Further Adventures in Home Maintenance

As much as I've learned about money in the past five years, and as much as I like to share what I've learned, there are still times when I fail to follow my own advice.

As I've mentioned, we live in a hundred-year-old house. This is a great and terrible thing. The house is beautiful and full of character, but it's also a pain in the ass. In the six years we've lived here, one of the pains we've encountered repeatedly is the sewer line. About once a year, the thing clogs. But in the past year, it's clogged more like once a quarter.

Generally, we're able to handle the clogs on our own. We pour a little drain cleaner into the toilet or bathtub, and things magically work out on their own. But the recent clogs have been unresponsive to the magic of modern chemistry. In March, I finally broke down and called in a plumber. The plumber worked his magic, charged me 300 bucks, and asked if I wanted his boss to come give me a bid on repairing the sewer line.

“Sure,” I said.

The next day, a man named Jeremy showed up with his fancy equipment to scope out the problem with our line. Turns out the old concrete sewer pipe was probably laid in the 1940s or 1950s, and has never been repaired or replaced. There's a section about 90 feet from the house (about 20 feet from the road) that has developed a “belly”: for several feet, the pipe has sunk below the rest of the line. Near this belly, there's also a break in the line, and tree roots are encroaching. Basically, it's a mess.

“It's not a big deal,” Jeremy told me. “It's easy to replace. Your sewer line is easy to access because it's in the middle of the lawn. I can probably replace it in a day.” He quoted me a price of $1700.

Over the next couple of weeks, Jeremy called back twice to see if we wanted to spend the $1700 to repair the sewer line. “No,” I said. “Things seem to be okay for now.”

Well, things were okay for a while. Friday, however, the sewer line clogged again, and this time it was very very gross. Dirty water came flooding up into the bathtub. Yuck!

We called the plumber again. A different fellow came out and cleared the line. Because Kris and I were both home, he called us over to look when he'd finished his work. He had a camera 90 feet into the line, and he showed us the very damage that Jeremy had described. And then he said something that was very GRS-y.

“You can replace that five-foot section,” he told us, “but if I were you, I'd think about replacing everything from the sidewalk to the street. It'll cost more, but if you save up for it, it'll be more cost-effective in the long run. You've got other trees in that area, and they're likely to cause trouble eventually if you don't take steps to correct the problems now. And if you have us do all of it at once, it'll cost less than if we have to repair it in pieces.”

A plumber with advice on budgeting for repairs — I like it!

The real lesson, of course, is not to defer home maintenance. I know this is one of the cardinal rules of home ownership, yet for some reason, I always procrastinate. I think it's hard for me to spend on something that isn't really an immediate problem. It's May — my gutters aren't overflowing. I just had the drain cleaned — the toilet isn't clogging. And so on. But as we just learned, what would have cost me $1700 to repair in March will now cost me $2000 because I delayed. (That's $1700 for the repair and $300 for the most recent visit by the plumber.)

After the plumber left, Kris and I had a chat.

“This is kind of a pattern for you, isn't it?” she asked. She meant that I have a tendency to ignore warning signs and just hope that things will get better on their own. Last week, I wrote about ignoring warning signs from my computer as it began to fail. I've done the same many times in the past with cars, computers, clothing, home repairs, and (worst of all) my personal health. I don't fix problems when they're small; as a result, they often become big problems later on.

Basically, I should heed the advice I always give others. To quote Your Money: The Missing Manual:

Just as daily exercise and a sensible diet keep your body healthy and help you avoid costly medical bills, regular home maintenance keeps normal wear-and-tear from developing into problems, and problems from turning into emergencies.

[…]

When we bought our new house in 2004, the home inspector told us that for every dollar we spent on maintenance, we'd avoid roughly $100 in future repairs. He wrote in his inspection report, “In my experience as a professional home inspector, I have looked at hundreds of homes in all age ranges, and I have seen thousands of dollars of damage to homes that could have been avoided by spending $5 to $10 and just a few minutes of work.”

So, Kris and I are going to have some sewer work done.

Right now, we need to decide if we can afford to have the larger section replaced, or whether we'll just go with the small patch. And if we do replace the longer section, do we tap into emergency savings to do so? I think we might.

It's tough for me to accept that it's not just okay, but it's good to spend on solving small problems. It's like self-insurance, or an investment in my future. My hope is that you can have the wisdom to learn from my mistakes. If you deal with a small problem before it becomes a big problem, you can save yourself time, money, and hassle.

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basicmoneytips.com
basicmoneytips.com
10 years ago

Old homes do have character but that character comes with a price. Actaully the $1700 for sewer repair seems pretty reasonable to me, I think I would bite the bullet and do it. That way it is out of the way in the event that something else major happens next year or some time in the future.

Mike Choi
Mike Choi
10 years ago

After reading this, I think I am going to replace my car battery tonight or sometime this week because I just needed a jump start this weekend. Even though the current batterys starts the car up fine and it got to work on this(monday) morning, it may go dead when I don’t want it to causing me more grief and costing me more than just the cost of a battery.

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

I think I would tap into the emergency fund. Fix it now before you have a geyser in your front yard! Especially since it wouldn’t be a friendly geyser. 🙂

Ben
Ben
10 years ago

I hear you on tapping the emergency fund. I recently had a bunch of medical expenses past my budget and ws reluctant to withdraw until I took stock and realised that was what it was there for.

Mimi
Mimi
10 years ago

I’d do it. Old houses are like old folks; preventive medicine always beats the full-bore emergency intervention. Best of luck to you and Kris!

DCS
DCS
10 years ago

How deep is the line buried? Some are only three or four feet underground. If it’s not too deep, you can probably save a ton by digging it yourself. Then the plumber won’t need to bring in heavy equipment and someone to run it (and tear up the yard in the process).

If it goes out at or below the basement floor it’s too deep to hand dig and you should just have a pro do it unless you can operate a backhoe yourself.

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound
10 years ago

I also think the $1700.00 is a reasonable price. We have a house 100+ years old and are looking at replacing our sewer line also due to age and wear & tear. We will also have to pay to have the street dug up and the sewer line tied into the city’s line and then pay to have that area of the street repaved. Our estimates have been $3000.00 and up.

Mario Jauregui
Mario Jauregui
10 years ago

Dude, doublecheck warranty of course longer is better 10 years or 20 I know we had roof replace about 4 years ago and this was a main concern. Our new roof did leak a little and they had to come to repair it! Just a word of caution. Good luck!

leslie
leslie
10 years ago

We are going through this right now with our house. Gutters have become the bane of my existence. We have had problems off and on with them but have never really taken the time to have them properly looked at. We have a ton of wood rot now because none of the gutters drain properly so they force water all sorts of places it is not supposed to go. We are spending the extra money to get them fixed now while we are getting all the rotten wood replaced so we don’t have to do this again in a few… Read more »

Brian B
Brian B
10 years ago

I hope I read all this right.

Isn’t it actually a GOOD thing that you didn’t replace just that section of line when the first guy was out? If you did, you wouldn’t have gotten the second opinion from the guy who wanted to replace it all.

It’s still early, I probably read that wrong

KK
KK
10 years ago

If it were me I would not go with just the small patch. I’d have them complete the job so that is one less thing to worry about. I would not be afraid to use my emergency fund because isn’t that what it is for?

Jon
Jon
10 years ago

I have nearly exactly the same situation with the sewer line in my 88 year old home. So far, I’ve kept the line clear by renting a “snake” each time it clogs up, but I know I’m going to have to bite the bullet soon and spend the money to replace the old line with plastic. My line comes out below the level of the basement, so there’s no chance of hand-digging. Unfortunately, I also have a water main to replace soon. Gotta love the “character” of our old homes!

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

@Brian B (#10)
I’ve been a little unclear in my post. All of these fellows (both plumbers and Jeremy) are from the same company. And while it’s true that the second plumber recommended replacing everything from the sidewalk to the street, I still think we would have saved money by doing the repairs when they were first suggested.

I’m calling Jeremy out today to give us a bid on the “sidewalk to the street” section. And we’ve decided to tap emergency savings if the project is doable.

Jenn
Jenn
10 years ago

A big lesson we re-learned this week – get multiple estimates on home projects! We are hiring someone to paint the exterior of our house and repair a couple pieces of warped wood. Our second estimate was half the price of the first, and when the first painter was made aware of that he matched the bid.

In our case another estimate took about an hour and was free, and save us over $3000.

Louis
Louis
10 years ago

You always need asecond opinion- period.
I would also call an excavator because this is right up their alley and may be able to save you money.

As always get the estimates in writing.

When you pay the bill, no matter who does it, get a lein waiver signed stating they have been paid in full, and ask for a vendor lein release- write it on their contract or estimate.

Get the entire run done @ once, and have an exterior clean out put in close to the house, you can plant a bush in front of it.

chamoiswillow
chamoiswillow
10 years ago

$1700 for the entire street-to-house pipe is very reasonable, you will never get a better deal, have the work done. Make sure you get two things first, however, 1) a written quote with detailed scope of work and any known exclusions (to avoid surprise add$) and the plumber’s certificate of insurance. If he won’t give you a copy find someone else. Also be sure to call digsafe(1-800-dig-safe) to make sure there are no underground utilities in the area (gas, electric, water, etc).

Money Green Life
Money Green Life
10 years ago

yeah same thing happened to a water line at my folks place. water line broke coming in from the city main line and the plumber suggested replacing the entire line instead of replacing a section that broke. he said it broke because the line is very old and guessed that it’ll break again within the next fee months. my father deferred and ha only the broken section replaced. you guesses it, a different section broke only two weeks later. it ended up costing him $1000 more! lesson learned I suppose.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Can you do any of the work yourself? My husband reduced our costs to replace the cast iron sewer line at one of our investment properties (a 1930s home) by doing a lot of the work himself. He dug up the line, he also cut up the old pipe and disposed of it through the city bulk haul. The plumber installed the replacement line, took care of the disconnecting and reconnecting, etc.

Three cheers for old homes, we have two 1920s and one 1930s.

MaryR
MaryR
10 years ago

My father-in-law, a farm equipment mechanic, says that next to the check engine light on your car there should be a blinking “$500” and that the low oil symbol should include “$1000+.” He says it would help people understand their cars better.

Welmoed
Welmoed
10 years ago

You had a very smart home inspector!! We always tell our clients that deferred maintenance is false economy. Just last week we posted to our blog about the most common maintenance tasks that are deferred: gutters was certainly at the top of the list, but there are many more that will cause problems if not addressed on a regular basis.

Rebecca
Rebecca
10 years ago

Long story short- always fix anything having to do with water as quickly as possible. Small amounts of water have a tendency to turn into large dollar amounts of materials to be replaced. For instance- the gutters. Do you know how old your roof is? Do you if the flashing was installed correctly? Because overflowing gutters can easily mean water backing up into the roof which can mean rotting of your roof, the sheathing, and even the structural members. A leak under your sink, left to its own devices, can essentially melt your subfloor and lead to you have to… Read more »

Brad
Brad
10 years ago

Just remember to get references, check out this plumbers previous work, get a written contract and at least ask what the warrantee is on his work. Personal experience tells me that unless you’re a hands-on kind of guy, don’t tackle big projects like this on your own. The biggest plus about replacing the entire line is you a) won’t have to worry about this happening again in your lifetime b) sell the house with a “replaced sewer line” as a selling point (if and when you do). Oh, and thank God (or whomever) you don’t share your line with your… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

Ugh! Sewer work is about the definition of an emergency to me – the only thing worse is if the roof caves in. Our house is 108 years old. We spent $4000 a few years ago (and didn’t have water for 2 weeks, when I had a baby in diapers) to get just one section replaced – the part from the main in the middle of the street to the edge of our property – it was a lead pipe from 1902, when the original pipes were laid, but so scaled up with lime we didn’t have any lead in… Read more »

Waves
Waves
10 years ago

Isn’t this the point of an emergency fund? When you need to use money? What’s the point if you never use it.

Alissa
Alissa
10 years ago

What I hear you saying is that even if you replace the one section, the rest is just a ticking time bomb. You never know when you’ll need those other sections replaced to. Why not actually save the money by doing preventative maintenance and get the whole thing replaced? And I would agree, isn’t this what your emergency fund is for?

Dee
Dee
10 years ago

This is where the rubber hits the road. It is time to practice good money management and home ownership.
There will be more money in your pocket in the long run.
Plumbing problems do not have a reputation of staying small and they are always show up at an inconvenient time.

Do the work. You will rest easier, feel confident if you ever resale and have a great article to write to us : )

Dee

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

Dip into your emergency savings. Either figure out what the extra repairs would have cost you, and/or include the $300/quarter you’d spend to clean out the sewer line, and replenish the savings based on that. Once you’ve paid off the amount you pulled from savings (plus interest?), you’re in the clear. Our old house apparently had a sewer line that did a 180 in the backyard–it used to go to a septic field, but was hooked to the city sewer on the street. We were able to keep it clean with periodic use of a copper-based root killer, and by… Read more »

SF_UK
SF_UK
10 years ago

Plumbing problems tend not to “go away”. Worse, when they come back, they come back bigger, better, and with more damage, disaster and mayhem. Typically at the worst possible time (think pipes bursting on Christmas morning, or your basement flooding with sewage when your in-laws are due to visit). Yes, insurance will often pay for “consequential damage”, but not for fixing the cause, and then there’s the inconvenience and, well, it’s just not nice having even clean water flooding through your home. Sewage… let’s just not go there. On the subject of insurance, make sure you *are* covered for consequential… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Is this one of those jobs where it would be helpful to get a second bid?

With plumbing I don’t think we would because there’s only one reputable plumber in our town, but if there were more than one I think we would.

RMoM
RMoM
10 years ago

I was just quoted $5000 to repair a section of line over which a very large eucalyptus tree is growing. The tree has caused a dip in the line due to its weight pressing down on the pipe so I guess it’s only a matter of time before the pipe breaks. I don’t want to spend 5 grand and I don’t want to cut down the tree so I’m going to wait until I’m forced to do either because I just can’t make a decision on that tree.

elaine
elaine
10 years ago

Infrastructure – house, body, etc is ALWAYS worth a withdrawal from the emergency fund. I do not hesitate to invest in my house or my body (medical and dental care) – if not those, what?

ashleyD
ashleyD
10 years ago

i vote to fix the entire thing and not think of it again! it is an emergency of sorts!

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

We also have an old house. There are certain things you just don’t want to mess with. Before we moved in we had the roof redone and all the electricity replaced (before it was knob and tube). And at this point, pretty much all the plumbing below ground has been replaced, including the “stack” that runs to the main sewer. An old compromised stack is an accident waiting to happen. The stacks were original to the house and just had a couple slow leaks, almost like sweating in a couple spots, but that was enough for us to go ahead… Read more »

lynn
lynn
10 years ago

I have a 1930’s home and have the same issue with my sewer lines. I know I have to replace the main line from the house to the street but the quotes are 5-8K (I live in L.A.)! I’m thankful for every flush that makes it’s way down the line 🙂

Older homes are great but the cost adds up (new windows, new paint, etc., etc.)

Marcia
Marcia
10 years ago

My grandmother had a saying “Buying cheap is expensive” If you have the $$ in an emergency fund, I’d use it, simply because it really is an emergency – it just hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps an emergency fund can be that as well – an emergency prevention fund!

Mendy
Mendy
10 years ago

Replace the whole thing J.D., you just got a new glorious IMAC for probably the same amount of dough, this a much smellier problem if it doesn’t get taken care of.

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Timely post… I just e-mailed MrP telling him that we need to make some investments in maintenance or we’ll be spending a whole lot to fix things next spring!

Leah
Leah
10 years ago

One day, I called my mom in a tizzy. I had my first cavity ever, and it was going to cost me $100 to fill it. I was in grad school at the time, and I was worrying about the cost when she goes, “well, that’s what you have an emergency fund for, right?” And she is right. I’ve always had an emergency fund (starting at 15 with my first job — thanks, mom!). And I paid the $100 out of that, worked on paying it back right away. If I were you, I’d fix the whole shebang and just… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

I’d probably get the whole thing replaced too, but definitely get at least 3 opinions first on the work that might need to be done. It’s useful to hear multiple solutions and price points, and if they all agree on the problem and the solution, that’s a plus too.

Thisiswhyubroke!
Thisiswhyubroke!
10 years ago

Awesome post! I think its important as bloggers to show whats behind the curtain and I love how you have no fears in doing so.

meks
meks
10 years ago

As an aside, my plumber told me drain cleaner can be very corrosive to your (interior) pipes. This is particularly true if they are plugged as the cleaner will sit in one spot for a while. It won’t address issues with your sewer pipe, but I would also invest in a $15 snake from the hardware store and use that instead of drain cleaner.

RJ Weiss
RJ Weiss
10 years ago

I struggle with this same thing. I have a young maple tree that is about to grow right into the power line. I can remove it now for $100 or remove it two years down the road, when it matures for $500. It would seem to be a no-brainer to remove it now, but I just can’t get myself to spend the money.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

OMG. We had the same thing, only instead of a concrete line ours was paper (and luckily shorter). Apparently around WWII there was such a shortage of metal that they made pipe out of compressed paper (you learn a lot of history with home repair). Each time we had our line snaked we would actually make the hole bigger. When we dug it out we went right through the pipe because the dirt was actually providing the structural integrity of the line, and when it was gone the thing just collapsed. I would NOT discount the idea of that happening… Read more »

Erin
Erin
10 years ago

I also think you should replace the whole thing. It’s going to sting having to withdraw the money!! But this is exactly WHY we build up an emergency fund. Not to mention the peace of mind of having it all fixed correctly the first time is worth it to me. If you only replace that section, you’ll always have it in the back of your head, wondering when you’ll need to do the rest, when it’s going to break again, etc. Not to mention, you’ll repair the yard only to have to do it again in the future if they… Read more »

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

I also procrastinate with home maintenance and I’m sure it’s going to bite me in the butt at some point. Big stuff (like water leaks) we handle immediately, but it took 3 years to cover a small hole on the side of our house. I still haven’t cleaned off the green mold stuff that started growing on the bottom part of our siding. I’m going to use this article as a spur…this afternoon the siding will be clean and our air filter will be changed. I will also clean the shower drain now instead of waiting for it to get… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

This discussion is very helpful to me in another way. You don’t know this, but I have a half-completed article (actually, I have dozens of half-completed articles) about preventative health care. My family just doesn’t like to go to the doctor, and it’s beginning to cost me. I’m trying to change my attitude. For example, on Saturday (the day after our sewer issue), I crashed my bike. I went over the handlebars at about 20mph, landing on both knees and both wrists. The wrists took the brunt of the blow, and I’ve been in intense pain ever since. But have… Read more »

KarenJ
KarenJ
10 years ago

JD, I have some personal experience in this area, so listen up! My husband and I bought a property to “flip,” a few years ago. Unfortunately, our timing couldn’t have been worse and we’ve ended up being stuck with the house and forced into being landlords. The house was built in the 1930’s. Needless to say, we’ve come to call it “The Money Pit,” for those of you who remember that movie. We had a problem with the plumbing which we kept repairing with similar stop gap measures. Finally, the drains backed up and forced sewage into the basement. Total… Read more »

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

Marcia said it better, but it sounds like JD is having trouble considering this an emergency because everything currently works. If he doesn’t have enough money when things are actually backing up, that does feel like an emergency and thus something to use the funds for. Preventative maintenance does not feel like an emergency because there is more leeway on when you can get it done. But if you’re spending less money overall for the same result (no back-ups), it does make sense to use money from the same (emergency) fund. I am fascinated by all these piping materials. My… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

@JD – you might contact your city/county about sewer line replacement assistance. Our town has a program where they will pay part of the cost (replace the section from the street to a certain point in the yard) if the homeowner covers the rest.

I guess like your plumber recommended, they think fixing it all at once is worth the investment.

Chris Foundas
Chris Foundas
10 years ago

My father always told me: “It’s easier to make a new house old, than an old house new.” Great financial advice for thinking long-term about the costs of home ownership.

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