We were warned. Homeownership is not easy. Homeownership is full of surprises. It’s a ton of work. It’s hard. It’s never-ending.
Sometimes it’s also gross. Like when you go down into your crawl space to see if that’s where you left the light bulbs and discover the ground is wet. Like, really wet. Like, maybe there’s a leak in the bathroom wet. This is how we went to bed on Saturday.
When we did the inspection, we learned that our sewer was, like the rest of the house, really freaking old. We also learned that it wasn’t in great shape. There were a few cracks, a few root intrusions, and a few of something called “offsets,” in the original clay piping that led from the house to the tap in the alley. We also knew this sewer had been sending waste out to the city line for about a hundred years, vitrified clay piping will last a long time, and, importantly, it hadn’t failed yet. That is to say, we took an educated risk by not fixing it before we moved in.
So when we had water pouring into our basement, I had a sinking suspicion I knew exactly what it was and braced for the worst.
Sunday morning we called the only plumber who was open. He came by, took a good look at the plumbing and saw that there was something called a “drum trap” that looked to be full and overflowing. He gave us an estimate for cutting it out and replacing it with a “P trap” and it seemed high but reasonable for a job involving lead disposal. Until we got this fixed, we basically couldn’t shower or use our toilet. Notd a great situation to be in but hey, at least he didn’t think it was the sewer. We scheduled the repair for this morning.
On Monday morning, another plumber from the same company came out and told us there’s no way replacing the drum trap with a P trap will solve the problem. Our entire sewer line needed replacing.
Pause: Glossary time.
A trap in plumbing refers to a mechanism for catching a small amount of water between a fixture and the sewer to seal out noxious sewer gasses. There are many different kinds described by their shape: P, S, U, and drum.
P traps do this with a dip in the pipe. They’re good because they clean out any solids that might get stuck in there with each use, they are “self-scouring.”
Drum trap catch that water in a cylinder. They’re nice because they can catch large solid things like jewelry that might fall down your drain. They aren’t self scouring. You can see how filthy they get by cleaning or replacing them.
Vitrified clay pipes are sewer pipes forged with heat to become water proof and strong. It was invented by the Babylonians and is still in use in some places and older homes.
The quote to replace the entire sewer line hurt. $19,000 for full replacement, $10,000 to go only to our property line. He said anything short of replacement would be temporary and more expensive in the long run. He had some financing options, including 15% over 79 months for a long-term total of $30k.
We got three more opinions and ended up with two options: Clean the sewer (a “RotoRooter”) and hope that’s enough, or replace it all together. The next highest quote we got for replacement was about $12,000 shy of the original estimate, and that was only if there was some major problem. It turns out this pricing is a fairly common problem for Denver.
Cleaning the sewer could be done immediately by one of the plumbers, and only cost us $360. We decided to do that and hope that we have enough time to save for full replacement before it happens.
The thing that struck us, beyond the outrageous price, was how the first company made us feel bad about buying and living in an old house. He laughed at our problem, guilted us for knowingly buying it in this condition, and then told us it cost more than our car. An electrician did the same thing when we had some outlets moved, only that time he wanted us to believe our house would burn down if we didn’t rewire the whole thing.
The first company also talked about their lifetime warranty, and how we’re paying more for the assurance that if it ever goes out again we won’t pay a dime. The companies we ultimately worked with talked about their work, charged a fair rate and stood by it. They also solved the problem we were having in the narrowest way first. A cleaning would tell us whether the pipes were busted or simply dirty.
If you are a new homeowner, unless your house is filled with water, you probably have time to get several opinions. Ask what the narrowest solution is, and be skeptical of ultimatums. Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations, and make sure to consider small and big companies. And if you’re replacing your sewer, know it shouldn’t cost $19,000.