Home buyers in San Carlos and throughout the peninsula have grown accustomed to paying to have a home inspected prior to purchasing it — especially in San Carlos, where the majority of homes were built originally in the 1940’s and 50’s. Believe me, half a century of hard living can take its toll on a home. It has become such a standardized practice in real estate transactions, that even the sellers of the home will conduct their own inspections prior to listing it on the market just so that they know what the buyer’s inspector is likely to find. This allows the seller the option to either fix known problems in advance, or adjust the listing price accordingly because of the known anomalies.
The 2 most common inspections that buyers have traditionally done prior to moving forward with the purchase of a house are:
- Wood Destroying Organisms Inspection (aka Pest Inspection), and
- Property Inspection.
The pest inspection looks for pest infestation, such as termites and beetles, as well as any wood damage caused by water intrusion. The property inspection is a “catch all” inspection that assesses the overall functionality of the house — from appliances, to electrical distribution to visible plumbing.
With these two inspections, a buyer gets a pretty good idea of the condition of the house that they’re contemplating purchasing There are more in-depth inspections that can be done on the roof, or foundation, or the plumbing system if the property inspector recommends further investigation. But it’s safe to say that most home buyers will only do pest and property inspections before making their decision.
But there’s one key function of the house that these inspections don’t usually cover — and it’s an area can lead to an unwanted surprise and an expensive fix for the new buyer: The sewer lateral.
What is the Sewer Lateral?
The sewer lateral is simply that single piece of pipe that connects all of the waste lines in your home with city sewer system. And the reason it hasn’t been traditionally inspected until recently is because once the sewer line exits the crawl space of a typical home, it runs underground to its junction with the sewer system, thus making it impossible to visibly inspect the condition of the pipe. See the diagram below for a typical sewer lateral configuration.
What can happen to this pipe? In older homes, the sewer lateral is an approximately 4″ diameter cast iron pipe runs under the yard and connects to the sewer main. Since the pipe is constantly exposed to moisture from both sides, it can corrode over time and start to weaken. Seismic activity can also compromise the integrity of the pipe. Either way, once the wall of the pipe is breached, the door is open to all kinds of problems.
The most obvious issue is having raw sewage leaking into the ground below your house, which is not a good thing. And since there are no telltale signs of this happening, it can go on for a long period of time undetected. What usually happens when the wall of the pipe is breached is that roots from trees or other plants will penetrate the pipe and ultimately clog it up. You’ll know this has happened as soon as you flush the toilet or take a shower and the whole system backs up. This is also not a good thing.
A Potentially Expensive Fix.
Depending on which path the sewer lateral takes to connect to the sewer system, repairing this line can be expensive. Why? Because if the entire line needs to be replaced, which is usually the case, it requires digging a trench to expose the complete run of the pipe — which can often run right underneath expensive landscaping, or worse yet, under your driveway. So you can see why knowing the condition of the sewer line is an important piece of information before you take the jump to buy the house.
New Inspection Methods.
Until a few years ago, it was difficult to assess the condition of the sewer lateral line. Buyers had to go on symptomatic comments in the disclosure documents – i.e., of the previous owner disclosed that they routinely had to have the sewer line snaked out, it was a good indication that there was a problem lurking underground.
But today, plumbers now utilize small video cameras that they can snake through the line and examine the condition of the entire pipe. Some Peninsula cities, such as Hillsborough, Burlingame, Millbrae, and Pacifica, now require that the sewer lateral of a home must be video-inspected (and in some cases certified) prior to the home changing hands. I wouldn’t be surprised in the next decade if all municipalities on the Peninsula decide to make this inspection mandatory.
At $250-$500 (depending on who you choose), a video inspection of the sewer lateral is relatively inexpensive. Especially if it uncovers a condition that may cost upwards of $10,000 to fix.
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