How to House Hunt Like a Home Inspector -Plumbing
In this installment of “House Hunt Like a Home Inspector”, we’re looking at the home’s plumbing system. This series talks about how prospective home buyers can use the perspective of a home inspector to get to know the house better before they buy. See other posts at www.http://goldeyehi.ca/blog/
When looking at the home’s plumbing system, we are really interested in three things: 1) Does the water supply provide the occupants with sufficient hot and cold water to satisfy their lifestyle? 2) Does the waste plumbing system remove waste water and human waste effectively? and 3) Does everything stay where it is supposed to? It can be hard to really assess these while house hunting. There are limits to what you can tell about the water supply and waste plumbing effectiveness during a walk-through. But there are some simple things you can do to get a sense of how the plumbing system is working.
Let’s start by considering whether the water supply and waste disposal systems are public or private. This is important to know before you buy the home because it will affect the how much work will be required to maintain both the water supply and the waste disposal systems. Typically, urban homes have public water supply and waste disposal systems that require very little in the way of maintenance for the home owner. But the more remote the property is, the more important it is to understand how you get your water and how you get rid of the waste. Private water supply systems (usually from wells) will have pumps, filters, pressure regulators and all will require some maintenance. Waste handling systems may be holding tanks or septic fields that allow much (but not all) of the waste to degrade and seep away into the ground. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have these systems inspected by qualified well and septic system inspectors. They are complex systems that can cause a lot of headaches if not working properly. You should also look for and read the maintenance guides to ensure you do all that you can to keep them working properly.
I said that urban homes require little in the way of maintenance of the water supply and waste removal systems outside the home. There is an exception that you can look out for before you enter the home. Large trees can be very desirable, providing shade and beauty to the neighborhood. But sometimes they can be problematic for sewer lines. Tree roots seem to be able to find their way into any little crack, and unfortunately sewer lines are not root-proof. If you approach house hunting like a Home Inspector, when you see a large tree in the yard you’ll want to know if it’s near the home’s main drain line. If so, you’ll want to be sure that the drain line is checked before you buy the house and periodically after you move in. This is done with a camera at the end of a long line fed into the main drain. Repair for a clogged sewer line can range from cleaning the pipe with a device that chops up the roots, to excavating the yard and replacing a badly damaged pipe.
Another piece of the plumbing puzzle that you should be aware of is the weeping tile and ground water disposal system. It’s not really part of the plumbing system, but deals with water and waste management, so I’ll mention it here. In newer homes, weeping tile collects ground water around the house and allows it to flow into a sump pit under the basement, or crawl space. The water is then pumped away, hopefully to a location that prevents flow back toward the house. This system may or may not be present in older homes, or weeping tile may be present but just feed into the main sewer system. As you look at homes with a Home Inspector’s eye, you should try to get an understanding of the system present in the home so that you know what can go wrong and the consequences. The consequences can range from having rain water collect in your basement or crawl space, to having sewage from the municipal sewer back up into your home. Neither is pleasant.
So, we’ve talked about some serious issues and haven’t even mentioned the inside of the home yet. The previous points were more about being aware and asking the right questions. Let’s look at ways you can use a home inspector’s eye when looking inside the home. As I said in the opening comments, you really want to make sure 1) that you have adequate water supply- so, test the water flow. Open a faucet and see if the force and flow of water is what you expect. Does hot water come out in a reasonable time and at a reasonable temperature. The second question we asked was “Does the waste water and human waste leave the building?”. When you test the water flow, watch how the drain operates- does the basin or kitchen sink fill up even when the stopper is not in place? Does it empty reasonably quickly? Flush the toilet- does it operate properly?
The waste venting system is something most people aren’t even aware of and fewer understand it. It allows waste flowing through the drains to push the air out of the way and continue flowing down to the sewer without any back pressure. You may have seen a pipe sticking through the roof of the average house. This is a vent that allows that air to escape and it is connected to all drains in some way. It also allows a release of suction above the waste, so that the water in the traps (U-shaped feature in drains below the sink or basin) is maintained and isn’t sucked down with the waste. This is important because it keeps a separation between the air in the drains and the house air, so that sewer gasses aren’t allowed into the home. I wouldn’t expect you to do any sort of inspection of the venting system, and even if you wanted to, most of it is hidden in the walls so you can’t see it. But you can use your nose and ears. If there is an issue with the venting system, you may be able to smell sewer gas and hear some distinctive sounds when water is flowing into the drains. Unusually loud gurgling or sucking sounds (like the sound that is normally heard when a toilet flushes) when the last of the water disappears, could mean that the suction caused by the waste flow is sucking the water out of the trap.
The third item on our list was to make sure that everything stays where it is supposed to. That means that all connections must be made properly and pipes are secured and supported. You probably won’t do an in-depth inspection of the connections- a home inspector would be more thorough. But you can make sure to handle all of the faucets and fixtures to ensure they are fitted tightly in place and secure. You can look under sinks and bathroom vanities to see if there are any signs of leaks. Especially look around all the edges and corners of shower enclosures, tubs and below toilets to see if there are any signs of water damage. If you are able to go into the basement or crawl space, look for signs of water stains, rust, or anything that indicates that water has had an effect on the building components.
Finally, you should take a good look at the water heater if you can. Look at the general condition, but especially look at the top and bottom of the unit. If the tank is gas or oil heated, there will be a venting system that takes the combustion gases out of the house. Look for signs that these vents are damaged, corroded or scorched. The damage you see at the top of the tank could be an indication of related issues where the flame hits the tank at the bottom. Another feature near the top is the Temperature/Pressure relief valve. This is a valve, usually on the side near the top, that will release pressure if the temperature controls fail and the tank overheats. It’s not unusual for these valves to leak and/or corrode. There should be a plastic tube connected to this valve that discharges near the floor (so that if the valve releases steam or hot water it will blast it at the floor, not at someone standing beside it). Look for corrosion on the valve and a water stain near the bottom of the tube. Both are signs that the valve may be leaking. You’ll want to have it checked carefully so that you can replace it (or the entire tank) before it fails and causes a flood. But DO NOT TEST THE VALVE. We encourage home owners to test it regularly to ensure it works. But these valves are notorious for sticking because people don’t test them regularly. I was mentioning this to a client once and he reached over and tested it. We spent the next 15 minutes trying to stop it from leaking and then cleaning up the water.
At the bottom of the tank there should be a valve or faucet that can be used to flush the tank periodically, which can help to make it last longer. Look for signs of leaks here as well. Any other rust or signs of water damage around the tank should raise alarm bells. The failure of a water heater creates an unexpected expense at a time when home buyers are already spending a lot. But since failure can mean the release of a lot of hot water into the area, the possibility of secondary damage and additional expenses is heightened. The water heater is something every home owner should consider a high priority for ”keeping an eye on”.
We’ve talked about a number of things that you can be aware of and can look for as you walk through a home with the approach of a home inspector. But hopefully this discussion has also impressed on you that the parts of a plumbing system are complex and have to work together for everything to work properly. A Home Inspector will be trained to understand the details of those components, how they fit together, how they typically fail, and signs that indicate failure or the potential for failure. For example, there are details about how a trap in the waste plumbing is configured that ensure that the flow and vents will allow the waste to leave smoothly, but will also end up with water remaining in the trap. Poor design can result in the trap being siphoned out and sewer gases getting into the home, or conversely the trap could clog and result in the back up of water/waste into the home.
When there are signs that the systems aren’t working properly, a good Home Inspector will call for further evaluation or repair by a qualified plumber. Codes have changed over time, and materials and methods also change. A qualified professional plumber knows the details of these changes and the best solution to correct a problem. They will work with the proper permits to ensure that the work is not only done right, but that it is documented to satisfy the municipality and avoid issues later.
Water has a way of getting into areas you wouldn’t think possible. A home’s plumbing systems are mostly hidden, so damage can occur over time and multiply without the occupants knowing about it. By being aware of the issues and looking at a house with the approach of a Home Inspector, you may be able to spot issues and assess their implications (and associated costs) before you decide to make it your home.
Steven Schroeder 2016-11-27