Surprise! You own a sewer!
October 5, 2011 8:20 AM   Subscribe

Apparently, we have a private sewer line that no one knew existed. And that line is disintegrating. Now what?

We learned last night that it is highly likely that our sewage, as well as that of at least five of our neighbors, drains into a 'private' sewer line instead of directly into the public line as we had all assumed. The existence of this line (or it's right of way) is not documented in our deed or any of the paperwork we received when we purchased the house (10+ years ago) and the line did not come up in the recent Digsafe search our neighbor had done prior to grading and leveling their lawn. Instead, her plumber was rooting out her sewage line, and the rooter/camera took a right-hand turn when everyone had expected it to go straight to the road.

It took the city a couple of tries, but they were ultimately able to say, yes, they had a record of a 'private' sewer line running parallel to our street behind the houses. They were as surprised as we were to learn that our sewage line was actually hooked into it, but the evidence of the camera doesn't lie.

To make this more exciting, the camera revealed a breach in the line about 54' feet from her house -- in a spot pretty much underneath our driveway. The plumber also believes there is at least one additional breach beyond that - in our yard.

What, if any, recourse do we have here? While we accepted that we might be responsible for repairs to sewer lines on our property, we had always been led to believe that this was just a few feet, at most. We didn't expect to have signed up for paying the cost of repair on hundreds of feet of turn-of-the-19th-century sewer lines that aren't well documented.

Should this have come up in our title search? In our deed? Been documented somewhere that we could have possibly known about it? Do I need a lawyer right now? If so, what kind? And what assistance can the lawyer possibly be?

Have you been though something like this? Do people in mid-sized cities often discover their utilities are put together significantly differently than the city thought?

Other potentially useful stuff: My home was built in 1913. The plumber believes that the sewage connection dates from no later than 1920. We do pay city water and sewer.
posted by anastasiav to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
IANAL but I had a private sewer line but one I knew about. It too deteriorated and the best way to deal with it, according to pretty well everyone I asked, was bite the bullet and connect to the county sewage system. This cost a lot, both in terms of connection fee and running the line but was probably worth it, not least as it would have been difficult to sell with a private line. My advice would be for your and your neighbors to negotiate a deal with the city (given that they knew and did not tell you) for you all to be connected to the city system. If you have title insurance, which you should have got when you bought your house and did a title search, you may be able to claim costs from them.
posted by TheRaven at 8:35 AM on October 5, 2011

Question...Where does this private line go?

My neighborhood was once a self-contained sewage system, complete with its own treatment facility. Ultimately, the neighborhood grew too large and overwhelmed the small facility and we had to tie into the county sewage lines.

Again, my question...Where does the private line go? It can't simply go nowhere. It also can't be dumping straight into a river somewhere. Does your multi-private system head into a massive finger system somewhere? It might behoove you to explore it some more. It may be that, further down the line (beyond the breaches) that the private line was tied-into the county system at sometime in the past. If so, you might have a defensible argument for the county to make the repairs on their dime, not yours.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:47 AM on October 5, 2011

Response by poster: Where does this private line go

According to the city, it goes nowhere. They believe it's been capped.
posted by anastasiav at 8:52 AM on October 5, 2011

If it was capped, there had to have been some way created for the sewage to be disposed of. Otherwise, the sewage would have backed-up into the homes long ago. Or bubbled to the surface. Or created a sinkhole. Someone would have noticed something was wrong.

Kind of odd, though, that the city had no idea it was there, yet say it was capped.

It's going to be hella-expensive to lay pipe to tie into the city lines. I think you need to have a sit-down with them about this serious public health issue.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:09 AM on October 5, 2011

That sewage is going somewhere. If not into the city's line, and you're paying the city for sewer, you should be able to get all that money back since they were not, in fact, providing you with a service.
posted by resurrexit at 9:10 AM on October 5, 2011

Response by poster: Kind of odd, though, that the city had no idea it was there, yet say it was capped.

To be fair, they knew it was there. As I said above, it took them a little while, but they finally found an older (I'm thinking much older) city sewer map that shows the line, and shows it as a 'private' line. However, they were not aware it was active.

Our plumber does think this private line is draining into the city line, and that their current map doesn't reflect that, for whatever reason. But no one is really going to know until we dig up the road ... and our yard ... and all our neighbor's yards.
posted by anastasiav at 9:20 AM on October 5, 2011

Response by poster: Anyhow, back to the question at hand:

- Should this have been documented in our deed or other paperwork that came with the house?
- Given that it was not, and it clearly exists, what recourse do I have to keep from having to pay for these repairs?

So far, folks seem to say "sit down with the city" and "title company". Any other thoughts?
posted by anastasiav at 9:23 AM on October 5, 2011

Well, if they are charging you sewer fees, and their map shows that your line doesn't connect to the public main, the onus is on them to prove that it is in fact connected.
posted by misterbrandt at 9:25 AM on October 5, 2011

Are you paying for sewer line insurance in your municipal bill? If you are, it should pay for connection to the nearest city main.

We had the same problem as you: a backing-up line (very old) going suspiciously towards the river that the city would not fix, instead they ran a new connection elsewhere (this required a long, deep trench to a rear alley from the front of the house).

If the problems had been in, under or near our house, it would have been our problem, but the insurance fund pays for clearing or repairing these outside connections. It's handled this way because otherwise many homeowners would not be able to afford the bill in the event that major excavation is required. We were left with other property damage we are still fixing (they don't cover returning landscaping, trees, retaining walls, etc. to their previous condition). Just getting sewer fees returned isn't going to be enough to do the work.
posted by lathrop at 9:33 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Are you paying for sewer line insurance in your municipal bill?

I don't think so. Our local sewer fees are paid as part of our water bill, and while the water district offers water line insurance, from the documents on their website (all very clear, with charts and diagrams) that insurance only covers the water line not the sewer line. I have a call in to the water district, but I'm pretty sure they're going to say only what the website says: coverage is for water lines.
posted by anastasiav at 10:14 AM on October 5, 2011

A day, and I mean a day, after my mother passed away, the sewer began to back up into her, now my, house and garage(which also contained a drain and toilet). After much pumping and line tracing. It was determined that I needed the sewer line replaced. I had three types of sewer line leading to the street. Each type coincided with construction during the houses existance. The worst was creosote embedded cardboard which was installed during WWII when cast iron was used for the war effort. This had lasted 60+ years and the only person who could tell me anything about it was the plumber. He had replaced almost every line like that on my street and several others in the area. He said there was really no way of knowing. Had 3/4 of my driveway excavated, along with a portion of the front yard. This had to be done by a plumber who could draw permits for excavation. Had three clean out stacks installed so now I can see where there may be a clog. This was all on my property. Now I know when its my problem or the city's. Paid $5000 in 2001. They graveled my drive which had been concrete and graded and re-seeded my front yard.
posted by PJMoore at 10:18 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I doubt the line has been capped. Five houses would create enough wastewater to create back-up problems if it had nowhere to go. Work together with your neighbors to hire one plumbing company to put in new laterals. If you all work together it will be much cheaper.

You could potentially work with the city to your city to come up with a workable solution. Cities are responsible for the laterals from the main to the property line so that portion of the cost should be borne by them. If the main needs to be replaced then it may be in their best interest to replace it all at the same time because this additional work may weaken an old main. If it appears that your combined sewerage was never connected to their sewers you are definitely due for reimbursement for the many years that you have paid. Use that argument in your favor.
posted by JJ86 at 11:55 AM on October 5, 2011

Our local sewer fees are paid as part of our water bill...

So, you have been paying a sewer fee all this time, despite supposedly being on a private system? Seems to me either your system is, in fact, tied into the municipal system (in which case, they should pay for a large portion of the repairs), or you're due a refund.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:07 PM on October 5, 2011

I sent you memail.
posted by theora55 at 12:56 PM on October 5, 2011

First thing - find out where the line goes, no? Reading the description, it's pure speculation right now if it's capped, or drains into a nearby river, or does connect into the city system, etc. etc. The plumber should be able to run his device to the 'end' of the line, or the tie-in or whatever..
posted by defcom1 at 1:59 PM on October 5, 2011

"Have you been though something like this? Do people in mid-sized cities often discover their utilities are put together significantly differently than the city thought? "

Despite me alerting them my city still thinks my sewer line exits my property on the south side even though it actually exits to the north, at least on the public facing databases. I'm sure they get it straightened out in the next few years when they redo our street.
posted by Mitheral at 5:27 PM on October 5, 2011

I little old post but my information may be useful to others.
First the term "private sewer" can mean a few different things but usually it just means the sewer pipe on your property (also called a side sewer) it doesn't mean that it does not connect to the local sewer utility. The term that should have been used to make this easy for all to understand is "shared sewer" meaning more than 1 home owner is connected to the same line. 2 houses is real frequent but I have seen a whole block connected together then go to the city sewer. Second a quick sewer camera contractor would just push in a sewer camera with a sonde (locating beacon) push it out the line then use a locator to tell you where it goes, what path it takes, and the condition. Shared lines repair costs are "shared" between all people who are connected to the line. I have seen where say 3 homes are connected but only 2 people have the money on hand have ended up paying the bill and tried to collect in the future from the one who did not pay. In the above post there are many modern repairs for the line itself that runs under the driveway. If the line just has open joints that roots got in and the rest is sound meaning it has grade (downward slope) then it could be lined (epoxy soaked felt liner like a big long sock of fiberglass) this would save the concrete or yards involved. Another option is called "Pipe bursting" It needs 2 holes one at each end of the sewer to break the old line into pieces and installs a complete new line! The first step would be the camera to locate the line and find out it's condition then go from there.
posted by Cuda at 1:58 PM on February 8, 2012

And I did see that a camera had been used but they must not have been able to go the full length to find where it goes to. We use a Jetter (a big pressure washer) on the long runs that will pull our camera out to lengths not possible by hand. Or the pipe could have been so clogged that they could not pass a certain spot, in that case we would use the jetter to open the line up enough to pass the bad spot to see the rest of the line.
posted by Cuda at 2:04 PM on February 8, 2012

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