The time to find out if a sewer is faulty or needs replacement is before buying a home, not after the fact. I recommend to all my buyers that they obtain a sewer inspection if the home is older than 20 years. Although the sewer line may be fairly new as compared to homes built before 1950, for example, tree roots can still clog up a 20-year-old sewer line.
Reasons to Inspect the Sewer Line
Tree roots growing into sewer lines is a common problem. Roots crawl into tiny openings and expand in the sewer line, latching on to other debris that typically cause backups such as grease or eggshell waste. Sometimes chemicals can kill the trees roots but if the roots reappear, the pipe may be damaged and require excavation to fix the problem.
Homes that were constructed prior to city sewers often relied on cesspools. After cities installed public septic systems, sometimes the cesspools were left intact and connected to the sewer line. You won't know unless you inspect the sewer.
Many homes built in the 1950s have sewer lines made from tar paper called Orangeburg pipes. These disintegrate and collapse over time. If a home has Orangeburg, the sewer line definitely needs to be replaced.
How to Inspect a Sewer Line
Simply call a plumbing company and ask if the contractor can use a camera to inspect the sewer. Your real estate agent might be able to refer several companies to you. The plumbing company inserts a snake attached to a small video camera into the clean-out and snakes the camera through the sewer. You can watch the image on a monitor.
Not only will the plumbing company find out if the sewer line is clean or clogged, but the inspection will disclose the condition of the sewer. Ask the contractor to tell you what kind of material was used to construct the sewer line and whether that type of material is considered good construction today.
It might cost anywhere from $85 to $300 to have the sewer line inspected, but considering the cost to replace a sewer line, it's money well spent.
Results From Sewer Inspections
Three homes recently inspected produced three separate results. The first home, built in 1930, was located in the Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento. The buyers, expecting the worst, were pleasantly surprised to learn the sewer line was brand new. This was a desirable selling point that the listing agent and the seller neglected to disclose.
The second home was located near the railroad tracks in Curtis Park. The plumbing company discovered the sewer line had almost completely collapsed and was beyond repair. The company recommended a new sewer line. The seller chose a plumbing company that used the trenchless method, which involved pulling a new sewer line through the existing sewer. Trenchless sewers cost almost one-third less than digging up the entire yard and replacing the sewer.
The third home was in Midtown, a hip urban area near downtown Sacramento. During the final walk-through inspection, the buyer's agent turned on all the water faucets and flushed the toilet. A geyser erupted in the back yard and the smell was unmistakably sewer waste. The seller of that home ended up crediting the buyer many thousands of dollars to pay for a sewer replacement to be installed after closing.
This Midtown buyer was simply lucky. Although advised to get a sewer inspection beforehand, the buyer declined. If it wasn't for the geyser during the final walk-through, the sewer problem might not have been discovered until months after the transaction closed.
At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, DRE # 00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.