A few weeks ago, I was walking down my street and stopped to talk with a neighbor. She was deeply worried. She just learned she was being sued by someone claiming they had been injured after tripping on a cracked portion of the sidewalk in front of her home. I looked at the sidewalk and saw that the county had placed some orange markers on either side of the cracked portion. This news was puzzling to me. The crack wasn’t especially large and had been there for years. It also made me think about all the cracked concrete in my backyard where someone could easily trip. I decided to learn more about homeowner liability regarding sidewalks and what options exist for concrete repair.
Who is Responsible for Sidewalks?
Every municipality is different, so it’s important for homeowners to check with their local governments to fully understand the scope of their responsibility. I live in Marin County, and even though the county initially builds the sidewalks, home and business owners are responsible for their maintenance (with a few exceptions). Liability for injuries caused by the sidewalks is a separate issue. Some cities in Marin, such as Mill Valley and San Anselmo, hold the city liable; many others, such as San Rafael and Sausalito, hold the homeowner liable. This patchwork of regulations continues throughout the Bay Area. Some municipalities like Santa Rosa hold the property owner liable but will apply an asphalt patch over the damaged sidewalk at the owner’s request to reduce the likelihood of injuries.
Cracks and Concrete
Almost all sidewalks in the Bay Area are made of concrete, and many homes have concrete driveways, walkways or patios. Homeowners should be aware that even the strongest concrete will inevitably crack over time due to seasonal temperature changes and natural soil erosion.
That being said, experienced contractors take steps to reduce the extent of cracking and bolster its durability. Poured as a liquid, concrete will shrink as it dries to its final form, and it will expand and contract in response to the freezes and thaws of the seasons. To prevent cracks from occurring at these times, concrete contractors install control joints at regular intervals, which essentially act as planned cracks to reduce pressure on the rest of the concrete. A qualified concrete contractor will also make sure the soil is compact before pouring and the concrete is reinforced by steel. These steps will help the concrete stay level over time and slow down the formation of gaps between slabs.
Concrete Repair Options
Correctly poured concrete can last for decades. However, signs of age will inevitably occur even in the sturdiest sidewalks and patios. Any sidewalk crack that’s greater than 1/4 inch vertically can be considered a hazard, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you need to repair a sidewalk, driveway or patio, an experienced concrete contractor can offer several solutions.
Smaller gaps and fissures in your concrete can be repaired with patching mix, which is made from vinyl, Portland cement and sand. Sealing the area afterward can reduce the incursion of moisture. Patching, while less expensive, only offers a temporary fix. If aesthetics are important to you, be aware that the patched areas will look different than the rest of the concrete.
This is an option for fixing trip hazards up to two inches in vertical difference. The contractor will use specialized equipment to grind down the higher slab so it gently slopes to meet the rest of the concrete. As with patching, the concrete won’t result in a uniform look, as the grinding process removes the finished top layer and exposes the aggregate material beneath.
This repair method fixes sunken or uneven concrete without requiring total replacement. The contractor drills holes into the uneven slabs and then injects a specially calibrated slurry of crushed limestone, water, and Portland cement. By carefully applying the slurry to the right locations, the mixture will force the sunken areas of the slab to rise up. Once dry, the cement will be even once again. Concrete leveling can usually be completed in one day and is less costly and disruptive than concrete replacement.
Some situations will call for total replacement of the concrete. This will be the case if the cracks run through to the sub-base of the slab or if the soil beneath the concrete has experienced significant erosion, water damage, or incursion from tree roots. While more costly, new concrete will last for decades if installed correctly.
New Sidewalk Installation
Before any project begins on a sidewalk, the contractor will need to pull permits and determine a plan with local utilities if the sidewalk covers any gas, water or power lines. Once they get the green light, the contractor will use specialized excavating equipment to remove the old concrete, which can often be recycled by building supply companies.
Once the old concrete is gone, the contractor can address landscaping issues such as tree root removal or improper drainage. The contractor will level the surface and make sure the soil is compact. A four-inch layer of gravel will serve as the base for the slabs and help drain away future rainfall. The contractor then installs rebar to make the slab more resistant to future cracking.
The contractor will determine the best concrete mixture to use for your soil conditions and expected foot/vehicle traffic. After the concrete is poured and leveled, they may apply a curing spray to prevent the slabs from drying out too quickly, which would lead to early cracks. A new sidewalk is ready to use in one or two days, but cars should stay off of new driveway aprons for at least a week.
Making a Plan for Concrete Repair
After learning about homeowner liability and concrete, we’re making a plan to take care of some of the broken slabs in our backyard. We’ll replace some areas that didn’t have correct control joints and remove the slabs busted by the roots of an old Ficus tree. It has been great to have concrete in our yard—it’s a flat, durable surface that’s perfect for some outdoor activities. However, when cracks do occur, I’ve learned it’s important to address them before they lead to bigger problems.