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Settlement Cracks / Drying Out Cracks - What they are, where they come from and how to tackle them

Settlement Cracks / Shrinkage Cracks in Your Home

I moved into to a new house over 2 years ago and have noticed a large number of major cracks appearing in the plaster around the ceiling, corners and door frames. They have grown steadily and are at the stage where I am getting seriously worried about them. The developer has indicated that they are just ‘shrinkage cracks’ with no structural implication and has shrugged off any responsibility in this regard. Could you please let me know your thoughts on them and how they may be fixed?

By its nature plaster is susceptible to cracking when subjected to any small vibrations or structural movement. However, the extent of any cracks can tell its own story about the building itself and its construction. From what you are describing it certainly sounds like you are experiencing extreme cracks at the very least or, at worst, some structural movement in the wall / foundation of your property.

‘Shrinkage cracks’ cracks usually occur between 1 and 2 years after a building has been constructed. They originate from the different ‘drying out’ properties of materials used in construction.

As you may be aware most construction materials use water as an essential ingredient – concrete, plaster etc. – and those that don’t often absorb atmospheric water during their lifetime (wood etc.) This means that all materials have a drying out period during which water evaporates from them and they actually shrink. The rate at which they dry out and the amount of shrinkage that occurs is material specific and, suffices to say, there is no way to ensure that all materials ‘shrink’ at the same rate. What this means that the concrete block or brick wall, its plaster covering, the wooden door frame, the beams in the roof and the floor will all shrink at different rates and will move apart or against each other as they do so. Normally the extent of such movement is slight and only manifests itself in cracking the most brittle of the materials used – i.e. the plaster skim. This can leave some fairly impressive looking cracks along the joins of walls, where ceilings and walls connect and running along door frames. In the main this is not serious and can be addressed at a cosmetic level.

In the case of standard shrinkage cracks you should persist with your developer to come to an arrangement in addressing them. They are probably under no contractual obligation to fix normal cracking but most will agree to skim them as a good PR gesture or to get you off their back. You should also check with your neighbours and see if it is a widespread issue in the development – it is always better to approach the developer as a group rather than as an individual. Where you suspect that the cracking is more serious then you may need to go down a different route - I have touched on this further below.

If you fail in your quest with the developer then you can either contract a professional plasterer on or tackle the job yourself as a DIY venture. A word to the wise on the latter however – if you need to plaster the surfaces in question then consider that plastering can be a very messy job particularly in a furnished property. Also ensure that you are satisfied that the surfaces are fully dried out – if they continue to crack after you have put the work in then it may all have been in vain as the cracks re-appear. You can get a survey from a building surveyor or civil engineer on this front who will monitor moisture levels and asses the surface from a structural perspective.

As a DIY project there are a few different approaches to addressing cracks. Apart from skimming you may choose to simply to fill the cracks and finish them to the same degree as the existing surface. At an overview level you simply choose the material that you want to fill the cracks with - your options will include interior / plaster filler, epoxy filler or indeed tape -   ensure that the cracks are both dry and clean, then simply fill or seal them subject to the manufacturer’s instructions. When ready you can sand the end product back so that it is flush with the original surface and then simply paint over it as required. The reality is that each job will differ - if you have a specific project in mind send me an email and I will assist if I can. Bear in mind also that skimming the surface with a coat of plaster may provide the best finish possible particularly where the cracks are extensive.


While standard shrinkage account for the vast majority of cracks there are also more serious causes. Extreme shrinkage can occur where the construction materials may have contained excessive moisture levels and therefore the level of shrinkage cannot have been allowed for in the property design. This can result in structural defects over time and should be addressed by the developer. Other more serious causes can be in relation to occurrences such as subsidence – where the soil beneath the foundation or beneath column supports may shrink due to moisture loss. Where this occurs the soil may not have been compacted properly before the foundation was installed or large pieces of organic material may have been included in the soil under the house. When the latter decays, the soil above it collapses to fill the void. This results in structural damage to the foundations, walls and entire building structure. If you suspect that it is structural then you will need to get a independent report from a building surveyor or civil engineer. Where this is the case then the developer is most likely at fault and you should approach them accordingly and seek redress.

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