Most home buyers today wouldn’t think about closing their purchase without getting a general house inspection. That’s particularly so with older homes, but many also elect to have new buildings examined by an independent third party. Inspections are excellent insurance for discovering existing and potential problems. Unfortunately, most home inspectors fail to examine the sewer lines, which can turn out to be a critical and costly mistake.
Home inspectors generally report on current home system conditions. They also estimate the life expectancy of major components. Types of home inspections include the overall framing or structure, roof, building envelope, electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems. Inspection reports identify issues that often establish repair or replacement price adjustments during negotiations. However, while a home inspector may note a dripping faucet, they rarely catch the underlying cause of the problem.
Why Inspectors Overlook Sewer Systems
Inspectors might overlook the sewer system for two reasons. One is that the vast majority of a sewer system is underground. It’s out of sight and out of mind. The second reason is that most home inspectors don’t have the specialized equipment or knowledge necessary to do a proper sewer line inspection.
This isn’t a slam against house inspectors. Far from it. Many inspectors are extremely competent and have a vast amount of general building knowledge. It’s tough to be an overall expert when you consider just how many pieces there are in a home’s systems. Just the plumbing system alone is extensive, and good inspectors know what plumbing features to check before buying a home.
Unfortunately, some inspectors fail to consider the sewer lines as an extension of the plumbing system. That’s when problems begin to back up, so to speak. A serious plumbing backup could happen right after you move into your newly purchased home. Someone has to pay for it, and this is when the finger-pointing starts. However, it could have been totally prevented if only someone thought to have an inexpensive sewer line inspection done.
Sewer Repairs Can Be Extremely Expensive
You might wonder, “Do I need a sewer line inspection before buying a house?” The answer is yes. A sewer inspection should be a mandatory part of your house inspection checklist. When considering what inspections to get when buying a house, do not overlook the sewer line. In fact, getting a sewer inspection is one of the most important home inspection tips for first-time buyers. Sewer line inspections are cheap, but sewer repairs can be extremely expensive. Why spend the money on a repair when you could have avoided with a simple inspection?
There’s no such thing as a typical cost for repairing your sewer lines. It can start at a few hundred dollars to snake out a blockage. Or, it could be tens of thousands of dollars to excavate your yard and replace the pipes. The repair bills depend on the sewer line condition, the problem’s location and the root cause.
No pun intended, but speaking of roots, tree roots are the primary cause of blocked sewer lines. Fortunately, roots are easy to find with a closed-circuit television inspection. Unfortunately, they can be very expensive to dig up and clear out. Having the sewer line scoped should be on your house-buying inspection checklist. In fact, you can’t afford not to inspect the sewer line before closing your house purchase deal.
The Worst-Case Sewer Line Scenario
Consider this worst-case scenario. After months of shopping, you’ve finally found the home of your dreams. It’s a heritage home and at the top end of your budget, but appears to be a good deal. You’ve done your due diligence and hired a home inspector. The report came back with a clean bill of health, and you happily move in. But, three months later, you have a problem.
It starts with a funny smell in the basement. That’s accompanied by slow-running toilets and gurgling noises from the drains. Three days later, you can’t flush your toilets, and brackish water backflows onto your basement floor. You call a plumber, and they instantly know you’ve got a stopped sewer line. The question is, “Where’s the blockage?”
It’s a massive root from that majestic front yard tree that first attracted you to the property. It’s strangled the pipe and burst it wide open. You also see sand and sludge that have been seeping in and out of the old clay lines installed when your classic house was built. And then your plumber gives you the news.
The block is on your side of the property line. It’s your problem to fix, not the city’s. Your plumber gives you more bad news. The main blockage is under your concrete driveway, and it’s got to come up. So does the entire sewer line, as its clay tiles are compromised by the majestic tree’s roots. And making matters worse, the line goes under the tree, and its day is done too.
You ask for an estimate and get a time and materials response. It’s going to be north of $10,000, and “probably” closer to $20,000. You call your bank, and it’s not in the budget. They suggest you go after the previous owner. Your next call is to your lawyer.
Sewer Line Repair Options
This worst-case scenario is preventable. It’s hard to say how a court would view repair cost responsibility. There’s a “buyer-beware” and due diligence responsibility on you as a potential purchaser. And there’s no responsibility for a home seller to arrange for a sewer line inspection. Their only responsibility is to disclose potential or existing problems, but they may have had no clue about the trouble brewing under their yard.
Arranging for a simple sewer line inspection can be the best prevention money you can spend. A video pipeline inspection will set you back in the $200-$300 range, but you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind. Chances are, your sewer line inspector will find nothing. That’s reassurance value on its own.
But if a problem shows up on the sewer line inspection report, you’re free to exercise your options. This depends on the severity of what your inspection turns up. You’ve paid for the inspection, so it’s your information to use. Let’s look at what options you now have.
- Estimate repair costs: Not every blocked sewer line is a worst-case scenario. Your inspector might quickly isolate a potential blockage they can easily remove with internal action, rather than digging up the yard. You have time to weigh your options, rather than taking a knee-jerk reaction.
- Take time to assess: Time is your friend when negotiating a house purchase. Look at the big picture, and assess how extensive the problems might be. Take a step back, calmly plan your next step and don’t get caught unaware.
- Determine responsibility: Having a sewer line inspection lets you determine responsibility for fixing problems. Your inspector will determine the line’s overall condition, and whether potential repairs fall within the home’s property line or in the civic jurisdiction. This is time to get the authorities involved before the deal goes further.
- Negotiate repair costs: You have an option to negotiate repair costs with your seller. It’s important to bring parties together and discuss the scope of repairs and who will incur costs. Depending on the situation, your inspection might find a looming threat, but not an outright danger. Circumstances will determine if you’re willing to move forward, or if you can now negotiate repair costs as part of your purchase deal.
- Abandon your deal: If your sewer pipe inspection finds a serious problem, you have the option to abandon your deal and walk away. This might be a tough decision when everything else about the property appears perfect. But it’s a matter of future costs, and you simply can’t afford to take the risk.
What Causes Sewer Line Blockages?
Many sewer lines go through their entire service life without any problem at all. Sewer lines are passive containment systems, unlike water services that are pressurized. Constant pressure is far more likely to take its toll on water lines that tend to leak at fittings or freeze when exposed to sub-zero temperatures. Sewer lines are also subject to less flow than storm drain lines that carry massive water runoff during heavy rainfall.
Sewer drains depend on gravity. They need a constant negative slope or one running downhill from the lowest point in your house plumbing system to where the line interconnects with the main municipal sanitary sewer system. If you’re on rural property, this can also be your septic tank and disposal field.
The minimal amount of slope required for a normal four-inch diameter residential sewer line is a quarter inch of fall per every one foot of run. A small bit of fall might not seem like much of a rush, but every plumbing code has proven it’s adequate. Gravity-pulled water will carry normal amounts of semi-solid sewage along this slope with ease — until the pathway gets blocked.
There are several possible causes for sewer line blockage. Some contributors are easy to fix. Others aren’t. The difference is how accessible the lines are and how extensive the problem’s cause is. Here are the main causes of sewer line blocks.
- Roots: Tree roots are the biggest offender for blocking sewer lines. That's because sewer lines are the perfect environment for tree roots, which love the constant source of water in pipes and the nutrients sewage provides. Tree roots have immense invasive power and will find the smallest crack in a line to force their way through. Tree roots grow quickly, and can soon block a line. Plumbers can normally augur tree roots out of pipes at a minimal cost. Root problems are easy to spot during video inspections.
- Settling: Sewer lines placed in improperly compacted or supported trenches sink and create low spots. In plumbing language, these are called bellies. This creates a stagnant settling point and causes slow sludge buildup until blocks happen. Unfortunately, bellies often occur, and the only fix is expensive. Bellied sewer lines must be excavated and repositioned. Thankfully, bellies are simple to identify through inspection.
- Ground shifting: Even the best-laid sewer lines can go out of slope or detach over time. Ground settling happens for many reasons: groundwater table changes, nearby excavations or even seismic events. Pipes blocked by ground shifting usually require expensive digs and repairs. A sewer line inspection will reveal shifting ground conditions.
- Inferior pipe materials: Many older homes were sewer-connected by clay or concrete tiles. These are segmented lengths of brittle pipe material that crack over time from root invasion or changing ground conditions. Newer homes now use durable, plastic sewer pipes. A video inspection will quickly identify inferior pipe materials and raise a red flag for future problems.
- Poor installation: Like any project humans do, sewer line installation is subject to bad construction techniques. The most common installation problems are improper joints with severe angles and poorly fitted connections. Camera inspections are guaranteed to spot poor workmanship and give a warning for looming problems.
Repairing Sewer Lines
There are two primary methods for repairing blocked and damaged sewer lines. Both have associated costs, but they can be assessed with camera inspection before starting work. Video inspections are wonderful tools for identifying the extent and location of problems and for formulating a plan of attack for the best remedy the problem. Here are the two main methods for repairing sewer lines:
- Internal interdiction: A sewer line camera inspection quickly identifies what the problem is and where it’s located. The camera determines how far the blockage is from its insertion point, while a radio frequency/sonar transponder allows a surface receiver to fix its geographical location and depth. If the block is within an otherwise sound piping system, it can be physically removed with mechanical cutters or blasted out with high-pressure water. This is the least expensive repair method.
- External interdiction: Sewer video inspections often deliver serious information. They identify badly installed pipes of inferior materials that are sagging in the shifted There's only one salvation method. The entire compromised area needs to be excavated so plumbers can restore pipes to a serviceable state. Sewer repairs can be very expensive in time, materials and collateral damage to existing landscape features. Fortunately, a proper sewer line inspection will catch this before you take ownership of a compromised property.
Finding a Reputable Sewer Line Inspector
Just as you want a reputable plumber and repair company, you want a competent sewer line inspection outfit. You need someone with the specialized equipment to video survey your sewer lines and the experience to interpret the information. This is a lot to ask for a relatively low cost. But the insurance value is enormous.
Dick Ray Master Plumber is your reputable sewer line inspector serving the Kansas City, Kan., area. Our roots date back well over 150 years. Today, we have the most sophisticated sewer inspection equipment available, and we have the experienced staff who know how to use it. Our sewer inspection services can save you thousands of dollars in unexpected repair bills when we identify problems before they become disasters.
Make sure you have a sewer examination on your home inspection checklist. Don’t overlook this simple and inexpensive peek through your sewage lines. You’ll be glad you did. Call Dick Ray Master Plumber at 913-888-0550. Or, you can arrange a sewer line inspection by contacting us online for an appointment to check your pipes before you buy.