Home Renovations: Plumbing Perils

Up until this point, the home renovations I’ve shared on this blog have been overall successes and relatively pain free – leveling the floors, gutting and upgrading the kitchen, painting every vertical surface of our house, etc. Sure there was a lot of time, money, and effort put into those fixes, but they were on our agenda and had been budgeted for accordingly. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t share the trauma of our plumbing catastrophe, lest you think our home renovation process has been all sunshine and rainbows. And to tell that story, we have to go back in time to the couple of months leading up to our official move.

According to the paperwork and our appraisal, our house has one bathroom. In reality, we have two bathrooms – one on the main floor and a pseudo-bathroom set up in the basement. It has no walls, just a toilet and shower stall in a dark corner of the basement with a shower curtain rigged up for privacy. When the house was appraised, we were told the basement bathroom didn’t qualify as a real bathroom since it lacked a sink. Nevermind that it doesn’t have any walls – apparently bathrooms are defined by the ability to wash your hands. Go figure. (There was a sink for the washing machine close by, so I assume the previous owners used that to maintain their hygiene.)

In speaking with the seller (Mrs. STK’s son) we found out that the entire family of five used the basement bathroom exclusively while they were living there. It was only when Mr. STK got too old to maneuver the basement steps did anyone use the main floor bathroom. We were never given a reason as to why the main floor bathroom was off limits, but the seller indicated that his parents had some eccentricities, so we chalked it up to that. I’ve visited friends’ homes where the living room is reserved only for guests, so I assumed that was the case with this bathroom. I remember inadvertently stepping into an off limits living room at a friend’s house, messing up the vaccum’s triangular pattern on the carpet. My friend immediately dropped to her knees, trying to erase my footsteps by vigorously raking the carpet with her fingernails. Whoops.

Anyway, that was all well and good for them, but there was no way I was using the basement outhouse when there was a perfectly good bathroom with a door on the main level. Despite it’s jarring color combination, the main floor bathroom was pristine at our time of purchase – sparkling white grout, no sign of water rings, etc. It looked like it had been preserved in time, a fossil of the 1950s.

During the sporadic weekends that Mr. S and I visited our new home prior to officially moving in, the main bathroom proved to be fully functional. But then, renovations picked up in full swing and over the course of several months we had a crew of men in the house almost everyday, putting our bathroom to the test. And it failed. Miserably.

My dad called us in NYC to let us know the toilet was backing up and he’d have a plumber come out to take a look at it. I wasn’t worried at first, guessing that after almost a year of sitting vacant, it was probably a clog that could be easily remedied. As I write this now, I pity my past self for being so naive.

By the time a plumber came to check it out, the crew working in our house found that the issue was much larger – water (and who knows what else) leaking back into the basement. A snake job from the bathroom showed that the sewage pipe leaving our house pitched upward before pitching downward toward the main line. A sewage pipe should continuously grade downward away from the house, otherwise everything gets stuck and eventually backs up into the house.
Sewer pipe.002

Sewer pipe.001

There was some significant clogging (years and years of old excrement that never made it past the apex of the pipe – blech), but even after that remedy, we were told that the pipe absolutely needed to be re-graded otherwise the problem would just perpetuate. And that entailed the ginormous undertaking of digging up the entire front yard WITH A BACKHOE, breaking through the street to access the main line, hiring a police officer for public safety, re-grading 30 feet of sewage pipe, and installing a hung sewage system in the basement (we didn’t have enough room between the house and the main sewer pipe to avoid the hung sewage system), plus, you know, materials and labor.

As my dad rattled off the excruciatingly long list over the phone, I broke out into a numb, cold sweat, thinking, “How are we going to pay for all this?!? There is no more money to pay for this. FUUUUUCCCKKKK.” After tapping our savings accounts for our wedding and the plethora of home renovations that were already almost complete at this point, there were no more funds to cover the five figure estimate we received. Zero. Zilch. NADA. I’m not talking, “Oh if we do this, we’ll have to eat cereal for dinner every night.” We would be eating NOTHING. We would be looking at a brand new kitchen outfitted with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops while starving to death because we wouldn’t be able to afford groceries. Fitting, because we wouldn’t have anywhere to poop it out.

And it was not a matter of “if we do this.” I asked the plumber if we could hold off on the fix until we could afford it, but he said no, we shouldn’t use any water in the house while the pipes were in that condition. So, basically, we just spent the most money I have ever spent in my entire life to buy and renovate a glorified cardboard box. There was no way around it – the plumbing had to be fixed. And it had to be done, like, ten years ago.

I felt so deceived. Surely this was some kind of cruel joke. Homeownership is supposed to be the American dream, yet I felt like I was living in my worst nightmare – leaving the creature comforts of my beloved NYC only to live house poor. In the suburbs. There was nothing more terrifying.

I could suddenly and vividly visualize the term “money pit” – it was me, drowning in the vat of shit that overflowed and collected in our house. I mentally blamed everyone who had ever come into contact with that house for the situation we were in – the previous owners for having crap plumbing, the inspector who didn’t alert us to this major flaw in the house, myself for not demanding a real answer to the simple (and now painfully obvious) question of, “WHY DIDN’T YOU POOP IN THE REAL BATHROOM?!?!” Because now we knew…the real bathroom had been broken for the past 60 years and nobody wanted to spend the burdensome amount of money to fix it. (According to our plumber, solely using the basement outhouse did not alleviate the problem – both bathrooms were not properly draining to the main sewer. I have no idea how the STKs lived like that for 60 years.)

I felt so stupid and so poor and so angry. So naturally, I did what any rational adult would do in my situation: I cried. For the record, I’m not a crier. In crisis mode, I’m an even-keeled do-er, ignoring my emotions while working through a problem. It makes me feel better to know I have a certain amount of control over a situation if I can actively do something about it. Wallowing is not my usual M.O., but I saw no way out of this one and the foreign emotions of helplessness and rage, coupled with an utter loss for what to do, consumed me. We were still on speaker phone with my parents when the tears came.

I must have inherited the action-oriented trait from my mom because she said (with a hint of annoyance at my blubbering), “Stop crying. You can borrow the money from us.” I should have rejoiced at her offer, but instead it had the opposite effect – I felt more childish, more inadequate, more ashamed. More tears. 30 years old and borrowing money from my retired parents – this is not how it was supposed to work. I’ve never been privy to the details of my parents’ financials but I know they are not rich people. This was not an insignificant amount of money to them. I hesitated, too guilty to take their money and too proud to accept their help, but still unable to think of an alternative. At my indecision, my mom drove home her point with a harsh reality check, “What else are you going to do? The house is useless until you fix it, so you have to fix it. You have no money. We have money. Borrow it then pay us back.” I couldn’t argue with her logic and reluctantly agreed.

It would be several weeks from the time we contracted with the plumber to the time he could actually perform the work because there was a waiting list for the backhoe rental. In that span of time I regularly fluctuated between relief that a fix was imminent and mopey at the thought that we had to be financially dependent on my parents to execute it. BUT THEN! A miracle of miracles was granted unto us (by God or by the IRS – whatever you prefer, I won’t judge your religious beliefs). Turns out when you get married and buy a house, there are very favorable adjustments to your tax return. And for us, it resulted in a tax refund that was enough to cover the plumbing bill. I almost couldn’t believe it and had to double check with our accountant that he didn’t inadvertently add an extra zero to the refund amount. Do you hear that gigantic sigh of relief? I exhale even now when I think back to it.

Now that I’ve told you the happy ending to this story, I can show you the pictures of the disaster that was/still is our front yard. Without the tax refund, I wouldn’t have had to wherewithal to look at these pictures.

The plumbing job was finished only a week before we officially moved into the house. Another huge sigh of relief at the first flush. Even now, months later, our front yard remains a dirt pit. Collateral damage. We were instructed to wait three months for the ground to settle before re-grading the soil and adding grass seed, and we are right about at the three month mark now. Add another project to the never-ending list.

Three months in and the plumbing continues to be my arch-nemesis in this house. The hot water in the shower (the only place where hot water is really a necessity) stopped working one night for some unknown reason – the hot water from all the other faucets was working fine. Thankfully, Mr. S has taken on all responsibility for all plumbing issues as he knows full well that any setback might launch me into another tantrum about how homeownership is a hoax. Ok, fine, I’m exaggerating but only because plumbing problems will forever be my Achilles heel. I hold my breath whenever Mr. S is on the phone with the plumber.

Turns out the hot water valve was broken and this particular valve was so old that the tool to repair it is no longer available. Our plumber had to replace the entire valve which meant cutting a hole in the wall. Thank goodness he was able to access the broken valve from the back through the dry wall rather than break the tile in the bathroom. We had both valves changed so that we wouldn’t run the risk of the cold water dying out shortly thereafter. One month later and a still unpainted, shoddily spackled section of drywall serves as a haunting reminder that the plumbing (or any other necessary aspect of our house for that matter) could be a ticking time bomb, potentially giving out at anytime.

Yes, yes, smoothing over the spackle and painting is on our list.

I don’t mean to sound all doom and gloom about our house, but I also don’t want to paint a picture that it’s been a painless process. We have learned some hard lessons in homeownership along the way and I’m sure there are still more to come. But, it seems these uncertainties all come with the territory of owning an appreciable* (we hope) asset, especially with older homes, so all we can do is try to be financially prepared – our saving habits have changed to accommodate an emergency fund for the house.

No regrets in our first home though – we’ve very proud of how far it’s come from when we bought it. We’ve often wondered if our five year time frame will hold. After all the changes we’ve made, it feels as if the house was custom made for us – a true reflection of our style. I’m sure it will be tough to beat when the time comes for us to look for another home. Plus, we still see so much potential in this house. And by potential, I mean things that still need to be fixed. Here’s hoping that the rest of the home renovation stories I share here will be smashing successes!

* We had the house appraised recently, after all the renovations, and our house is now valued at 45% over our purchase price (and 26% over the appraisal we received when we bought the house).  So even with all the hefty expenses, we are still comfortably in the green with this house.  Phew!


  1. says

    Oh, gosh–you know I empathize with you on the plumbing issues. Any time something new happens (like it did this morning, ugh!) I just go to Todd and say, okay, how do we fix this? And he does. He refuses to watch or even mention The Money Pit in or around the house, but we definitely feel like that some days.

    But yay that your work is paying off in house value. (Of course I should warn you now that it will affect your property taxes and, if you pay them through your escrow account, your mortgage payment could change when they do their annual “check-up”… because I wasn’t aware of that before it happened to us!)

    • says

      Ahh, yeah I figured there would be a tax impact, but it’s worth it. You’re so lucky to have a handy husband, but in his defense, Mr. S is really good at coordinating with our plumber 🙂

  2. says

    I’m totally with you, I would have been freaking out in that situation! My sister and her husband had a similar surprise plumbing issue after they bought their house, had to rip up the street as well. Ugh. Glad your tax refund covered it!

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