The massive expense of a broken sewer line

Homeowners can find themselves paying tens of thousands

A week after Dena and Edward Hotchkiss moved into their home on Chowen Avenue, they went downstairs to find the entire basement flooded. They were told it would cost $30,000 to replace their sewer line, though luckily that wasn’t a step they needed to take. Submitted photo

If there is one marker of the dawn of civilization, it might very well be the Greeks’ marvelous invention of sewer systems, which allow many people to live in close proximity without all that human waste piling up. It may not be very pleasant to think about. But ignore the sewer line leading out of your house to the city line and there is nothing but peril in store for you.

When Kate and Nick Simpson were preparing to purchase their current home in Kingfield in fall 2015, things hit a snag when the property underwent a sewer inspection. In order to be sure of the health of their new home’s sewers, the couple had the sewer line scoped from the main line in the house to where it connects with the city sewer in the street.

What they found is that the camera ran into tree roots that had made their way into the sewer line, which is a common issue. In addition to the roots, they found there was an offset in the pipe.

“Two of the sections of the pipe were no longer connected flush and were offset by a couple inches,” Kate Simpson said. “Because we discovered the issue as part of the inspections process for the house, we were fortunately able to negotiate that the sellers fix the offset prior to the sale.”

The price of the fix? $4,200.

“The offset was located in the boulevard, so the sewer repair company had to excavate part of the curb and the boulevard and replace a 5- to 6-foot section of pipe,” Simpson said.

A sewer issue often starts with what seems like a small issue, said Chris Stephens, a service manager for Hero Plumbing, Heating & Cooling. There might be a clogged floor drain, for example, which you discover doing laundry. During an inspection, the service people will look for roots in the line, offsets or bellies in the pipe — or even a complete blockage or shift in the pipe.

50-pound sewer camera.
Technicians can check for cracks, buildup and other issues inside the line by using a 50-pound sewer camera. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Tree roots “are looking for water, and a major source of water is the main line of your sewer,” Stephens said. “They reach your [pipe] and, over time, build up and cause a backup.”

The most expensive work you can have done is a complete line replacement, Stephens said. In that scenario, you have the plumber come out and excavate your yard, dig the line from the foundation of the home and trench through the yard to the city tap.

“That’s the last-case scenario if your line is in really bad shape,” Stephens said. “It’s the most expensive option.” According to Stephens, the price range for repairs that require excavations range from $5,000 for a spot repair to $20,000 to replace the line all the way from the house to the street.

You can also put in a sewer liner, which is like a black sock that you shoot through the entire line, Stephens said. The flexible tube is coated with resin, which hardens, or “cures,” to create a supplementary layer of pipe, preventing future root growth.

That procedure, he said, is a more permanent procedure that will make it so you don’t have to do regular preventative maintenance on the line. It can cost from $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the pipe’s length and width.

drain technician from Ron the Sewer Rat
Mike Romig, a drain technician from Ron the Sewer Rat, poses for a photo during an inspection of a home in the ECCO neighborhood. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Older homes, more problems

“When you own an 80-year-old home in Minneapolis, there are quite a few things that can go wrong … and they do.”

So said former Linden Hills resident Santanu Chatterjea about his nightmarish experience with his sewer line. Chatterjea and his wife, Prachee Mukherjee, who have since moved from the neighborhood, weren’t expecting to find the floor drain in their utility room overspilling several years ago.

“Apparently, older homes such as ours had the outside sewer line hooked up to the basement drain,” Santanu Chatterjea said. Add in the backyard beautiful majestic trees, whose gnarly roots broke into the ancient sewer lines, and sewage reflux ensued.

The couple went through several services as they tried to figure out the problem. “One of them even snaked a camera into the line as far as he could and showed me a blurry image of a water trickle that confirmed his suspicion — drain tile collapse because of root intrusion,” Chatterjea said.

They were given two options: a trench-less sewer line repair that wouldn’t disturb the yard but would be very expensive, or an elaborate archaeological dig, which would involve digging up the front yard and ripping out the sidewalk, going all the way up to the city’s main sewer line under the street. The cost? $25,000.

“Needless to say, I was a bit distraught,” he said.

Finally, Chatterjea got connected to Ron the Sewer Rat, whose worker came and, for $300, pushed a cutter with blades from the inside of their home’s main water line into the sewer drain.

“He said the pine tree’s roots would probably return in a few years and cause the same issue, but that was normal in this part of the town. He’d have to come back.”

The main problem is that the older houses use clay tiles as opposed to PVC pipes, said Peter Kroening, a co-owner of Ron the Sewer Rat. The clay tiles, combined with all the old trees with heavy root systems, can spell disaster for your pipes.

Pipes located far belowground can drive up costs. In some areas of Minneapolis, such as near Lake & Chicago, Kroening said, pipes can be 25 feet deep and cost $45,000 to $50,000 to repair.

“If it’s 8 feet deep, we can just put in wood shoring or a metal bin,” he said, noting the bin prevents the excavation from collapsing. A pipe over 8 feet, he said, requires multiple bins and a crane-type system.

“Older communities tend to have deeper sewers,” Kroening said. That’s because in the early 20th century, the system relied on gravity. “The older your house, the greater the odds are of you having deeper lines.”

Meanwhile, houses near 50th Street, south of the lakes, tend to be in swampier terrain, Kroening said, and if pipes aren’t fastened to the bottom of a house’s foundation, they can detach. He’s seen cases where a pipe dropped 2 feet, which can cost up to $20,000 to repair.

entrance to the sewage line
Romig uses a tool to reseal the entrance to the sewage line on June 15. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Pre-sale inspections

When Dena Hotchkiss and her husband, Edward, moved into their 1935 home on Chowen Avenue in the Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood three years ago, they were in for a big surprise. The home had been newly remodeled and they were still in the midst of settling in. A week after their move-in date, they planned to take off for a trip to Portugal. But just before the trip, Hotchkiss went downstairs and found the entire basement flooded.

“We had to get the sewer line snaked out,” Dena Hotchkiss recalled. “We had to tear up the carpet. Thankfully, we lost just a bit of trim.”

Hotchkiss called Roto-Rooter and was able to get her sewer cleaned out without having to replace the entire line. She was told it would have cost about $30,000 to tear up her yard to put a new line in, or $15,000 to put a sleeve on the line.

“We are really lucky,” she said. “If you are moving into an older home, you may have not gotten that particular lesson.”

Kate Simpson said her biggest home-purchasing takeaway was “the importance of having the sewer line scoped as an additional inspection.”

Leah Drury, a real estate agent with Lakes Sotheby’s International, said sewer inspections have become a standard part of the inspection process in the last two to three years. “It didn’t cross anyone’s mind in the first five to seven years of my career,” she said. “Now it’s fairly standard for buyers to request a sewer inspection as part of home inspection.”

Unfortunately, it can be an expensive negotiation. “It’s not something you can prep your seller for,” Drury said. “If there is an issue, we have to find a resolution. It’s something you’ll have to disclose to any future buyer.

Kingfield home
Soon after purchasing their Kingfield home in 2015, Kate and Nick Simpson had to pay $4,200 to fix an offset in the sewer pipe. Submitted photos

Drury said she’s seen buyers on the hook for $12,000 to $15,000, and savvy homebuyers come into the process wary. “Even sometimes in our showings, buyers are looking for trees,” she said. “‘Are there giant trees on the property?’ They are going to be curious about what that sewer line inspection is going to reveal.”

One property seller, in Fulton, had two different plumbers each give an opinion. The property was set high on a hill and the yard was terraced. One plumbing company told the owners they could address the problem in the future, while the other company suggested digging up the pipes and replacing them, which would mean the entire yard would need to be re-landscaped afterward.

“In this situation, the seller took on the cost of repair, and the buyer was responsible for the landscaping project,” Drury said. “All in all, it was an expensive proposition.” Still, Drury thinks there’s an upside.

When homebuyers and sellers deal with old pipes at the time of sale, there shouldn’t be as much of an issue 10 to 15 years down the road. “Hopefully, it’s resolved for future buyers,” she said.

Nick Simpson and his son Austin
Nick Simpson and his son Austin walk in front of their home not long after the work was completed. Behind them is the dirt patch where a hole was dug to access the sewer line.

Prevention and maintenance

The best preventative measure, Stephens said, especially if you have an older home, is to properly maintain your pipes.

That means not flushing anything that shouldn’t be flushed. Wastewater and normal toilet paper only — no “flushable” wipes, no food scraps (put those in the green recycling bin). And get a screen for the hair in your shower or tub drain.

Preventative cleaning — in which you take a 4-inch blade and run it through the drain line (similar to what Chatterjea ended up having done) — can stop roots from growing back.

Whatever you do, don’t use Drano. Kroening, from Ron the Sewer Rat, warned against using any type of chemical to solve your sewer problems.

“Chemicals are a ploy to charge people extra money,” he said.

Kate and Nick Simpson now understand the importance of maintenance.

“We weren’t aware, prior to our experience, that the homeowner has responsibility for their main all the way until it connects with the city’s main in the middle of the street,” Kate Simpson said.