My wife and I have owned three houses, but never a brick house. We looked at a brick Cape Cod-style house with attached garage the other day with our real estate agent.

All four exterior walls have at least one area with a zigzag crack that looks like what I would call a settlement crack. (The house is wood frame faced with brick. It has a basement under roughly two-thirds of the house, with a crawl space under the rest.) Even the wall on the end of the garage has a crack. The cracks measure about one-quarter inch. Some have been caulked (some time ago), and others are just open.

This is an estate sale, so we have no particulars, such as exact age. Other houses in the neighborhood were built about 50 years ago.

Our concern is that there is bad stuff going on behind the wall from moisture. Another concern is that the walls are not tied in to the wood frame very well and are in danger of collapse.

My wife and I are looking for a house that we can grow old in and like the one-floor aspect of the Cape. This house has had work done on the interior and is freshly painted and very clean on the inside on both floors. The basement is clean and shows no evidence of water leakage or settling.

Answer: These sound like fairly wide and extensive cracks. If I were looking at this house, I'd have the Yellow Pages open, with my finger running down the list of structural engineers in the area.

Experts tell me that the presence of thin, vertical cracks in concrete foundation walls are rarely anything to be concerned about and are usually easily repaired. Horizontal cracks, on the other hand, most often need further examination, and that's where spending the money on a structural engineer is important.

If you decide to make an offer on this house, it should be contingent on a home inspection and a structural-engineering report. Then again, there are a lot of houses on the market you could consider right now. Since you're planning to "grow old" in your next house, you don't want to age even faster by having to deal with what could be a chronic and expensive problem.

Q: We are remodeling our master bath and want to know what costs and investments we should consider. We want to update a 35-year-old bath that is original to the house from the '70s. Currently, our house would sell for about $450,000.

Are there some guidelines on what we should spend in terms of resale? What percentage of a home's value should you put into a master bath, and what return could you expect if you sell within five years, for example?

We live in Malvern in a neighborhood that sells fast.

A: I'm a firm believer in never renovating just to sell a house, and in not overimproving for the neighborhood.

So for whom are you remodeling your bathroom? If it's for yourself, and you plan to live in the house for several more years, I would recommend double sinks and a soaking tub and separate shower, because that's what you'll find in newer houses in your area.

A project like this will require demolition and new plumbing, so you'll have to make other arrangements for several weeks. In addition, before you even grab a sledgehammer, you should have a designer or architect come up with a viable plan for the bathroom.

According to Remodeling magazine's most recent cost-vs.-value report for the Middle Atlantic region (, an upscale bathroom remodel runs about $40,000, with about 74 percent recouped at resale. A mid-range remodel costs about $13,000, with about 81 percent recouped at resale.

Have questions for Alan J. Heavens? E-mail him at or write him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.