Sewer Inspections for Older Homes

Sewer Line Inspections for Home Buyers

Man digging next to house to check sewer line
••• © Big Stock Photo

Few first-time homebuyers consider sewer inspections before buying homes. They know they should get a home inspection, but sewer lines are almost an after-thought. Yet this is one of the most important inspections a buyer of older homes should conduct because it can turn up numerous problems that can be seriously expensive to fix.

The time to find out if a sewer is faulty or needs replacement is before you buy, not after the fact.

Reasons to Inspect the Sewer Line

All buyers should obtain a sewer inspection if the home in question is more than 20 years old. The line might be fairly new compared to homes built before 1950, but tree roots can still clog it up over 20 years or so, and this is a fairly common problem.

Roots crawl into tiny openings and expand in the sewer line, latching on to other debris, such as grease or eggshell waste. This typically causes backups. Chemicals can sometimes kill the tree's roots, but the pipe itself might be damaged and require excavation to fix the problem.

Homes that were constructed prior to city sewers being installed often relied on cesspools. Sometimes these cesspools were left intact and connected to the sewer line after cities installed public septic systems. You won't know unless you have the sewer inspected.

Many homes built in the 1950s have sewer lines made from tar paper. These are referred to as Orangeburg pipes, and they disintegrate and collapse over time. The sewer line definitely needs to be replaced if a home has Orangeburg pipes, and a sewer scope inspection is the only way to find out if the home is more than 60 years old.

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 as well.

The plumbing company will insert a snake attached to a small video camera into the clean-out. The snake will maneuver the camera through the sewer, and you can watch the resulting images on a monitor. Not only will the plumbing company find out if the sewer line is clean or clogged, but the inspection will also disclose the overall condition of the sewer.

Ask the contractor to tell you what kind of material was used to construct the sewer line. Find out whether that type of material is still considered to be good construction today. Sewer lines can be made up of different materials, from Orangeburg to clay to cast iron.

How Much Does This Cost?

It might cost anywhere from $220 to $770 to have the sewer line inspected by video, although this assumes that the plumber encounters no serious problems. It's money well spent, however, when you consider the cost to replace a sewer line. Keep in mind that a property can sit atop hundreds of feet of plumbing.

Many of these sewer inspections can literally be accomplished in five minutes, although this doesn't include setup time and it can obviously take longer if there's a problem.

Some Examples of Sewer Inspections

Two homes were subject to sewer inspections—and one was not. Put yourself into any one of these scenarios if you're in the process of buying a property.

The first home was built in 1930. The buyers had a sewer inspection performed and were pleasantly surprised to learn that the sewer line was brand new.

The plumbing company discovered that the sewer line had almost completely collapsed beneath the second home. 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 buyer of the third home decided not to do a sewer inspection. Luckily, the buyer's agent turned on all the water faucets and flushed the toilet during the final walk-through inspection. A geyser erupted in the back yard and the smell was unmistakably sewer waste. The seller ended up crediting the buyer many thousands of dollars to pay for a sewer replacement to be installed after closing.

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. It turned out to be a cesspool flowing into the city sewer, not at all what the buyer had expected.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.