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Sewer line repairs, costs and not getting ripped off

Sh*t happens!

Sewer line repair and replacement are not something you think about on a regular basis until your toilet starts spewing raw sewage all over your floors. I know, lovely!

Spending a bunch of money on getting your sewer line repaired is not as fun as getting your bathroom updated. It's not as if you're going to have a party inviting your friends over to see your new sewer line. Unfortunately, ignoring your home's sewer can lead to big problems down the road - including expensive repairs or a complete replacement.

Sewer line repairs replacement and costs

So, let's learn all about the joys of sewer pipes, the common causes of broken sewers, the types of fixes, and how not to get screwed when it comes time to getting needed repairs done. 

Homes with increased risk of sewer line issues.

Certain types of homes will have an increased risk of having broken sewer line issues. All homes are susceptible to having sewer problems but these homes have a greater risk.

Older home with a side sewer made up of concrete or clay sections connected together.  The joints where these individual sections meet make it easier for the pipe to separate and also make for a lot easier access for roots to get into the sewer line.

Modern sewer lines are continuous PVC pipe with no joints. Having said that, there are plenty of really old homes with really old lines that are still working just fine today. It ain't broke don't replace it.

The property has lots of trees and shrubs, particularly if they are located along the path of the line from the home to the street

The home sits on a sloped property and the sewer line runs down the slope. The greater the incline the greater the chance for sewer pipe can separate or break.

If your home shares a section of common pipe with your neighbor before it reaches the main line in the street it can double the volume of waste going through the line and raise the potential for failure and backups.

Note that a newer home can have sewer issues if the pipe was never installed properly in the first place or it's a new home that replaced an old one but didn't update the sewer system.

Signs that your sewer pipe might need repairs.

If you are experiencing any of the following problems, you may have a sewer line problem 

Gurgling noises coming from your drains.

Sewer odors in your home.

Slow drains in your sinks, tubs, and toilets. If one or more drain pipes are draining more slowly than usual this can be an early indication of a drain problem. If multiple drains are affected at the same time, it's more likely that the problem is in the sewer pipe. If water is backing into the toilet or other drains when another drain is used this can also indicate that there is a potential blockage in the main sewer line.

If your line runs under your yard parts of your lawn might be super green because it's being fertilized by a sewer leak. Plus your yard might have sewer odors.

However, with the exception of the last one, these symptoms will not differential whether you have a simple blockage or a major repair is needed. Since your main floor or basement are the closest to the main sewer line those are the areas that are likely to back up first when your sewer line is having issues.

An indirect route to discovering your system needs repair is when you list your home for sale. Some sellers will do a pre-listing home inspection including a sewer scope. They may have previously been oblivious to any needed repairs and now they have to decide to just declare the issue to potential buyers or repair the line before going on the market.

Likewise, home buyers will do a sewer scope and if they discover any problems, they will be asking the sellers to address them before closing. Unless it's a very competitive real estate market and the buyers are forced to absorb those costs to make the offer more competitive. 

What are the types of repairs needed for side sewers?

Common causes of broken sewer linesThere are a number of different types of sewer issues. Some need to be fixed right away and some you can live with or at least "band-aid it" to expand extend the pipe.

A plumbing company will do a sewer inspection by running a camera (sewer scope) down your sewer line and making a video so that you can see the problems that lie beneath.

Tree roots:

This is a very common issue, particularly in Northwest areas like Seattle where we have a lot of big trees. Tree problem tends to occur more in older systems where the line is made up of segmented concrete or clay pipes. 

Tree roots are always looking for water and nutrients. They squeeze in between gaps in the pipe and eventually end up blocking the pipe and cracking the pipe. A small amount of roots is okay but when it starts blocking 50% or more than you are very likely to have a major backup in your home.

If you know roots are an issue in your line, then about every two years have your sewer lines jet cleaned which is a high-pressure water hose with a small blade attached to it. This will cost you between about $800 and $1,200.  Also, twice a year put some Root-X blue crystals down your toilet which will reduce root intrusion.

Cracks, fractures, and holes:

All those these might not individually make the pipe non-functional but if they are sufficiently large they may be an indication that the sewer pipe is on the verge of collapsing in the relatively near future.

Offset joints:

For homes with lines made up of sections of clay or cement pipes connected via joints, these joints start disconnecting and not aligning up properly.

If the offset joints are exposed and the soil around the pipe has washed away, there may be an empty space between the pipes. This space can be very unstable and may eventually lead to sinkholes. Alternatively, these gaps can become filled with debris which ends up blocking the pipe.

 Collapsed sewer line:

This one is pretty obvious. The sewer line is collapsed in on itself and completely blocked the flow of any sewage to the main sewer line. This is a non-negotiable repair that needs to be taken care of immediately. Time to rent a Honey Bucket!

sewer lines repair and replacement methods.

(...when it's more than a simple blockage)

Most invasive.

Sewer line replacement:  a trench is dug along the entire length of the pipe that needs to be fixed, the old pipe is removed, and then replaced with a new section of pipe. 

The major downside of this method is that it requires a lot more invasive digging which adds to the cost particularly if you need to open up a concern slab in your basement or driveway.

Less invasive methods: pipe lining and pipe bursting.

In recent years, two less invasive methods have become popular which require adding just one or two smaller access points allowing the contractor to replace just a specific section or, if needed, the whole line all the way out to the street. These methods are referred to as trenchless sewer line repair.

Pipe lining method: If the damage to the line is relatively small, an inflatable tube that is covered with epoxy is inserted into the line. The tube is expanded so it pushes up against the sides of the pipe and then left in place until the epoxy hardens. The tube is then removed. 

Pipe bursting method: when the damage to the line is too big for pipe lining system, another trenchless method called pipe bursting is used. The plumbing contractor pulls a cone-shaped bit through the pipe destroying the old pipe while at the same time laying a new pipe right behind the cone head.

However, if your side sewer line has extensive damage and is beyond repair, then you will have to resort to the old-fashioned method of digging a larger trench and replace the damaged sections.

Note that "trenchless" is a bit of a misnomer. The contractor might have to dig an access hole through your favorite rose bed or your basement slab floor.

Factors that affect Sewer Repair Costs

There are a number of factors that can affect your final bill. All the more reason that you should shop around and get at least three quotes. Different companies will suggest different fixes probably based on their personal preferences and the methods they specialize in.

  • How much of the pipe has to be replaced the longer the section the more you pay.
  • How deep is the pipe broken located? More digging the contract just has to do the more you and pay.
  • Where is the brake located? This can have a huge impact on the final cost of the repairs. Ideally, the issue is located in easily accessible place that is just covered with soil.
  • If the repair is located under the concrete slab in your basement is going to Ives extra costs including digging out the concrete and pouring new concrete and the job is completed. Likewise, if the break is located under your concrete driveway, you will have the added expense of repairing the driveway after the line has been fixed.
  • The most expensive repairs are those that involve breaks in the pipe near the city sewer line in the street where you have to dig up the street to get access to the break. These repairs can be very expensive.
  • The type of repair you have done will also affect the price. For example, pipe bursting trenchless repair versus digging up a big trench on replacing the broken section.

Total costs can vary anything from a couple of thousand dollars all the way up to $30,000 depending on the scope of the work. Again it is critical to shop around and get at least three quotes. It's possible you may not need a big repair or the company is just trying to scare you into an expensive repair.

Responsibility for sewer repairs and who pays?

Is it the homeowner and/or the city? The answer may depend on which city you live in and local regulations. 

In some areas, the homeowner is only responsible for the section of sewer pipe from their home out to the sidewalk.

However, in Seattle for example, the homeowner is responsible for the pipe all the way from the home out to where the side sewer connects with the main city sewer line in the street. So if the break is under the sidewalk and/or the street it can get really expensive. However, if the break is located right at the connection between the home's line and the main sewer line then the city is responsible for that connection.

Seattle sewer repair and replacement

An added conundrum can be where a home shares a common section of pipe with a neighboring home and the break is in that shared pipe. Now you weren't going to have to convince your neighbor to share the cost of repairing the line. Unless they are actively having issues themselves they might not be too keen on cooperating. Sometimes a pipe issue is only discovered when one owner puts their home on the market and the buyer discovers the issue during a sewer inspection. 

Does homeowners insurance cover sewer lines?

Most homeowners insurance policies don't cover sewer line damage caused by normal events unless you purchase an additional endorsement to your policy.

That being said, if the line happens to be located on your property and the damage happens suddenly and accidentally, it's more likely that your insurance company will help pay for the repair costs. Talk with your insurance provider.

And finally, how not to get story

A couple of years ago the toilet in my basement backed up despite valiant attempts with a toilet plunger. So I called a sewer company recommended by a friend.

I own a 1932 home in Seattle with the original sewer line made up of sections of clay pipe. And yes, I have lots of tall trees like a lot of homes in the Pacific Northwest. 

The sewer guru came out, run a camera down the pipe and immediately proclaimed that my sewer line needed to be replaced for the tidy sum of $25,000.

I watched them while they were running the scam, er I mean the camera, forgetting to mention that I'm a Realtor and that I've seen in dozens and dozens of these inspections in the past. I could tell from looking at the video footage that all that was needed was to remove some roots and that they were trying to scare me into getting a whole new line.

But just to make sure, I got a second opinion from another company that I use for many home buyer sewer scopes. They don't do any repairs, just inspection and so do not have not a bias towards trying to drum up some business. 

They confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my sewer line and all it needed was a good jet cleaning to get the roots out of the system and to give it a clean every 2 or 3 years. The inspection cost me $300, a lot less than the $25,000 the fear mongers tried to get me to spend. 

So the moral of the story is if a sewer line contractor tells you you need major repairs, get a second opinion from a company that only does inspections. Also, make sure to get THREE different quotes. Also, make sure you are only using contractors who are licensed and insured.

One quick note about sewer line cameras. Sometimes the camera will not be able to get beyond a blockage in the line. So sometimes you don't know what lies beyond the blockage and if there are additional issues in the line that remain hidden. The blockage needs to be removed first before the camera can be run all the way out to the main city sewer in the street.

So, to summarize, sewer line repairs and replacement are not fun and usually expensive but at the same time don't stick your head in the sand hoping that they will never happen. And when they do, make sure to get a few quotes so you know you're not getting ripped off.


#1 By Kirsten Whitsell at 11/21/2022 6:03 PM

How long do homeowners have to repair a broken sewer line before the city gets involved with fines?
Hi Kirsten: that's a good question and to be honest I don't know the answer. Might be worth calling a local sewer company for their advice. Sorry that I don't have a good answer for you. Good luck. Conor (post author).

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