New Home Buyer's Tips

One out of three of my customers are new home buyers who just recently moved in and experienced a major plumbing issue. Issues have ranged from routine backups to major damage requiring thousand of dollars to repair. Many new homeowners then haven the burden of rectifying the problem or finding an attorney to represent them in court for damages against the seller. As a new home owner it is just as important to know the condition of the sewer as it is to inquire about termite damage, cabinet space, or the school district. Here are some general recommendations while inquiring on the status of a sewer.

I - ASK QUESTIONS

How long the seller has lived in the home?

Some homeowners may not have lived in the home long enough to experience any inconveniences with plumbing. Those that have stayed a few years are able to give information about plumbing issues. Other times investment companies may buy and sell a particular home several times without knowing anything with respect to underground plumbing. Some plumbing may be new but the rest of may not.

Have any drains ever been serviced?

Answers to these questions can give you an idea if drains have been maintained. Older homes usually have had a toilet overflow, kitchen sink back up, or a mainline that needs interval servicing. Honest sellers will volunteer information that may have been forgotten through the selling process, especially if they needed services beyond regular cabling. Many sellers will have problem drains cleaned before the home goes on the market to ensure nothing backs up while showing the home.

Specifically ask if any service provider has ever recommended a repair or camera Inspection?

Just because novice professional number one suggests a repair, doesn't mean a second opinion is out of line. If anything, it would definitely warrant taking a closer look inside the sewer with a camera inspection. Many sewers may simply need a baseline drain cleaning or routine maintenance.

Ask for lodgistics...

Knowing the path of the sewer can give a buyer valuable information as to costs associated with maintenance,potential backups and major flooding. A three hundred foot sewer running through a forest would have more issues than a short sewer located far away from trees and shrubs. Some homes are more susceptible to MSD floods because they are sitting lower in relation to other homes in the neighborhood or are closer to a MSD trunk line. Being the low man on the totem pole can be disastrous during heavy rains. Finally, ask to see any receipts they have from service providers.

Reading through service records can give a buyer a history of maintenance,lodgistics and recommendations. Quality service technicians outline in detail the nature of the service call, problem spots in sewers and drains as well as future maintenance needs.

II - MAKE A VISUAL INSPECTION

Making a visual inspection of the drainage systems can tell you a lot about the history of maintenance. Simple things like checking the condition of the stacks ( vertical pipes usually in the basement), floor drains, and traps under the sinks will reveal information about the integrity of the plumbing system. Running simple tests such as filling up a sink and letting it drain or flushing the toilet can also reveal potential maintenance issues. Take note of partial repairs. Considering that at one point in time all the plumbing pipes were new, over time it was necessary to perform a partial repair, a buyer should be curious to the condition of the remaining portions of the plumbing especially underground. Many of my clients have been sold broken and defective plumbing systems along with the house.

Stacks

Most stacks contain a cap on them a few feet up from the floor. This cleanout cap is used as an access into the drain system for cleaning purposes. Kitchen drains also have cleanout caps that one can unscrew to see the amount of food waste built up.

1 Check for groves on the cap this will let one know if the sewer has been opened from this location. Usually a technician will use a pipe wrench to remove the cap and leave groves on it.

2 Check to see if the stacks have been painted over. Many sellers (typically rehabbers and investment brokers) will paint the stacks black to hide the condition of the actual cast iron stacks. By sanding the rust away and painting over cracks sellers are able to pass inspections easier eliminating suspicion of deteriorated cast plumbing systems underground.

3 Plastic caps on a cast iron stack is a dead giveaway that the sewer has backed up in the past (or at least cleaned).

4 Plumbers putty or wax around a brass or metal cap is also an indication that the sewer has been accessed.

5 If possible, removing the cap and inspecting the threads of the stack can be an indication of how often the sewer has been cleared. Worn out threads usually indicated frequent problems with the sewer because many sewer cleaning cables have rubbed against them.

6 If one removes the cap and finds a lot of black sludge goop it is time to do a comprehensive cleaning. Waste of this kind aids in deteriorating the cast underground much faster than if it were kept clean.

Floor drains

Floor drains can also be valuable to a basic visual inspection. There can be many floor drains in a home, it is important to check all of them. Floor drains are the lowest drain in the home, therefore this is where major sewer backups reveal themselves.

1 Make sure all floor drains have covers or metal grates over them, this prevents foreign objects from falling in. Sometimes objects such as toys, tools , wood, cue balls, tile grout can lodge themselves in where it is impossible to remove without excavating.

2 Shine a flash light into the drain in order to inspect for holes, rust, tree root entry, and evidence of toilet paper stuck to the edges. Paper stuck to the edges is an indication of sewer back ups. The floor drain should contain clear water a few inches below the surface of the floor, this is normal. If the water is black or greasy looking it is time to clean it.

3 Dump a bucket of water down to make sure it drains properly.

4 Fill up a large load in the washing machine, turn the dial to spin and let it drain while watching the movement of water in floor drain. The water level in the floor drain should not move or bounce up and down very much. If it rises with in two inches of the floor drain there may be back up issues in the near future.

5 Also, listen to the water draining into the laundry stand pipe, many times one can hear the water rising in smaller laundry stand pipes. Soap and lint can build up creating a blockage that creates quite a mess, especially in a finished portion of a home.

Traps under sinks

The little u thing under the sinks in the kitchen and bathroom sinks is called a trap. It traps water within the drain system in order to produce a water barrier which in turn prevents sewer gases from entering the home. Usually they are chrome or plastic and travel behind a wall connecting to a stack which is connected to the house main sewer.

1 Inspect the traps for green or white buildup. This buildup is corrosive to the drain system and will eventually cause it to leak.

2 Run water and inspect for leaks. A slow undetectable leak can saturate and destroy a vanity, kitchen floor, or ceiling drywall creating mildew and expensive repairs.

3 Inquire about the frequency of liquid drain openers used such as Drano or Liquid Plumber. Harsh chemicals will eat a hole right through traps and drains. Heavy usage will yield fragile pipes, so fragile that a cleaning cable can burst a hole in the drain.

III - CHECK OUTSIDE AND RUN TESTS

Homes that contain an outside yard vent, sewer access or cleanout (three names for the same thing) typically are less expensive to maintain. A technician does not have to drag hundreds of pounds of equipment downstairs to the basement to service the home. Also the outside cleanouts allow for more efficient cleanings because larger cutting utensils can be used. The diameter of the inside portion of the sewer is normally smaller than the diameter outside of the home. The goal is to clean a sewer with the largest possible cutter tool without getting stuck. Homes without an outside yard vent are at a disadvantage because only smaller cutter tools can be used through the stack access leaving some portions of the larger pipe outside the home untouched.

1 Look for dips and sunken areas in the yard along the pathway of the sewer. Many times separations in the clay tile allow liquid sewage to escape washing away the dirt causing the ground to sink. Sunken areas are a good clue to defective sewers.

2 Check for sinking concrete driveways, walkways, porches and brick patios. It is a good idea to locate the sewer electronically to determine if it is the cause. Sewer repairs under a driveway can be two and three times more expensive than in a yard.

3 Test the flow of the sewer by having someone flush the toilet and watching the water travel through the clean out outside. A healthy sewer should have a waterfall effect and exit briskly. If water is slow or sluggish then clean and inspect.

4 Inspect the cleanout or outside trap with a powerful flashlight. Many times one can find broken and missing portions of the clay riser, large amounts of grease, or tree roots.