Since you were a kid, you’ve noticed creaking, popping, moaning noises coming from the bones of various houses. Nothing to worry about, some adult told you, the house is just “settling.” And so you accept that explanation and move on.

But what, exactly, does it mean for a house to settle? What causes it to happen? And is it a bad thing?

Allow us to explain.

What is Settling?

Settling is just what it sounds like. It’s the joints and wooden parts of a house sort of dropping a little and moving and finding the bottom of things. The dirt on which your house was built is, hopefully, firm and compacted, but dirt is dirt nonetheless and over time the weight of house will compact it a little more, which is when you get the settling stuff. This will happen to every house. It’s only a matter of time.

What Causes Settling?

So, here’s where construction techniques come into play. Imagine you’re planting a garden. Before you till up the dirt, it’s probably hard and compacted from ages and ages of … being dirt. But after you till it, if you step in that dirt, your foot will sink into it a little, right? The same principle applies to home construction. If dug to the proper depth, the house’s foundation will be laid on top of that hard, compacted dirt. Sometimes, adjustments have to be made, and the hole has to be back-filled a little, meaning the dirt the foundation gets poured over will be a little less firm, and that house will experience a little more settling.

There are other conditons that can cause this too. Soil type plays a big role. Clay soil, for example, does a lot of expanding and contracting over time, which will cause houses to settle.

So Is It a Problem?

Not usually. As we mentioned, a certain amount of settling is to be expected with all homes. But if it seems to be happening a lot, look around your home for signs of cracks. If your home is brick, you might see them appear there. You could also see them in the foundation itself, or on the interior of the house, wherever things like trip or joists are joined together. These could be signs that you have a problem with your foundation, and you should call in an professional.