Buying a House? Make sure to inspect the plumbing!
It’s perhaps one of the easiest construction systems in a house to inspect, yet is often overlooked. Most of the time, if the house is not flooded people believe their plumbing system is in order – not necessarily!
If you are in the market for buying a home, it’s wise to hire a house inspector. Inspectors are typically former contractors, or have been in the construction industry for a long time. They are jacks-of-all-trade, but given the time and physical constraints under which they must work, they cannot do as thorough of an inspection as an informed purchaser such as yourself.
While I would always recommend having your home inspected by a highly rated professional, this guide was created for you, the future homeowner, to better familiarize yourself with the plumbing system and to make sure your inspector didn’t miss anything. This guide will specifically focus on the plumbing and mechanical system in homes before you sign on the dotted line. Make sure to bring a flashlight, food coloring, water meter key (if you don’t have one, bring an adjustable wrench or pliers) and a moisture tester. A multimeter and clothes you don’t mind dirtying are helpful if you will be looking at an irrigation system or heading into a crawl space as well.
The first place you should always start when doing a plumbing inspection is the main water source which leads to your potable water (safe to drink) line. If the home is connected to city water, find the water meter and ensure there is no puddling of water and the valve properly works using your water meter key. If you do find a substantial amount of water, it probably means you valve is faulty and needs replacement. Luckily this will typically be covered by your utility company, but is still another hassle to deal with once you close on the house. Anything from this point towards your home is the homeowner’s responsibility. Many different size valves can be used from the water main to your house. Most commonly you will find residential taps to be ¾”, 1”, 1 ½” or 2”, which will determine the pipe size to your house and affect your flow rates and pressure. Obviously, you can have more showers and appliances running simultaneously with a 2” pipe than you can with a ¾” pipe.
If you are on a well or rain collection system, generally the entire system will be your responsibility. If you are on a well, visually inspect the pump and housing itself. The well casing should be 12 inches above the ground (although can vary based on location) and should be in good overall condition. Make sure there are no exposed electrical wires or damage to the conduit. The well cap should be fully secured with a tight seal. Some systems may be legally required to be on a concrete pad, so check your local ordinances.
Rainwater collection systems are much easier to analyze. Depending on the type your house has, you will basically be checking to make sure nothing leaks from the collection point on the roof/gutters all the way to the storage tank. The system should have some sort of filtration equipment depending on if the rainwater collector is for irrigation purposes or home use. It’s a good idea to inspect this system during or immediately after a rain so you can easily find wet spots that may signify a leak and to ensure the water level in the storage tank actually increased. If the water level did not increase, it could be caused by a pipe blockage or broken pipe.
An important, and perhaps the most important factor to look for when inspecting wells and rain collectors is pollution. Any contaminants, pesticides, chemicals, paint, or hazardous products nearby that could have leached into your drinking water should be an immediate red flag and a potential deal breaker. It would be best to have an environmental engineer assess the situation and determine steps required to rectify the situation before proceeding with your purchase. Your family’s safety should be the number one priority during home inspections.
Once you have established that your water source is in good working order, make sure that you can shut off the water at the house. Houses on city and well water should have a cut off valve on the exterior of the home shortly past the backflow preventer, although sometimes they can be found under the kitchen sink or anywhere, really. Turn off the valve and check the house to make sure the water pressure is off. Initially there will be water draining from the pipes but that should not last long if you turn on the cold water at a faucet. If you turn on the hot water, it may be drain the hot water heater, which if located in the attic may take a long time to drain.
When you return back outside to turn the water back on, check the backflow preventer to make sure it looks like it is in good shape. A professional will need to confirm it is in good working order but if there is anything obvious like a leak you will be able to point it out to your inspector.
While you are still outside, take this time to walk around the house and test all outside spigots. These globe valves deteriorate over time and could be leaking or not even working at all, especially if the house was re-plumbed. Ideally, these spigots will be plumbed into the irrigation system, if you have one, to save you the cost of wastewater on your utility bill. More on this later.
Now that you have completed your exterior potable water system inspection, it’s time to knock out the interior. Test all faucets, shower heads, tubs, and washers for hot and cold water and to make sure they are draining properly. Make note of anything that is leaking or slowly draining. It could be a minor issue or signs of a more serious problem.
Take your food dye and put a few drops in the water tanks. Wait a few minutes and look to see if some of the colored water made its way into the toilet bowl. If so, the toilet is leaking. If you are able to get hot water from some or most of the faucets in the house but not others there might be a problem with the faucet. Alternatively, the faucet may be functional but installed incorrectly. If only a few faucets are slow running it could just be a mineral build up in the aerator. Try unscrewing the aerator and running the faucet and see if that resolves the problem.
Don’t forget to use your most effective testing equipment you have – your eyes, ears and nose. Look for drips, slow drains or low water pressure. Listen for any leaks or drips. And smell the bathroom/kitchen when making the rounds. Unless someone recently used the restroom, toilets and sinks are not supposed to smell bad with one caveat: the house is occupied. Unoccupied homes creates a whole new investigation problem for inspectors that make their (and your) job harder. One such example is drains that have been unused for extended periods of time may not have enough liquid in the P-trap to block out sewage odors. Unused bathrooms begin to smell once the water in the P-trap evaporates, which could cause you to think there is a leak or other problem.
If you find a toilet that smells like sewage it could be a defective bowl or possibly a damaged wax ring that seals the space between the toilet and sewer line. Another possibility is a clogged vent that allows gases to escape. It’s very difficult to determine the cause without taking things apart, but find solace in knowing none of the possibilities are terribly difficult or costly to fix (unless it is related to a foundation problem – in which case I suggest you keep on shopping).
The next stop is determining the water heater location. Hopefully it’s located in a nice closet right in the garage or basement. Wishful thinking? Check closets on the first floor of the house (even exterior closest) or potentially the attic. Your first mission is to check for any signs of flood damage. Hot water heaters fail after about 10 years and depending on its location, a failure could have caused serious damage to floors, walls, or anything underneath. Keeping that in mind, determine the water heater’s age. How many years left do you have before it fails? When it does fail, is there a water pan? Does the water pan drain outside? Is the drain line blocked by insect nests? These are all things to think about in the case of a catastrophic failure of your water heater which has the potential to be extremely costly.
Look for signs of corrosion around the tank and the fittings to your pipes. You want everything to look clean and be in good shape. Make sure the size is adequate for your family’s needs. An easy approximation is to have 10 gallons per family member, with a minimum of 30 gallons and maximum of 80 gallons. Also note whether your tank is heated by electricity or gas, and determine how that will affect your utility bill. Electric storage water heaters are less expensive and offer a wider range of options. Gas-water heaters are more expensive but also more energy efficient.
Tankless water heaters are gaining traction in popularity. These tanks are ideal for people that only run the hot water a few times a day and do not need a standing supply of hot water at any given time. Make sure there are no leaks or corrosion and that it is able to keep up with demand. This may include you running the hot water for an extended period of time on multiple faucets as many are marketed as “instantaneous” but some of them are not so instant…
Now that you have finished the source, end spigots and hot water heater of the potable line, it’s time to look everywhere in between. This is everyone’s least favorite part as it typically involves crawling under the house or in the attic. Once you determine which area you’ll be crawling through, it’s time to dig in. The inspecting is easy, but the maneuvering can be a challenge. Do your best to get in every nook and cranny that has piping. Look for any leaks or corrosion. Check to make sure your pipes are properly insulated to protect them against freezing. Make sure pipes are hung, strapped or clamped in place. Moving pipes is a recipe for disaster!
Once you have inspected everywhere you could fit and see, it’s time to figure out what kind of piping you have. You have seen a lot of pipe so what did you have? The most common you may find in your home are going to be PVC/CPVC, PEX, or copper. If you have PVC/CPVC, you are in the clear. If you have PEX you need to make sure you have updated fittings as they were originally installed with faulty fittings that could cause you a major headache later on. Copper pipe was once very popular but they develop pin holes that cause leaks over time. The holes only grow larger and will eventually need replacement. Galvanized pipe (iron or steel with zinc coating) are a bit more uncommon but were a popular choice prior to the 50’s and 60’s, after which copper became the go-to material. It will probably need replacement as well, unless a professional advises otherwise.
Lead or polybutylene pipe are the red flags you really need to keep an eye out for. Lead pipes are obviously detrimental to the health of young children and probably not great for adults either. Lead was the popular choice for centuries and predated other materials due to the ease of its malleability. It was so common, in fact that the word “plumbing” derived its name from plumbum, the Latin word for lead. It would be extremely uncommon for you to find full pipe lengths of lead but it would not be uncommon to find lead solder used on copper or other metallic pipes. It is no longer allowed to be used in potable water systems, so keep that in mind when checking out your pipes.
Now that you are finished with the potable water line, it’s time to move onto the sewer line, or sanitation line. You may not be aware but you have already covered the beginning of the sewer line with the drains. Make sure any other drains like floor or trench drains properly work and if you have not already done so, check the drain stoppers on all tubs and sinks. The stoppers are relatively easy fixes, but slow drains could be very easy or very difficult to fix.
If your home is above grade, you need to get into your crawl space to check everything. Presumably you already did this when inspecting the potable water system. You should primary be looking for leaks or bad odors. Many leaks in the sewer lines are not noticed until you actually see the leak because it will not affect your utility meter and it doesn’t typically cause back-ups. If this house is connected to city sewer, you are finished with the sanitation line.
If your house is connected to a septic tank, you need to find said septic tank and its drain field. Follow the sanitation line from the house in the ground and follow it out about 10 – 15 feet. There are some weird and interesting systems out there so don’t be alarmed if it is not in this range, just broaden your search a bit.
The easiest way to locate a septic tank (unless you have a map showing it’s location but good luck with that!!) is to take a piece of rebar or metal rod and push it through your soil into the ground. Once you hit something hard, make sure it’s not a rock or root and you will know where your septic tank is. Your drain field will be nearby and will consist of gravel and sand. Check the surrounding areas for any flooding or bad odors which will signify a problem. It’s best to have a septic company come out for a closer inspection and they will probably dig it up and make sure everything is in order. It’s worth paying an expert to inspect your septic tank as repairs can be very costly.
The last common plumbing line to inspect is an irrigation line, if applicable. Hopefully you are on a completely different metered line from the city but it is quite possible this system is on a well or rain water collection system on its own. Whichever the case, inspect it just as you did on the potable water system. If it is on a city line, there will be another backflow preventer.
The irrigation system can be a bit tricky since it works with water and electricity. Usually I steer people away from inspecting their own electrical systems due to shock hazards but most irrigation systems run on low voltage.
Start by turning on the sprinklers one zone at a time and walk around looking at sprinkler heads. Make sure all areas of the yard are covered by spray. It’s alright if some sprinkler heads aren’t flowing completely or are spraying areas you don’t want watered – they can be adjusted with a screwdriver. Any sprinkler heads are easily replaced for less than $5. Make sure all zones are automatically turning on and no sprinkler heads were cut off in the lawn mower and spewing a geyser from the ground. (Ask me why!!)
If any of the zones are not turning on, it could be one of two problems – the electrical line is cut or the solenoid is no good. A solenoid is an easy replacement but if one of your lines is damaged, it may mean you have to dig up quite a bit of your backyard to replace. If it’s an older system, that may include cutting large roots or even removing trees. Use a multimeter to determine if the electrical line is still working or hire an irrigation specialist to help if you are not comfortable doing that yourself.
Since most of your irrigation plumbing will be underground (except for sprinkler heads and sprayers) the only way to make sure the pipes are still intact is to run pressure in the zone pipes. You already did this when you tested the control panel. As long as water wasn’t gurgling out of the ground, you should be OK. If for some reason the control panel was inoperable, you can test each zone at the solenoid by turning its test screw to pressurize the distribution pipes.
It’s also a good idea to determine if the water you are irrigating with is reclaimed water or not. It is safe to irrigate with and should not cause problems but it is a good idea to be aware in the case of young children that may want to play in the yard and in the grass. Your utility company will be able to determine if it is reclaimed or not.
If the house you are inspecting has a pool you can check around the pump and filter system for leaks or corrosion. Much like a septic tank, this system has many intricacies and is well worth the money for a specialist to inspect. Pools can be very costly to repair, especially if the pool itself has structural problems that may re-emerge over time.
As you go through this home it’s important to keep a running checklist of anything that may need to be repaired or could be a deal-breaker for your family. At the negotiation table, it can prove to be a useful tool in gaining concessions on the overall price or having the homeowner make the necessary repairs prior to your purchase. Throughout the inspection, make sure you use your moisture meter to check under sink drains or anywhere that has water stains. Many spots may have signs of former leaks that have been properly fixed in the past but if they have not been fixed, you moisture meter will let you know.
It’s not always feasible to check every square inch of your plumbing system – there will always be risks, but a thorough inspection following these guidelines will help you substantially mitigate most of that risk before closing on your deal. It’s important to bring up these problems with the seller or realtor to negotiate any concessions they are willing to make. If they are unwilling to repair any damages, you will be able to at least price out the repairs for yourself and determine what costs you will be looking at after your purchase. Good luck and happy house hunting!