, there are outside resources to help you. Both documents and professional assistance have the ability to get you on the road to a safe renovation.
This is one external resource which is usually free to access. Your local county clerk’s office will usually have a copy of the original blueprints, as well as records of any modifications. Previous owners or the firm which built the house are also possible sources for the plans, when available.
Hiring a Professional
There are four types of professionals you may choose to hire for help locating load-bearing walls. These are:
- Architects – When the original blueprints are unavailable, an architect can redraw them. This often has a hefty bill attached, however.
- Building Inspectors – Charging an hourly rate, an inspector can not only locate any load-bearing walls, but also provide advice on how to better proceed with your renovations.
- Original Contractor – The person or firm which built your home may be able to tell you where the walls are based on their records. In some cases, the consultation will be free, and in others, it may involve a small fee.
- Remodeling Consultants – These are professionals often working for construction firms that are trained to assess planned home improvements and give advice to help the projects run smoothly.
Please remember that it is always best to do a little homework when hiring a professional. Be sure to shop around and check up on the reputations of any professional firm or individual before making a final choice.