Pipe Dreams – and Nightmares: Avoiding Plumbing Trouble

by on March 11, 2014Jason Van Steenwyk

There’s a wonderful scene in the 1987 movie “Moonstruck” that any veteran homeowner or contractor can relate to. A plumber, Cosmo Castorini, played by Vincent Gardenia, is inspecting some old, leaky pipes in someone’s apartment. He makes a show of scraping gunk off the pipes with a penknife, and turns to the homeowners and says, “ten thousand, eight hundred dollars.” (Coincidentally, that’s exactly what he had to come up with to pay for an upcoming wedding!)

Before purchasing a house to flip, make sure you don't get stuck with major plumbing issues“That seems like a lot,” says one of the owners.

Castorini chuckles, stands up and gives a speech every homeowner and every flipper is likely to hear, sooner or later:

“There are three kinds pipes. There’s the kind of pipe you have, which is garbage! Then there’s bronze. Bronze is good … until something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong!

“Then,” his eyes look to the heavens, “there’s copper. Which is the only pipe I use. Copper costs money.” The old man looks the couple in the eye: “It costs money because it saves money!”

Another job sold!

The Flipper’s Nightmare

Plumbing can be a flipper’s nightmare, because leaky or corroded pipes can cause problems that are not readily apparent to the eye, but become all to obvious when you start making modifications to the home. You can think you’re replacing some old tile, or redoing some drywall, and encounter a nightmare of leaky pipes, water damage, mildew and wet rot that was invisible when you inspected the property.

Furthermore, plumbing is a high-dollar item. If the problem is extensive, it’s enough to kill your margin on a deal if you’re not careful.

Because it’s a profit killer, any good flipper needs to be aware of the central things to be aware of regarding plumbing.

Note on Insurance Considerations

Many people get confused about what insurance will and won’t cover when it comes to pipes, plumbing and water damage. Generally, standard homeowners insurance will pay out only for sudden and unforeseeable plumbing failures. A pipe burst because of an ice storm, for example. It will not generally pay benefits if the damage is a result of a slow leak that should have been corrected.

One major issue is mold damage. Many insurance policies are now no longer covering any damage from mold resulting from slow plumbing leaks. That kind of damage should have been repaired by the homeowner long before mold becomes a serious problem in the home.

Worst Case Scenario: Lead Pipes

There aren’t too many of these out there anymore. But they still exist – especially on houses built before the late 1950s or so. The problem is that lead is known to cause serious long-term health problems – especially in children. If you unwittingly purchase a house that still has the original lead pipes, chances are you’ll have to yank out just about every piece of metal between the main city line and the shower nozzle and water tap: Easily a seven figure job right there. Plan on it, because no family is going to willingly buy a home that still has lead pipes – and it’s a serious enough issue that if you are aware that the pipes are lead, your state’s laws are going to force you to disclose it when you sell.

Don’t be the only sucker out there who didn’t check. Take a good look at the pipes whenever you buy an older home. It may even be worth it to hire a trusted plumber to inspect the property – especially on your early deals. If you are making a career out of property flipping, what you learn by watching how the plumber goes about inspecting the home will be worth his or her fee many times over.

Lead Components

While lead piping has not been used in home plumbing installations in decades, you may still have a lead problem resulting from some of the minor plumbing fixtures. Even where pipes aren’t made of lead, water can still be exposed to lead contamination from plumbing fixtures, solder, flux, connectors and other components. These items have been in use in home settings much more recently than lead pipes.

Galvanized Steel Pipes

These pipes were popular replacements for lead pipes when they fell out of favor during the 1960s, and you still see a lot of them today. If you do, you should either plan on replacing them yourself, or expect a buyer to discount the value of the home substantially, as many of these installations are nearing the end of their useful life.

They are particularly prone to trouble in “hard water” areas – that is, areas where there is a very high mineral content in the tap water. These minerals gradually build up inside the pipes like cholesterol in arteries. There’s usually no flushing them out. They’ll have to be replaced before long. The hot water lines will be especially bad, but the cold water lines won’t be far behind.

Note that when galvanized steel and copper plumbing come into direct contact, there is a metallurgic reaction called galvanic corrosion that can cause problems. Be aware of this both when you buy and repair.

Plumbing Inspection Checklist

  • Is there excessive corrosion around joints?
  • Turn off the supply valve to the house. Then turn on taps around the house. Does water come out?
  • How old is the water heater? Is there corrosion? Are there mineral deposits encrusted on the fittings?
  • Are the pipes at least half an inch thick?
  • Do you smell sewage?
  • Do toilets flush and refill correctly?
  • Do they stop when they’re full?
  • Are unlike metals connected together? What is the stage of corrosion at those connection points?
  • Any noisy pipes?
  • Copper pipes don’t react well with galvanized pipes. Are dielectric couplings in place?
  • Is water discolored when first turned on – especially after long periods of inactivity?
  • Is there evidence of mold or wet rot near pipes?
  • Are there stains in the walls or ceiling, especially right below an upstairs bathroom, that cannot be accounted for from rainfall and leaky roofs?
  • Is there leakage at the bottom of the P-trap?
  • Can you turn supply valves, the toilet valve and the valve supplying the washing machine on and off? Do they leak when you turn them on?
  • Are there cracked, warped or discolored floor or cabinet surfaces near sinks, dishwashers, washing machines toilets, sinks and showers?
  • Does the toilet hiss for no reason? It could be leaking and then refilling itself.
  • Can you hear dripping water when it hasn’t been raining?
  • Visually check any exposed pipes in the basement, including drainpipes.
  • Is there a sump pump? Does it work?
  • Have plumbing codes changed in your area?

If you really want to get down to brass tacks, you can download a city plumbing inspection worksheet, but they presuppose some detailed foreknowledge of plumbing codes and standards. At least they’ll prompt you into checking the major things, and you won’t skip over anything important.