5 Common Plumbing Problems in Older Homes and How to Solve Them

Nick P. Cellucci
Written by Nick P. Cellucci
Reviewed by Joseph Wood
Updated April 18, 2022
An antique faucet in a wash basin
Photo: Richard Johnson / Adobe Stock

Highlights

  • Older homes can come with corroded pipes, pipe bellies, or outdated fixtures 

  • Signs include discolored water, foul smells, corrosion, and puddles

  • Higher monthly water bills may indicate a leak in your system

  • Unaddressed problems can cause costly damage and health risks

  • All plumbing issues should be inspected and repaired by a pro

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Whether you already chose an older home for the love of its historic appeal or you’re considering a fixer-upper that’s right in your budget, it’s good to know what to expect. Old houses come with their fair share of quirks, but hidden plumbing issues can be more dangerous than charming.

They’ll check for potential issues with plumbing in older homes and inspect water pressure and water heaters, along with drain lines, supply lines and shut-off valves. Get familiar with plumbing questions to ask before you buy an older home and what to do about problems when you spot them. 

Common Plumbing Problems to Check for in Older Houses

Some plumbing problems make themselves obvious, but others require careful inspection.

1. Corroded Pipes

With advances in building techniques, many plumbing materials have fallen out of use. In homes built  before the 1990s, there’s a chance that the system contains pipes from one of these outdated types of plumbing no longer approved by US building codes:

Lead

Lead is highly toxic in a number of ways, from causing aches, constipation, and fatigue to interfering with how brains function and develop, decreasing fertility, and leading to hypertension and anemia. Unlike most other toxins, our bodies have no ability to purge lead. Despite all these effects, our knowledge of lead’s toxicity is relatively recent.

That’s why, prior to the development of cast iron, applications for lead included sewer lines, water mains, and pipe fittings for its malleability and durability. You can’t see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend having your water tested by your water provider. If they tell you your home has lead service lines, ask if they offer removal programs.

Galvanized Steel

Galvanized pipes were used for water lines in homes built before the 1960s and featured a protective coating of zinc. As the zinc erodes, the metal can corrode, causing old pipes to clog with rust or break.

Polybutylene

Originally a replacement for copper water lines, this plastic piping reacted chemically with oxidants in many public water systems, which caused flaking and cracking. Any home built in the 1980s or early 1990s, especially mobile homes, may have polybutylene pipes that need replacing before they fail.

Signs of corroded pipes include:

  • Yellow, green, or brown discolored water

  • White, green, or red discoloration on pipes beneath your sink or in your basement

  • Your water meter runs when no water is flowing

  • Rising monthly water bills without increased usage

  • Wet or sagging carpeting or flooring, a sign of leaks under your concrete foundation

If you see any of these signs, your pipes may be on the verge of leaking or bursting. If you experience extensive plumbing issues, have a local plumber replace all your supply lines at once. The average cost to replumb all supply lines in a home starts at about $1,500. Your pro can replace corroded pipes with flexible plastic or copper pipes. 

2. Pipe Bellies in Main Drains

Many pipes are installed underneath homes, either buried in the ground or encased in the concrete slab of the foundation. These pipes can shift downward as houses settle gradually, creating negative slopes called pipe bellies that restrict water flow and cause pools that collect waste and sediment. These bellies eventually get stopped up and leak.

Bellies, or “sags,” are not a concern in a water main because the line is pressurized, but they are a concern in a main drain. The issue is a sag holds water, and the low point creates a location for waste to hang out and eventually clog. It also attracts tree roots due to the standing water.

Sign of pipe bellies: Frequent clogging

Contact a professional plumber to run a sewer camera and determine whether you have a pipe belly.

3. Failing Sewer Lines

When buried sewer lines fail, they can back up into your home. Modern appliances began to force more water through sewer lines. Thus, extensive remodeling in older homes may lead to the risk of sewer line failure. Sewer lines can also be damaged by shifting foundations or tree roots.

Signs of failing sewer lines include:

  • Foul-smelling wastewater backing up into your home

  • An egg-like or unpleasant smell in your home

  • Multiple slow drains can indicate a partially blocked sewer line

  • Unexplained puddles or soft spots in your yard when it hasn’t rained recently

If you are experiencing foul-smelling wastewater in your home, call your local sewer service. They may not need to dig out the pipe to repair it, thanks to trenchless sewer replacement techniques that involve less labor and risk of damage to your home or landscaping.

Foul smells that appear without signs of water may indicate a sewer gas leak. Exposure to this gas is potentially harmful to your health and may be highly toxic even at low levels. These gases are flammable and highly explosive, while health effects can include hydrogen sulfide poisoning or asphyxiation. Call a plumber immediately to determine the source.

4. Outdated Fixtures and Connections

A brass vintage shower head
Photo: Tony Ruji / Adobe Stock

Part of the charm of a historic home is the many antique faucets and fixtures throughout. Sadly though, these features won’t last forever. Corrosion and wear on hardware and connections can cause low water pressure and leaks that can make using water in your home inconvenient. 

Many homeowners opt to deal with these inconveniences, but this is risky. Small leaks and minor issues left unattended can become more severe over time, potentially leading to more costly plumbing repairs and permanent water damage to your home.

Signs of outdated fixtures:

  • Broken knobs on sinks, tubs, or showers

  • Leaks of any kind

  • Restricted water flow

Preventative maintenance by a professional plumber is key to avoiding hundreds or thousands of dollars in water damage repair costs. It’s also wise to have a plumber inspect your home’s plumbing annually, as they will have the tools and training needed to find problems you may miss.

5. Badly Executed Repairs

The older your home, the longer it’s had to experience problems throughout its lifespan. Even if you’re careful with your fixtures and plumbing, previous owners may not have been. Unbeknownst to you, your antique home may feature DIY repairs made either by unqualified former homeowners or a general handyperson.

Such problems may include unsecured pipes, improperly installed sink traps, unsafe water heaters, or showers with improper slopes. The best way to rectify these issues or any of the common problems on this list is to call a professional plumber.

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