Don't skip the sewer inspection when buying a home.
Most home buyers will make an offer on a home contingent on an inspection of the property or rely on a seller-provided inspection report. However, many buyers will skip doing a sewer inspection to save some money or because they were not advised to do so by their Realtor or home inspector. Standard home inspections do not include a sewer scope.
For the sake of a few hundred dollars is it worth taking the risk on something that may potentially cost you multiple thousands of dollars after closing? Sewer repairs and replacement are not cheap and can be anywhere up to $25,000. What lies beneath can eat up your savings and an ounce of prevention is worth every penny.
What Is a Sewer Line Inspection?
A sewer pipe inspection involves a thorough evaluation of the sewer lines using a specialized camera called a sewer scope. This camera is inserted into the sewer line through an access point, such as a sewer cleanout. The scope is manually pushed through the line, ideally all the way out to where the side sewer from the home connects to the main sewer line in the street.
During the inspection, the camera captures real-time video footage of the inside of the sewer line, allowing professionals to visually inspect the pipes. This footage provides valuable information about the condition of the sewer line, including any signs of damage, blockages, or tree root intrusion. If the inspector discovers issues in the sewer line including broken pipes or major blockages they will use a location device and leave a small flag on the surface where that issue is located. That way whoever does the sewer repairs knows where to start digging if necessary.
Sewer scopes are typically performed by plumbing experts. They use their expertise to analyze the inspection report and provide valuable insights into the current condition of the sewer system. However, an increasing number of home inspectors are now offering to do sewer scopes but there can be pros and cons to going this route (see below).
Ideally, there is an external clean out that the inspector can easily access to run the camera but sometimes they have to resort to removing one of the inside toilets or climbing up on the roof and going down one of the ventilation pipes. And the worst-case scenario, the sewer inspector has to go into the crawl place to get access to the sewer cleanout.
Factors that increase the risk of discovering sewer issues when buying a home.
Certain aspects of a home can increase the chances that the sewer pipe will have some issues and hence the need for doing an inspection.
- The older the home, the older the sewer line, and the greater the chance the original sewer is still in place. Older lines are made up of segmented clay or concrete pipes with lots of joins that are susceptible to separation or root intrusion.
- The home sits on a steep hill and the sewer line runs down a slope. The greater the slope the greater the chance for line breakage.
- The property with lots of trees and big shrubs. Tree roots love water and will try to force their way into the connection joints of older sewer lines.
- Slow Drainage: if water takes longer than usual to drain from sinks, bathtubs, or toilets, it may be a sign of a clogged or damaged sewer line.
- Foul Odors: Unpleasant odors emerging from drains or the backyard can signify sewer line issues, such as sewer water leaks or poor ventilation.
However, any home, regardless of age and location can have potential sewer line problems. Ask your home inspector if they recommend that you do a camera scope, not your real estate agent.
How Much Does a Sewer Line Inspection Cost?
The quick answer is that for the Seattle area at least it's around $300 and will vary between $250 and about $350 but that will vary in different parts of the country. Potentially, if the sewer access point is in an odd location like a crawl space you might be charged a little extra for that inconvenience.
So what do you get for your money? You will get a written report on the condition of the sewer line plus a link to a video of the camera being run down the sewer line. And one local sewer inspector will give you two bags of popcorn so you can gather your family and watch the sewer video on a Saturday night.
What if the sewer camera can't get all the way out to the city sewer line in the street?
One limitation of sewer scopes is that if there is a blockage in the pipe the camera may not be able to get beyond that point and all the way out to the main sewer. The better the equipment the better the chance the inspector can push the camera beyond the blockage.
So if there is a major blockage in the sewer line 30 ft from the home but there's still 60 more feet out to the main sewer line in the street you'll have no idea as to whether there are additional issues beyond the first 30 feet. As to who is responsible for sewer repairs that occur under sidewalks and city streets will vary from city to city. So if the scope discovers issues in those two areas is important to ask the inspector who is liable for those repair costs because digging up sidewalks and city street is really expensive.
If there is a blockage in the line due to tree roots that are preventing the camera from getting all the way out to the main sewer line then you may have to have the blockage removed and then come back and rerun the camera. Obviously, if you're doing a home inspection as part of buying a home, the sellers would have to be responsible for unblocking since that is something you are not authorized to perform.
What if the home inspector also does sewer inspections?
It is becoming more common that some home inspectors will offer an all-in-one service where they can also inspect the sewer line for you. Obviously, this provides a nice convenience since the same individual can do both the home and sewer inspection instead of having to schedule two separate appointments.
Yes, it's convenient, but should you use that service? While the home inspector might be really good at inspecting the property that doesn't automatically mean they are also good at scoping a sewer.
One potential issue with using a home inspector is that the equipment they use may not be of the same quality as a professional sewer scope company. Higher-end equipment, including the camera head and hosing that is rigid enough to be able to get all the way out to the main sewer line costs around $16,000. Also, camera replacement is not cheap.
Home inspectors are much more likely to have, let's say, mid-range scope models that might not have the same power and ability to get all the way through the sewer line especially when there are bends and kinks in the sewer line. A home inspector is not going to buy the best equipment because it will take a lot longer for a return on their investment because it's only a side part of their business compared to a company that specializes solely in scopes.
Also, some home inspectors will be new to doing scopes and not have the experience to interpret what they see. Just because someone has a new shiny stove does not make them a great cook!
Should you rely on the seller's pre-listing sewer inspection report?
It is becoming increasingly common in some areas like Seattle for home sellers to pre-inspect their properties and share the inspection report with potential buyers. When I looked at Seattle data, I saw that about two-thirds of sellers were sharing home inspection reports and 50% were sharing reports for both the property and sewer with buyers.
While I'm always hesitant to advise buyers to rely on the seller's main property section report, it's probably less of a risk when it comes to the sewer line since basically it's a camera running down the sewer line and most inspectors are going to see the same issues regardless. However, 10 different home inspectors will find 10 different things when it comes to the home itself.
As mentioned above, if the seller's inspection is unable to get all the way out to the main sewer line in the street and the buyer has no idea what lies beyond that point that translates into potentially expensive repairs. Don't assume that the sellers, upon discovering a blocked line, are going to fix that issue before listing the home for sale. It may just require a jet cleaning to remove some tree roots but not all sellers are motivated to do what's needed.
It's interesting that in multiple offer situations, buyers are usually willing to share their scope report with other potential buyers to split the cost of the inspection. However, buyers will never share their own property inspection reports with other buyers since they don't want to help the competition get the home plus there's a potential liability in sharing a home inspection report with a different buyer.
When can you safely skip doing a sewer scope?
When buying a condo! The home owners association (HOA) is responsible for any and all repairs that are outside your individual unit including the sewer pipes. And obviously, when the home is on a septic system because that's a whole different inspection process.
What about new construction homes? Although new construction homes require permitting and allegedly city inspectors come out on-site and review all stages of the construction process, there is no guarantee that they did a great job on the sewer line. Also, in situations where say four townhomes are added to a lot that previously had one home, how do you know that the developer didn't run all those four homes into the same original sewer line and instead of adding individual sewer lines out to the street?
To summarize regarding doing sewer inspections when buying a home: the best advice is if you have any doubts at all, just do a scope. It will only cost you about $300 but can save you a lot of post-closing heartache when money is scarce. By getting a sewer inspection, prospective buyers can have peace of mind knowing the current condition of the sewer system. Also, if any issues are discovered, the inspection report can serve as a negotiating tool or an opportunity for the sellers to rectify the problems before closing.
This article was written by Seattle and Eastside Realtor Conor MacEvilly who has been in the business since 2008. I hope you enjoyed the post and thanks for visiting my website. If you have any questions about Puget Sounds area residential real estate feel free to contact me. I'm happy to help. My direct line (cell) is 206-349-8477.