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Clogged Drains: How to Avoid a Common Claim
by Isaac Peck, Editor
Home inspectors are trained to run water and observe that it drains correctly, that the lines aren’t clogging or backing up. However, experienced home inspectors will tell you that it is not uncommon to test running water at a home for over 10 minutes with no problem observed, yet once the client moves in—the drain almost immediately backs up! Why?
The problem is often that the main sewer line is clogged, or worse, has been broken and obstructed by tree roots in the yard. The inspector who only runs the water for five to 10 minutes, hasn’t run enough water to note the backup in the main line all the way back to the house.
There is a heightened risk of this with vacant homes, and even more severe with rural homes, because oftentimes the drain pipes will be empty and an inspector can run lots of water and not detect any issues. A broken main sewer line can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 to repair, and the inspector is often the first one to receive a call from the angry homebuyer.
Dan Bowers, a home inspector in Kansas for over 35 years, says that most inspectors who have been in business over five years have probably had this happen to them. “This is especially common on vacant homes. When a problem happens, the repair guys and the buyer’s agent usually are very quick to tell the buyer that the home inspector is to blame. What the buyer doesn’t understand is that when the inspector did the inspection, it probably did have broken lines with tree branches in them, but the water we ran just slid right through the branches AND did NOT back up. Then they moved in and flushed toilet paper, garbage and human waste down the drain and the solids hit the tree branches and BINGO, you get a clogged or slow drain,” says Bowers.
In his over three decades inspecting, Bowers says he’s seen this happen at least two or three times. “I’ve always been polite and empathetic but I simply stress the fact that (a) I’m not their cradle to grave insurance policy; (b) I’m good, really good, BUT we don’t have X-Ray vision, don’t have a crystal ball AND can’t predict the future. So folks I’m so sorry BUT welcome to home ownership. If they want someone to blame, they can call the seller,” Bowers says.
Bowers also has a standard comment that he uses to disclaim the main lines and limit his liability:
Based on the inspection industry’s definition of a recommended water test for “functional drainage” in a plumbing system, the plumbing drainpipes appear operational at this time. However, only a video-scan of the interior of drainpipes and drain lines can fully confirm their actual condition. When the house is vacant, the plumbing system is older, there are prior known drain problems or there are large trees on the grounds, it would be prudent to have the drain lines “video-scanned” prior to closing. Two companies that do this are: XX, XX, etc.
The lesson for home inspectors is twofold: (1) always be sure to run lots of water while inspecting a home, more if the house is vacant or rural, and (2) always disclaim the drainage in a plumbing system and recommend a video-scan of the interior drainpipes to determine the actual condition.
Tom Feiza, a home inspector, trainer, author and frequent WRE contributor, has seen this issue several times in his over 9,000 inspections. He says small drainage system leaks inside a wall can also become huge issues. Feiza cautions that inspectors must set proper expectations with their customers prior to the inspection. Ideally the inspector reviews the limitations of a home inspection in the agreement before the inspection starts. Feiza says he always tells clients: “I can’t see in walls, I don’t dig up the ground and don’t inspect things I can’t see. This inspection is visual.”
Feiza also says to reference a home inspection standard like ASHI in the inspection agreement and follow the standard. “For vacant homes, I always start at the top of the home and run water in showers and tubs for 10 to 20 minutes. When you reach the basement, you can look for leaks and backups. How much of the DWV and sewer/plumbing laterals are visible? Very little” says Feiza. (See Figure 1: Drainage, Waste and Vent (DWV) Details.)
Feiza also recommends using a specific home inspection statement that the underground and hidden plumbing/sewer lines are not visible and not inspected. “Offering an additional service that provides a video inspection is an option. Lastly, you should carefully review your marketing and advertising. What are you promising your customers? You need to live up to (and will be held to) your promises,” Feiza cautions.
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Jerry Peck, a home inspector veteran, litigation consultant and host of OREP’s InspectorAdvisor.com, argues that 10 minutes is much too short for an inspector to run water. “Running water for 10 minutes indicates nothing about the building drain or building sewer. Bath tubs and shower stalls should have much more water than that to properly test them,” says Peck.
Peck points out the typical drainage rates taken from a Google search.
- A typical standard-size bathtub (five feet long by 30 inches wide, and about 16 inches deep) holds about 80 gallons of water to the overflow. Thus to test the overflow, that’s 80 gallons of water, at five to seven gallons per minute. That takes 11 to 16 minutes for just the tub.
- A typical standard-sized shower pan test takes 15 minutes or more (to give a leak time to show up), and at roughly three to six gallons per minute for the typical shower head, that is 45 to 90 gallons minimum for a shower stall test.
- Typical water use is 20 gallons per person, per day.
If a home inspector tests one tub and one shower stall, this uses roughly 160 gallons (80 x 2 = 160), which is essentially the same as eight people using the typical 20 gallons per person per day.
Peck says that he doesn’t agree with the 20 gallons per person, per day rule, as that means people only take showers every few days, but even if we double that “typical” usage to 40 gallons per person per day, he says 160 gallons is still equivalent to four people for a typical day.
For vacant houses, and for a typical family home—three bedroom, two bath where only a couple lives there, Peck advises that “the inspector should recognize that there has been no water use (vacant houses) or limited water use (family of two versus a family of four) and to fully test tubs and shower stalls to get a better ‘test sample’ of the ability of the system to keep up with ‘typical’ use.”
Peck also warns that running a lot of water in a root-clogged drain may show up as slow draining, and it may not appear completely clogged because the debris clogged in the tree roots causes the water to drain slowly instead of being clogged completely. “But if enough water is run at a fast enough rate, which is what tubs do (a lot of water all at one time), versus a little water at one sink, it can be easier to detect the problem. Operating clothes washers also helps as that is 20 to 40 gallons of water being pumped out all at one time,” says Peck.
In terms of disclaimers, Peck says that any disclaimer MUST be prominently placed in the report, not hidden or pushed into a maintenance section. “A proper disclaimer for this issue helps the inspector when placed in a “Needs to be Done” section. Such as:
(The house has been vacant)/(Only a few people have been living in this house); a larger family moving in could result in clogged sewer piping, thus THE FOLLOWING SHOULD BE DONE: Have a licensed and qualified plumbing contractor check the main sewer line from the house to the street or on-site sewage system with a video camera to check for blockages BEFORE YOU CLOSE.”
Similarly, when cast iron piping is found, and/or when clay tile or Orangeburg pipe is suspected (the inspector should know their area), Peck advises the inspector to include the same “needs to be done”:
The house may have one or more of the following: horizontal cast iron piping which may have deteriorated, clay tile sewer piping/Orangeburg piping connecting the house to the utility sewer system or onsite sewer system thus THE FOLLOWING SHOULD BE DONE: Have a licensed and qualified plumbing contractor check the main sewer line from the house to the street or onsite sewage system with a video camera to check for blockages BEFORE YOU CLOSE.
Senior Broker at OREP E&O Insurance, David Brauner, says that this scenario highlights the importance of including the proper disclosures and disclaimers in your inspection report. “Helping our insureds with risk management is part of our service at OREP,” said Brauner. “Every seasoned inspector knows that how well you report is just as important as how well you inspect when it comes to minimizing claims,” Brauner says.
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About the Author
Isaac Peck is the Editor of Working RE magazine and the Director of Marketing at OREP.org, a leading provider of E&O insurance for appraisers, inspectors and other real estate professionals in 50 states. He received his master’s degree in accounting at San Diego State University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (888) 347-5273.
Note: The Winter 2019 issue of Working RE Inspector mailed to over 20,000 home inspectors nationwide. OREP Insureds enjoy guaranteed delivery of each print magazine and many more benefits.