Are houses bought and sold with major structural problems? All the time. In more than a few cases, unscrupulous sellers hide the available symptoms and clues while the unsuspecting buyer takes a beating.
Always look for cracks in foundations and everywhere else in houses. Walk all floors to feel for unevenness, sags and tilting. Don't buy any house without having a competent and ethical home inspector check it. Spend the time going through the house with the inspector, because the really good ones want you there to help make sure you understand what you need to.
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The soil under and around house foundations can vary a great deal. Some soils which tend to be problematic are those with a relatively high shrink/swell index. These soils are also commonly called expansive soils or marine clay. In a sense these soils tend to act like a sponge; as their moisture content increases their volume increases. Likewise, when they lose moisture they tend to decrease in volume.
During dry periods when the soil loses moisture you may find separation cracks in the surface, as shown here.
To really know what you are dealing with when expansive soil is suspected, soil borings are the wise choice. This sort of work is usually done by engineering companies. Essentially, a long hollow pipe is screwed into the ground at deliberately picked locations. The pipe captures a representative sample of the soil through which it penetrates. When the pipe is withdrawn, it is opened and the soil within is packaged and sent to a lab for analysis.
The foundations for houses are designed based on the characteristics of the soil as discovered by the soil boring. Foundations built to deal effectively with expansive soil are typically very expensive.