Old House Essentials: the Sewer Lateral

August 17, 2016 , In: Field Notes , With: No Comments

So you finally find the right house and it’s time for inspections. You’re spending $300-500 on a general building inspection, $60-75 for a termite inspection, possibly $150 for radon, another $150 for HVAC….and whoa, it really starts to add up!

Many buyers will try to cut costs by skipping the “extra” inspections, but the one you should never leave out is a sewer lateral camera inspection, especially if you’re buying an older home. Yes, it will cost an additional $150-175, but it could also save you thousands in major repairs.


A sewer lateral is basically the pipe that carries waste from your household plumbing into the public sewer system. The most common materials for residential sewer lines are clay, cast iron and PVC, with clay & cast iron generally appearing at homes built prior to the 1980s. Both have actually been in use for hundreds of years. In fact, clay pipes were used in Babylonia as early as 4000BC! (You can learn more about their history here.)

Over time, both clay & cast iron pipes can develop a number of problems, including cracks, displaced joints, root intrusions from nearby trees, sediment deposits, full-on collapse, and a “belly” where the pipe has sagged and waste is not draining properly. So in order to discover these issues before you buy a house, it’s a very good idea to have a sewer camera inspection done.


A qualified technician will run a small video camera down the sewer line, noting any problems and their specific distance from the camera access point. Then that video can be shared with a plumber, who will determine the appropriate solution.

One of my clients recently had a camera inspection done and it revealed a “belly” about 50 feet long! Our plumber’s theory was that the house was built prior to the sewer main and the street, so it sat slightly lower than they did and the waste was having to travel uphill. Not good. Thankfully we knew about it and were able to negotiate a credit from the seller, because the repair ended up costing $12,000!


Repairing a sewer lateral can be very expensive because the work must be done by a licensed drainlayer, not just any plumber or handyman. And frankly, the work is messy and very labor-intensive. Sometimes they have to break up the basement floor and dig underneath. Sometimes they also have to dig up the yard, and the price usually increases the deeper the pipe is buried. The photo above (not mine) shows a line that’s 7 feet deep. Yikes.

The good news is you may not have to pay for the whole thing yourself! In St. Louis County and many other local municipalities, some or all of the cost will be paid by the community’s sewer lateral insurance fund. The rules and amount vary from one muni to the next, and you usually have to follow a very specific process, but in many cities you can contribute $28/year in taxes and in turn receive 100% reimbursement for sewer lateral repairs!

I’m happy to say that St. Charles County voters recently approved a new sewer lateral fund. Likewise, I’m disappointed that the city of St. Louis still only covers repairs in the public right of way, despite having some of the oldest sewer infrastructure in the region. To see what the sewer lateral program is in your community, take a look at this document. And then of course double-check with your local government.

When it comes to a household system as vital as the sewer line, you can never have too much information!

Shannon Howard
Realtor / Vintage House Specialist
The Howard Team, RE/MAX Results

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Shannon Howard

Realtor / Old House Specialist

The Howard Team • MORE Realtors • (314) 359-5927 •

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