The plumbing in your house is like the circulation system in the human body. Veins and arteries have a critical mission: carry blood cells to and from your heart just as pipes allow water to flow in and out of your home. Any blockage or break in the infrastructure is a disaster waiting to happen.
36% of buyers who decide to purchase brand-new homes do so to avoid plumbing (and electrical) issues, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Piping or plumbing catastrophes that come up during the sale of your decades-old charmer put buyers on edge.
Like your own routine health check-in with your trusted doctor, your home’s plumbing system needs a regular tune-up. But if you hire the wrong plumber, someone without a license and insurance, your simple repair can turn into a liability with no one to call about your 3 a.m. basement flooding.
We spoke to a top real estate agent who can spot a dated water heater from a mile away and expert plumbers who have more than 150 years of combined experience in the plumbing business.
They gave us the inside scoop on how to get your plumbing shaped up before a sale and who to hire to get the job done right.
Basic plumbing issues to look out for before you sell your home
One thing’s for sure, intact plumbing is critical to anyone’s daily routine.
Home buyers want to inherit a healthy plumbing framework they can count on for years to come. Clean water for hot showers and leak-free pipes aren’t desirable add-ons but table stakes for any home on the market.
So don’t be surprised when a home inspector examines your plumbing system with a magnifying glass. Here, we’ve listed common plumbing issues that crop up in a home inspection.
1. Check for leaky, rusty, or corroded pipes
Examine the ceilings, floors, and walls near or around your bathrooms and kitchen. Cracks and soggy spots on the floor indicate moisture and excessive leaks from pipes.
Stains and water marks on your ceiling also point to leaking pipes. Bubbling, peeling paint on your walls, stains, and watermarks on your ceiling, or cracks and soggy spots on the floor are signs of excessive moisture and leaks from your plumbing.
Check any exposed pipes in the basement or under the cupboard of your kitchen and bathroom sinks. Listen for any obvious dripping sounds and look out for out-of-place puddles and pools of water. If you spot mold or rotten wood around those areas, these also indicate pipe leaks.
- Continuous sound of running water when you aren’t using it
- Sudden increases in your water bill
- Rotting smells from walls near water sources
- Change in water meter reading
To check your water meter, mark the indicator on your meter, stop water use for a few hours, and check back. If the indicator moved, you have a leak somewhere in your plumbing system.
Most homes now have copper piping, which also falls victim to corrosion. Whether due to pH imbalances, exposure to bacteria, bad installation, or water damage, once you see blue stains, it’s time to switch out your pipes.
If you bought your house before the 1960s, it’s possible that your home has galvanized pipes, which are covered in zinc. Sean McGrillen, president of Red Wrench Plumbing in San Francisco, explains that galvanized pipes “start to corrode from the inside out. So you need to change them—it’s cleaner, and it tastes better as well.”
Have a plumber perform an inspection if you experience low water pressure and changes in the color or taste of the water. Only a professional can evaluate and fix corroded pipes.
According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI), if your tap water color starts to run yellow, red, or brown, you should consider repiping. Metals (like steel) that contain iron will probably rust with use over time. The InterNACHI recommends hiring a plumber for further inspection if there’s any noticeable rust in and on your piping system.
So, is it wise to replace your pipes before selling? “You’d have to speak to a real estate agent to see what they think,” says McGrillen. “A lot of people buy [houses] as not really caring what it’s like and totally remodeling it. But, if you have leaks, then I would say yes definitely to fix them.”
HomeAdvisor provides cost estimates for replacing piping or sections of piping, so you know what to expect when talking to a plumber. Pipe replacement costs depend on materials required, where the pipes are located, and size of your house.
For example, copper repiping costs about $2-$5 per foot or $5,000-$20,000 for whole-house replacement. McGrillen estimates around $7,000 for pipework and fixtures in his San Francisco market. What adds to the price, he says, is the patchwork.
“All the sheetrock and tile, you’re talking about $12,000 total, easily.”
Again, your real estate agent knows best what to do with your piping system for the home sale—they’ll recommend plumbers like McGrillen who will inspect and advise on any repairs.
2. Know your water heater’s age
“Everyone wants to know that they can close on the home and not worry about needing a new water heater right away and that the plumbing in the home is intact,” says Nancy Rogers, a top real estate agent in Lowell, Massachusetts, who has 37 years of real estate experience.
Your water heater is likely located in a place that’s out of sight, out of mind—hidden down in the basement or a utility closet that you haven’t checked in months.
However, an overlooked water heater that’s more than 10 years old can result in water leaks, overflows, and floods in your home that permanently damage your floors and drywall.
NAR suggests homeowners check the temperature and pressure of their water heaters once a month to avoid plumbing disasters. So, figure out where your water heater is and take note of its age.
“Ser no GB91-07…” means your tank was made in July 1991.
If it’s ancient or you find any evidence of leaks or water damage, get a plumber to evaluate the situation right away.
“If it’s more than 10 years old, you might have to give a credit towards [the home sale], negotiate on it, but you just never know what you’re gonna get,” Rogers explains.
Fixr provides a water heater cost estimate calculator that factors in your area and size and type of water heater. The national average is about $600-$800 for a replacement.
3. Test for leaky toilets or faucets
Although the toilet isn’t a glamorous home highlight to sit back and admire, you want all the toilets in your home to be in good working order before buyers come through.
Do a quick checkup by first looking to see if there’s any discoloration at the base of the toilet. Then, try to rock the toilet bowl back and forth. If toilet budges and shakes, the bottom of your toilet has a loose seal.
Discoloration and a loose seal are the first signs of a leaky toilet, an item you should put on your “must repair” list right away.
The annoying drips and drops in the middle of the night from your faucet could be a sign of a larger plumbing issue. First, if your faucet is worn, you might need to replace the older fixture with a newer one, but if it persists or leaks at the base, you have an issue with either water pressure or cracked plumbing.
Toilet and faucet leaks cause considerable mold and water damage on your floor and mysterious increases in your water bill. Don’t ignore them so you can avoid large renovations that prolong the home selling process down the line.
Faucet repairs, on the other hand, start as low as $50—you can treat this as your own weekend DIY project or buy your own fixture and hire a plumber to install it.
4. Watch out for water sewer line issues
If your drains run slowly or you hear gurgling from the toilet, you may have a clogged sewer line. Mike Tarver, a second generation plumber who owns Mike’s Discount Plumbing in San Francisco, CA (a BBB certified company), urges you to get this problem evaluated and fixed ASAP.
A clogged sewer line can lead to a backflow of sewage and water from your drains to other appliances, like your bathtub or washing machine.
“When people move in and they find out that they have to replace their sewer line, but they weren’t aware they had to do that, it could be a big unexpected expense,” says Tarver. “Especially after just purchasing a home, that’s a $10,000 to $30,000 bill at their doorstep.”
HomeAdvisor estimates $1,000 to $4,000 range for main sewer line replacement. Before dropping a couple grand, get an inspection from a plumber and talk to your real estate agent to see if it’s necessary to replace.
5. Don’t ignore evidence of mold and water damage
In addition, home inspectors won’t let signs of mold and moisture slip through the cracks.
They’ll check for rotting wood and moldy water stains along wood panels or ceilings and flooring. If they find mold in your home, the inspector might even call for an air quality test for mold spores.
Book a plumbing inspection if you spot any areas with mold buildup or water damage because only a plumber can find any undetected water leakages.
To start on mold and water damage repair, first, fix the plumbing problem. Then, consider the cost of repair.
HouseLogic reports that mold removal can range from $500 to $6,000 depending on the size of the damage. You should call for repair before it spreads and the bill gets way out of hand.
6. Recognize backflow and cross-connection issues
According to the National Environmental Services Center, cross-connection is a pipe structural arrangement that can cause contamination of a home’s water supply. A pipe installed in the wrong place or an extra connector from your main water supply to other pipelines are usually the culprit.
Cross-connection issues also arise when you leave a hose or other open water source in a pool, laundry or kitchen sink, which causes backflow of dirty water to the clean water supply.
If your home inspector identifies cross connection and you don’t take any steps to fix it, your city utility has the right to cut off your water service and fine you per day until it’s fixed.
If you notice backflow, hire a plumber to inspect and recommend pricing for any cross-connection problems.
Professional plumbers can check for exterior problems and recognize interior plumbing issues that you or home inspectors can’t identify, such as tree root growth in your pipes.
R.S. Andrews, a plumbing company operating for over 50 years in Atlanta, Georgia, provides a general plumbing inspection checklist that their plumbers follow in every inspection. They suggest a yearly tune-up that keeps your plumbing system healthy and home ready to sell when you are.
Plumbing upgrades that add value to your home
Generally speaking, it’s rarely a good idea to invest in purely cosmetic pricey upgrades before you sell your home because you’re unlikely to recoup your costs at resale.
But small and functional improvements go a long way toward attracting buyers, and the plumbing of your home is no exception.
7. Swap out plumbing fixtures for a whole new look
When selling a house, Tarver recommends installing new fixtures.
“It always looks better to put new fixtures in. When people move in they don’t want to see that the faucets look old,” says Tarver.
What would he tackle? “Kitchen faucets, bathroom faucets, and maybe even the toilet,” he says. New fixtures can completely change the look and feel of a room.
A quick kitchen update to your appliances can add value to your home and fix any plumbing issues. Your kitchen faucet should be your main focus.
For a smaller kitchen, we recommend the Kraus Oletto Single-Handle Kitchen Faucet with a stainless steel finish. A larger kitchen should have a pull-down feature, like the RunFine Single Handle Pull-down Kitchen Faucet.
The faucet is also a main focal point of your bathroom.
Depending on the design of your space, you can go for a retro gold-finish look for your faucet like in the photo above, or a standard brushed nickel finish that goes with any kind of counter and vanity.
The National Association of Homebuilders finds toilets that have low water use and are easy to clean are the most popular in 2018. Plus, white is still the top color for an elegant design. It might be time to switch out the vintage, beige-tinted toilet for one that is energy-efficient and modern.
We recommend the Glacier Bay one piece All-in-one toilet—it’s contemporary, a top-rated seller at Home Depot, and easier to clean as one structure.
Remember: only consider these options if your plumbing system and the fixtures involved need repairs.
“As long as everything is in working order, I wouldn’t do a bathroom remodel just to sell a house,” says Dave Costello, owner of Heise’s Plumbing, a company that has served San Francisco for 60+ years. He says, “if you have good flow, that’s all that’s required. On the seller’s end, you don’t have to have it repiped or remodeled.”
You’ve got your plumbing to-do list. Who should you hire to get the job done?
So, now you’re looking for a plumber who can help you tackle your to-do list. Who can you trust to do a proper job in time for a home sale?
Strike up a conversation with your real estate agent about their network of contractors to start your search for a top-notch plumber. If they’re as experienced as Rogers, they’ll have a vetted group of trusted professionals in their circle. Take advantage of their connections built up over years or decades in the community.
To expand your candidate pool, collect recommendations from your friends and family members who recently sold their home or had any plumbing work done and can tell you about their experience.
In the event that your referrals don’t work out or you’d like to shop around, do your due diligence to avoid uninsured plumbing messes that will leave a gaping hole in your wallet.
8. Check Nextdoor, the BBB, and other reliable sites to find the right plumber.
You can’t expect to find your trusty, go-to plumber with a quick Google search. Chances are the first plumber that pops up on Yelp is stacked with appointments and you can’t leave a message because their voicemail is full. Plus, cross-checking a plumber’s credentials and reviews against multiple sources of information is never a bad idea.
Luckily, there’s more than one site that can help you find a plumber in your area:
9. Check which plumbers have the most “hearts” on Nextdoor
“We get a lot of our new customers from Nextdoor,” says Costello. “Yelp is outdated, anybody can write anything on Yelp.”
Nextdoor is a neighborhood platform that allows community members to post, rate, and review companies in your area.
Type “plumber” into the search bar and a list of businesses will appear, ranked by the number of “hearts” they’ve earned from past clients.
Every year, Nextdoor announces its Neighborhood Favorites, an award program that allows neighborhood members to select the best-recommended businesses in their area.
In the below example, Heise’s Plumbing appears as the clear neighborhood favorite with the most “hearts,” indicating that they provide great service to people who live near you.
Curious to learn more about the company? You can click on their name to read reviews and ask questions in the comments, just like any Facebook post!
10. Find plumbers with A+ ratings on the Better Business Bureau
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) issues letter grades to companies based on any complaints they receive from clients and customers.
In your hunt for a quality plumber, check to make sure any candidates you’re seriously considering are BBB accredited with at least an “A” rating.
If you check a small box on the left side of the page, you can search plumbers based on BBB-accreditation.
BBB also keeps track of how long companies have been in business. A family-operated plumbing service established for 20 years likely has the experience you’re looking for.
11. Get matched with top plumbers in your area via Angie’s List
Angie’s List, an established home services directory since 1995, offers a simple search tool to get a list of the best plumbers in your area.
Type your basic query such as “plumbers” into the search portal and then the site will take you through a short questionnaire to ask about the type of problem you want to fix and based on that information, dish up a list of plumbers who are most qualified to meet your needs.
Angie’s List also has a comprehensive directory of certified businesses, which go through a yearly criminal background check, maintain an overall rating of A or B, and have proper licensing.
Use this service and knock down a couple of steps to find a plumber operating a legitimate and trustworthy business in one fell swoop.
12. Your plumber should know all the local codes
Make sure you find a plumber in your area that is familiar with your local codes.
For Costello, he only works in San Francisco and services that city, so he only knows San Francisco codes. Whereas David Aviksis, a licensed Master Plumber and owner of Mr. Fix It Plumbing in Massachusetts, only works with lead, copper, and brass pipes that are common in his area.
13. Ask your plumber candidates for proof of license and insurance
Before you even ask for an estimate, check if your state has specific requirements for obtaining plumbing and construction licenses.
The state of California requires a license for any plumbing job that exceeds $500. You can search the name of any business online and look up a contractor’s license on your local state government website.
“Number one, you have to make sure they’re licensed and insured,” says Costello. “As long as they’re licensed they should know what they’re doing. You’re taking the risk with a person with no license because there’s no liability.”
Tarver echoes this point. “If they mess your plumbing up and now you have a flood under your sink and your $30,000 cabinets are all messed up, if [your plumber] has no license, you have nobody to call,” says Tarver.
Also, confirm that the plumber has insurance. Says Tarver, “For your million dollar house, make sure they have a million dollars worth of insurance.”
This basic license and insurance check help you avoid legal issues from the start of your search!
14. Proofread those plumbing estimates
Once you’ve done your research, make a list of your top 3 and call them for an estimate.
“One plumber might say something that another one might not, and then you can check both of them with the third one. And, that way you can check prices as well,” suggests Tarver. One plumber might recommend repiping your whole system, while another thinks you need a pipe replacement in one area. This can change the price of your repair from the hundreds to thousands.
The BBB suggests homeowners confirm plumber pricing estimates in writing and to never settle for a verbal agreement.
Make sure you know whether materials will be included with the repair for a flat rate or separate charges. You don’t want to face any surprises at the end of the job or realize that you’re hundreds of dollars over your budget.
Having a written record of the estimate keeps the transaction transparent on both sides by setting clear expectations for the scope of the job and the agreed upon payment.
15. Make sure your plumber candidates can answer these questions
Once you have your estimates in hand, ask your plumber candidates for the contact information of at least three previous clients. This is a crucial step in finding the right plumber—past customers know the work ethic of their contractors, and whether they did a good job. Tarver considers punctuality, job completion, price, and customer satisfaction as the key factors for a top plumber.
So, ask the following questions:
- Did they arrive for the job on time?
- Did they fix your plumbing issue well?
- Were you satisfied with their work?
- Was their pricing fair?
How to navigate any plumbing issue that comes your way
While a home’s tasteful paint colors and breathtaking hardwood floors get all the compliments and credit from buyers, the plumbing of a house works behind the scenes to make a house functional and livable.
No need to replace every faucet and pipe just because it’s time to sell, but in the event that a plumbing repair request does arise, these types of jobs are not of the DIY variety.
Trust your agent on what to negotiate on and who to call, and you’ll breeze through any points of contention on your way to a successful home sale.
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