4 Plumbing Red Flags for Older Homes

Many people purchase an older home because it has more charm, vintage touches to enjoy, and a classic design that can stand the test of time. But, buying an older home does come with a few unique challenges if you want to get your home comfortable and up to code. One of the most challenging areas in any older home is the plumbing system, and it can be expensive to fix every problem. In this article, we will look at four key plumbing red flags that you need to be aware of when you purchase an older home.

Don’t be Disheartened

If you find an older home that you love, it’s inevitable that there will be some work that needs to be done on that property. This extends to the plumbing system, and it’s important to understand the scale of work before you close. Hiring a local certified plumber is a smart investment because they can give you a detailed breakdown of the work and its cost. But, don’t be disheartened if the plumbing repair costs are higher than you expected. You can use the upgrade/repair bill to negotiate and make the costs of the work a condition of sale. Then you can have the older home that you love and a fresh plumbing system.

  1. Galvanized, Polybutylene and Lead Water Lines

The material used in the construction of water lines is extremely important. It has to be easy to bend into a variety of shapes, and you must be able to make pipes with it. In the past, those two very basic needs were the only real considerations, and a number of questionable decisions were made. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that many of the materials used to make water lines and some plumbing fixtures are not safe. If you have any of the following materials in your plumbing system, they need to be replaced, and this can be an expensive proposition.

Galvanized pipes were in use for a very long time because they are durable and easy to work with. The internal surface of the pipes is coated with a layer of zinc, which can endure for some time. But, once the zinc coating begins to fail, the pipe surface beneath corrodes quickly. Then the pipe becomes brittle and thin, and eventually, it will crumble away entirely. This material then blocks the line, water leaks will start to appear, and this can occur in out of sight locations behind walls and under the floors.

Polybutylene became popular as a plumbing material in the 1980s. At the time, it was purported to be the “dream material” for plumbing because it’s lightweight, tough, affordable, and easy to use. But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare when earlier installations started to crack, flake and break far earlier than anticipated. Polybutylene lines can still be found in homes that were built in the late 1070s right up to the early 1990s. Homes with these types of pipes are more susceptible to water leaks, and the pipes must be replaced to protect the home against water damage.

Lead water supply lines were in vogue for many years before we understood that exposure to lead is a severe health risk. Lead was considered to be an ideal plumbing material because it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to form into pipes. Lead was banned, but many plumbers continued to use lead solder for plumbing pipes. Over time the lead can leach into the water, and even ingesting low concentrations can severely affect people over an extended period of time. The use of lead solder was stopped after the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments that were introduced in 1986. If you have lead plumbing pipes or solder joints in your home plumbing system, they must be replaced to protect your health.

  1. Compromised Sewer Lines

Sewer lines are hidden out of sight, so it’s impossible to get an accurate picture of their conditions without a professional assessment from a certified plumber. The two primary areas of concern are intrusion and deterioration. Many older sewer lines are made materials that are not good enough in a modern plumbing system. Some sewer lines are made up of shorter lengths of heavy clay pipe, and these are especially prone to root intrusion at the joints. Clay pipes are also fragile, the crack and break over time, leading to clogs and host of other problems.

Cast iron pipes were perceived to be a good alternative to clay because they are durable and long lasting. But, cast iron is prone to corrosion, and these types of pipes tend to rust on the internal surfaces and then spread to the outer surface. Even if you could look at the outer surface of a cast iron pipe, you may not see the rust. Eventually, the surface of the pipe becomes so thin from the corrosion that it simply fails. Galvanized steel was used as waste line material for many years because it’s less prone to corrosion than cast iron. But in reality, it also had many problems that cause it to deteriorate too quickly to be a practical long term solution. Modern sewer line pipes are far more durable, and they are not susceptible to corrosion.

  1. Pipe Bellies

A sewer line can sag as it ages, leading to water flow issues, leaking and clogging. This occurs as a home shifts and settles, and it’s not an unusual phenomenon in an older home. When sections of sewer line sag, they are known as pipe bellies, and fixing these problems can be expensive. The best way to identify these types of problems is to hire a local certified plumber to carry out a pipe inspection using a sewer line camera. This will provide a detailed view of the sewer line, and then an assessment can be made. In some cases, pipe bellies can be fixed without digging up the yard, but this is rare in older homes.

Having professional plumbing advice on hand when negotiating the price on an older home is essential. The last thing you need is to close the sale and discover hidden plumbing problems that are expensive to fix.

By Giovanni Longo President Flood Brothers Plumbing
Giovanni Longo is a 3rd generation master plumber who has been practicing his craft and trade in the greater Los Angeles area for well over a decade and a half. A plumbing and hydraulics-engineering innovator, Giovanni’s particular world-class expertise focuses on dealing with challenging sewer system designs as well as resolving complex commercial and residential draining issues. As a certified Flood Mitigation expert, he is also well versed in a wide variety of water damage and remediation solution.