Drought damaging Iowa homes

Lack of moisture shrinking ground, cracking foundation

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CEDAR RAPIDS — At first, Maggie and Lance Votroubek suspected humidity played a role when they couldn’t get their porch door to close, but in a sense, the opposite proved true.

Rather than moisture in the air, a lack of moisture in the ground was the underlying problem for the couple’s southeast Cedar Rapids home, leading to thousands of dollars in foundation repairs.

“It’s natural for any house to settle a little bit, but 60 years down the line and we settled more than 2 inches,” Lance, 32, said of their 1950s ranch-style home.

The insurance claim the Votroubeks submitted was denied after a structural engineer determined the foundation issue was caused by Iowa’s drought.

Tom Cannon, owner of Tomlinson-Cannon of Iowa City, said drought can cause soil to shrink, leaving a void underneath a building’s footings, on which the foundation sits.

The footings can drop into that gap, causing cracks in walls, doors that no longer align and windows that won’t properly open and close because the building is no longer plumb, said Cannon, whose firm has been in Eastern Iowa since 1948.

“A few inches can cause big problems in a house,” said Cannon, adding that the company has been getting more calls about drought damage, though they did not work on the Votroubeks’ home.

Insurance problems

Those big problems can lead to a big repair bill, which often, as the Votroubeks learned, is not covered by insurance.

The couple spent $16,000 to have their foundation lifted with the use of 14 helical piers — a hydraulic system — but estimate the cost will be about $25,000 once other work is completed.

Lance Votroubek said the figure would be closer to $40,000 without the help of their fathers. Maggie’s dad, Bernie Friedl, is a fourth-generation journeyman carpenter and Lance’s dad, Lee Votroubek, is an engineer.

Both contributed their expertise and labor to help the couple in their first home, which was built by Maggie’s grandfather, Francis Friedl.

They discovered the issue with the door in September, then began noticing cracks in their hallway ceiling.

The foundation took three days to lift in late November after a 4-foot trench was excavated around the slab home. They still plan to fix indoor cracks and repour concrete to level their floor this month.

Corey Utsler, general manager of Anchored Walls, Inc., said the Winterset-based foundation repair company has work scheduled into April.

“It’s everywhere,” Utsler said. “We’re seeing foundation problems across the state. Absolutely, the drought has been the biggest factor this year.”

Both Utsler and Cannon said the age of the home is not a factor.

“They’re old, new, everything,” Utsler said. “If (the soil) loses all of its moisture content, it shrinks and when it shrinks, whatever’s sitting on top will go down with it.”

Geotechnical engineer Tim Wiles, a principal at Braun Intertec in Cedar Rapids, said once the ground’s settlement has occurred once, it isn’t likely to happen again.

Wiles noted that the issue happened on a segment of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, where sections of pavement cracked. Soil borings showed the cause was drought-related.

Preventing the problem with sprinklers could prove difficult, as too much water is what typically causes issues with a home’s foundation, said structural engineer Matt Miller, owner of Select Structural Engineering of Cedar Rapids.

Miller, in fact, was surprised that drought would cause problems with foundations, which can be damaged by wet soil pushing against them.

Cannon said water damage can cause basement walls to bow in and crack.

With Iowa’s drought predicted to continue, no one expects the issue to disappear anytime soon.

“Without any more moisture, the ground will continue to dry,” Utsler said. “It’s just going to continue to dry out and get worse.”


Lance and Maggie Votroubek said they hope others in similar situations can learn from their experience and advised the following:

  • Assess and research the problem and get as many estimates as possible.
  • Ask contractors for references from past customers.
  • Choose a company with many years of experience.
  • Hire a local contractor.


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