Adventures At The Intersection of Homeownership And Sewage

The people who sold us the house, an extremely friendly brother-and-sister contracting team who flip houses all over town, had done a spectacular job on the house. They’d all but gutted it, salvaging a structure on the verge of condemnation and putting in new floors, windows, appliances — pretty much everything except the walls themselves. It was the perfect purchase for someone like me, an unmanly man whose expertise with maintenance and engineering pretty much starts and stops with changing a bike tire. It was move-in ready, everything brand new and fully functional.

Except for the plumbing. Rick explained why: The cleanout valve, usually in the basement of a house, is where one accesses the house’s main sewer line so it can be cleaned with a sewer snake, commercially known as a Roto-Rooter. Over the years, the sewage main that runs from a house to the city’s sewers under the streets gets clogged with things people aren’t supposed to flush down toilets, along with roots, which inevitably work their way into pipes through the couplings or cracks. An old house — in our case, one built in 1900—is especially susceptible, and its sewer line needs to be cleaned almost every year.

The problem was that the sellers had installed a useless cleanout valve, one that sat at an acute angle to the sewer main, impossible to get a snake through. Rick suspected that the structural malfeasance was more extensive than that, but first he’d have to remove part of the wall to find out. This was not as involved a process as I imagined; in under two minutes he used a box-cutter to slash away at the sheetrock until there was a 2×2’ hole in the wall surrounding the valve. But this only sent him further into a spiral of shock and dismay. He stood up, brushed off his pants, and said, This is worse that I thought. This is totally illegal.

Illegal? Could inanimate objects be illegal? Well, guns and drugs, I suppose. But walls? plumbing? Renovated dream houses? How could any part of that be illegal?

As Rick continued fulminating, I eventually grasped the vague outlines: While they’d competently renovated the rest of the house, the sellers had cut corners on the plumbing, and it wasn’t compliant with city code. Rick suspected that they hadn’t paid a city inspector—pulled a permit, in the parlance of our times — to look at the plumbing before they walled it up, so the private inspector we hired when we bought the house wouldn’t see it, either — via

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