Lots of people love the idea of buying an older house. They love the “character” that only old houses can bring. I get that. But I’m seeing a trend of people wanting to go this route with no knowledge of what it really means to own an old house or the cost of keeping one up and running.
Anyone who has lived in an old home for any real amount of time will tell you it’s a labor of love. Old houses need constant upkeep (more so than their younger counterparts), and if you have ever tried to re-hab an old house, you know it can feel like a huge hole in your yard that you dump money into every day.
You know, “the money pit.”
My city, Louisville, KY has an area of town known simply as “Old Louisville,” which is packed full of old Victorian-style brick houses. It is the third-largest such district in the United States. Old Louisville also has the largest concentration of homes containing stained glass in the nation. Pretty cool, eh? Needless to say, I get to inspect lots of big, old houses.
That, too, can be a love-hate relationship.
Let’s dive into the plumbing system of an old house. Old pipes can look fine on the surface, but looks can be deceiving. Over the past 100 years or so, several different types of materials have been used for plumbing in homes. Clay pipes, cast iron, and galvanized steel were the most commonly used forms back in the day. All of these have been replaced with modern PVC plastics in recent years, but millions of homes still have the old systems, and one day they will have to be replaced due to failure.
If you live in a house that was built prior to 1980, there is a good chance you have at least one, if not more of these kinds of materials.
If you are thinking about buying an old home, you’ll want to pay special attention to the types of plumbing system materials that it has. If your new potential home still has most, if not all, of the original pipes, you could be staring at a monster check one day to get things upgraded.
For clarity’s sake, the supply line is the pipe that brings water into the home and distributes it throughout. The waste lines are the pipes that take the sewer water away from the house.
Clay Sewer Lines
Clay sewer pipes (or vitrified clay pipes, if you want to be technical about it) are what most sewers were made from in the 1800s to early 1900s. Clay pipes have been around for much longer than that though. Some of the earliest pipes ever discovered date back to about 4000 BC in Babylonia.
The issue with having a buried clay pipe in your yard is that they are known for cracking or breaking over time because clay is brittle.
A clay waste (or sewer line) is comprised of many short sections of pipe that fit or ‘link’ together. They’re short because the pieces are heavy, but short sections mean lots of joints where bad things can happen.
Cue the tree roots.
When a breach in the wall of the pipe happens, roots, dirt, and everything in between begin to settle inside the pipe.
Over time this will lead to a clogged waste line in the yard of your new home.
At this point, there are two options. You can either dig up the yard and replace the pipes or hire a company that does “lining services.” That is, they claim to use the old pipe as a chase and pull a new liner through the old pipe. I’ve never seen this done, but in theory, it seems possible.
Below is an image from a sewer scope camera. These cameras are like a colonoscopy for your home. A technician can route this flexible camera down a sewer cleanout from inside your home and check the condition of your waste line from the house to the sewer tap at the street.
This house has tree roots that have worked their way into the waste and caused a blockage. Pay attention to the number at the bottom of the image. 167′ 5″. That means the camera ran out over 167′ to reach this blockage.
One of the hardest things to do at a home inspection is run enough water to catch a partially clogged line like this, especially in a vacant house that has had no water put into the sewer system for any amount of time. Most of these blockages are not 100%, and water will pass through the tree roots with little to no problem. It’s only when you mix in toilet paper and solid waste that things start to back up.
There are also times that the sewer pipe can fail and not have plant roots in the mix. Sometimes a tiny bit of water leaks out around the joints and over the years of use it causes a void to wash out under the sewer pipe. If this washout gets bad enough, there will not be any soil to support the heavy pipes, and things will fall out of place.
The image below is of a failed waste line that is just 7ft from the start point. The separation of the sewer pipe is clear, and anything but water will likely get hung up on the different levels of pipe, or just wash out of the gap between the sections of sewer pipe.
This too is a great example of why every older home should have a sewer line scope performed. Sometimes, just running lots and lots of clean water through the system is not enough to expose a problem like this.
Cast Iron Sewer Lines
Cast iron sewer pipes have been around a long time as well. It’s not uncommon to see cast iron sewer pipes last 80-100 years, sometimes even longer. However, some cast iron pipes have a certain type of failure that is easy to spot…rust.
The thing to remember is that cast iron rusts from the inside out. That means that while your cast iron sewer pipe may look fine on the surface, your line could be paper-thin in reality from years of corrosion and rust. Due to rising corrosive sewer gases, long horizontal runs of cast iron pipes also crack frequently along the top edge. These types of failures are not typically visible looking up in a basement or crawlspace, so you have to feel your way down the pipe for failure.
When you are looking at an old house, and you see cast iron pipes, pay attention to the areas of rust around the collars of the connections. That is where I typically find them rusting/failing.
Also, if you are seeing pipes that look freshly painted, it could be someone trying to cover up a badly rusted sewer pipe.
The thing to remember is that cast iron rusts from the inside out. That means while it may look fine on the surface, it could be paper-thin in reality. If the cast iron is around 80-100 yrs old, it’s getting close to the end of its life.
Galvanized Steel Water Pipes
Galvanized Steel Pipes were used as both supply and sewer pipes from around 1900 to the1960s in Louisville.
When steel has been galvanized, it has had a zinc coating applied to the steel to help prevent rust and corrosion.
Once the zinc coating wears off, the rusting begins. Galvanized steel water pipes are bad news in old houses.
They rust and close up like an artery that has seen too many cheeseburgers. You can also get some pretty nasty-tasting water from steel supply pipes that have rusted on the inside.
Louisville’s water is voted as some of the nation’s very best tasting tap water, and you wouldn’t want to spoil it with crud-filled water pipes. Obviously, when this happens it cuts the flow down dramatically as well. Like I said, bad news all around.
If the water in your home is brown at a sink or shower for the first second or two, but then turns clear it’s very likely you have rusting steel water pipes somewhere in the system.
Here is an old galvanized steel pipe that has been removed from service the home, but left abandoned in the basement.
Notice how it is rusting on the inside. This will continue until it stops flowing water altogether. But more importantly, do you want to drink water from this pipe?
I do still find old pipes wrapped in Asbestos pipe insulation a few times a year. Most of the time it is in bad condition and falling apart, which means it is friable and should be professionally removed.
The cost to mitigate such a situation can get expensive- like nice car money. The process is much like Asbestos floor tile removal.
Galvanized Steel Main Water Supply
One of the most expensive water pipes to replace is your main line feeding the home its potable water. These were used from the 1900s to the 1960s.
A lot of homes in Louisville still have their old galvanized main water lines in place, even ones that have been remodeled and or flipped, and despite what you may have been told, as the homeowner, you are responsible for the main from the meter to the house. That means if your old rusty galvanized water line fails in the yard, the water company is NOT going to replace it, that is on you.
Potable Water – also known as drinking water, comes from surface and ground sources and is treated to levels that meet state and federal standards for consumption.
The cost to replace this line varies greatly from house to house. A clear run from the water meter to the house can be as low as a few thousand dollars, but one that has to be routed under sidewalks and driveways can get really expensive. The old galvanized pipe is hardly ever removed. The plumbing contractor will just cut it loose from service and leave it in the ground to rot away.
Galvanized Steel Waste Lines
Main supply and distribution lines are not the only problematic material when it comes to galvanized pipes.
Lots of old houses have waste lines made of the same stuff. They, too, suffer from the same fate of rust and buildup inside the pipe over time. Typically, I see galvanized pipes being used waste lines throughout the house that tie into a cast iron main sewer stacks where it heads out to the sewer main.
It could vary from region to region, but I have never seen galvanized steel pipe used as the main waste line in residential construction.
Here is a picture of an abandoned galvanized waste line. Notice how it’s an old piece of galvanized pipe connecting into a cast iron main. Those two typically go hand in hand in residential construction.
So, as you shop for your new (old) house, pay attention to what you see in terms of plumbing pipes. A total plumbing replacement job on a house is “new Tesla money.“
If you notice little bits of PVC pipe sprinkled in here and there in the plumbing waste system, that is a sign that the owners have had problems in the past, but didn’t want to bite the bullet and spend the big money to have it all replaced.
It’s inevitable. These old pipes will fail. You just don’t want to be caught off guard when they do.
Note* The Louisville Water Company does offer a buried water line service agreement that for a few bucks a month you can get an ‘insurance’ against failures of your old pipes. I cover this topic in great detail here: Buried Water Line Coverage.