Though far more attention is paid to repairs and improvements for visible aspects of the home, the least noticeable element of any structure — the foundation — deserves perhaps the most consideration.

Left unchecked, issues with a home's foundation can render a structure unsafe and, at the very least, cause expensive damage to windows, doors, drywall and fireplaces.

Though a professional should be consulted when foundation troubles are suspected, it doesn't take a contractor to identify potential issues. With so much resting on a foundation, regular inspections are warranted and knowing what to look for can minimize repair costs and prevent damage from worsening.

Telltale signs of foundation woes include drywall cracks, bulges in flooring and windows or doors that won't open or close. In severe cases, walls begin to shift, compromising a structure's integrity and allowing unwanted moisture near the base of a home that can lead to mold, termite infestations and other issues.

"If doors and windows won't open because they've shifted, that's one of the biggest indicators of a foundation settling," says Medford Cut N Break Construction owner John Lawton.

"Most of the things you're going to look for are fairly visible even before they get real bad. If you don't catch it in the beginning, you'll start seeing things like foundation moving or shrinking away from the dirt around it."

With so many homes built on the Rogue Valley hillsides, Terrafirma Foundation Repair's Todd Black warns that a significant number of Southern Oregon homeowners could face foundation issues.

"We do a lot of work in the hills in Medford and I know a lot of people who wish they'd looked a little harder before they bought these million dollar homes," says Black.

"Anybody looking at buying a constructed lot should take precautions before they build their home. There are ways, even on a hillside, to ensure your foundation will not sink or shift."

Keep in mind, as well, that not all cracks in a foundation are signs of trouble. Shallow vertical cracks are common with minor settlement and should not be confused with cracks that occur when a wall is subjected to lateral movement from soil pressure. Cracks indicative of foundation woes often run from corners or doors or windows at a diagonal angle.

"If a crack separates at the top and it's closed at the bottom towards the footing you've probably got some reasonable idea you've got some settling you don't want going on somewhere," Lawton says.

In terms of repair, reinforcing a structure's support system is the only true "fix." Decades ago, foundations were improved by hoisting a structure onto jacks, then pouring concrete or other fill material into voided areas.

An improved method is used today with mechanically driven steel piering that involves the use of strategically placed mechanical jacks for lifting settled beams up to grade. Once raised, the beam is held in place by a specially designed footing and pier rested against solid bedrock deep beneath the home site.

In terms of cost, foundation repair varies drastically depending on the size of the home, amount of settling and how long the problem has gone unresolved. Some

repairs cost under $2,000 while more serious issues can cost well over $25,000, according to area foundation experts.

"If you're paying attention and do something as soon as you notice a problem, it's not going to be as expensive as if you wait 10 years," Black notes.

"And maybe a 5-foot section isn't going to cost as much as a 30-foot section would to fix. It really pays to watch for the signs and deal with it before things get worse."