Should You Sue Seller for Faulty Sewer Line? The key, in most cases, is whether the seller knew about the issue.
By Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin
Q: We recently purchased a townhouse in Columbia, Maryland. The day after we moved in, the sewer backed up into the utility room. We had the sewer pipe snaked out by a qualified plumber, who found tree root intrusion in the pipe about 10 feet off the back of the house. We subsequently had the faulty portion of the pipe replaced.
All told, we paid $4,600 for these repairs. Based on input from the plumber and some neighbors, we believe the sellers knew about the faulty sewer pipe. We asked. They refused to provide compensation. Should we contact a real estate litigation attorney?
Should You Sue Seller for Faulty Sewer Line
A: Ugh. Talk about an unwelcome “Welcome to your new home” gift. You’re not the only one that has had problems with sewer lines after they’ve moved into a home.
Before you make the decision to contact an attorney. Let’s start with the idea that the seller is responsible for your sewer issue. Most states have seller disclosure laws. These laws require the seller to disclose to a buyer major or material issues a home has that are known to the seller. The seller must make this disclosure to the buyer at or around the time the contract for the sale of the home is signed.
The key, in most cases, is whether the seller knew about the issue. It’s not uncommon for a seller to identify and fix issues like roof leaks, window problems, sewer line backups or other problems. Sometimes these issues are truly fixed, while sometimes problems resurface later on.
Find Out if Seller Knew About Problem
Your particular issue has to do with the sewer line that runs from your home to the municipal sewer line in the street. You didn’t mention how the neighbors or the plumber could tell that the seller knew there was a sewer problem.
It is not unusual for homeowners to live in a home and not know that they have a problem with the sewer line. This is especially true with older homes. Older sewer lines may have been installed using clay tiles. Those clay tiles may have allowed roots to get in. Eventually those roots can break the tiles and allow the sewer line to collapse.
How could they not have known? Let’s say your seller didn’t use a lot of water day-to-day. A collapsed sewer line might allow some water to flow through. Since the seller isn’t using much, they might not realize there’s a problem. You move in with several kids, and use a lot more water. As soon as everybody takes showers, you do multiple loads of laundry, and run the dishwasher a few times it becomes clear there’s a big problem.
The key in your case is to find out whether the seller knew they had a problem or whether you only suspected that they knew once you talked to the plumber and neighbors.
Need to Prove the Seller Knew About Problem
Many years ago, Sam had a client that purchased a home. A couple of weeks after closing, the main water line in the basement of the home broke and flooded the home. The sellers called a plumber. They came and told them that the sellers had hired this same plumber to install a fix to the water main. The plumber had told them they needed a new pipe but they directed him to only install an inexpensive fix. The plumber told them it was a mistake and that the fix wouldn’t last.
Armed with this information. The buyers could prove the seller knew about the problem and got the sellers to pay for the damage.
Discuss Options with an Attorney
If you’re certain the seller knew about the problem with the pipe and had a duty to disclose it to you. You likely have a good case against the seller. You’ll want to discuss your options with an attorney. Find one that has successfully handled other cases involving a seller’s failure to disclose a home’s problem to a buyer.
What if you don’t have hard proof that the seller knew about the problem? You can still go after the seller, but bear in mind there’s a cost to time and treasure. It will take some time for a case to work its way through the system. And you may have to pay the attorney upfront to handle it. If it already cost you $4,600 to fix the issue but will cost you another $5,000 to $10,000 to go after the seller, with an uncertain outcome, litigation may not be worth the risk.
Many state’s seller disclosure laws allow you to recover your attorneys fees if you successfully sue a seller. But if you sue and fail. You’ll be out what you paid for the sewer line repair and what you paid the attorney to take your case. If you can, try to find out if the seller actually knew about the problem. You need an “aha” moment where you can point to something that proves the seller knew and didn’t disclose the issue to you.
Know that seller disclosure laws may differ from state to state and the burden of proof may differ. You may find that in some states you only need to prove that the seller knew or should have known of the problem.
©2023 by Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin.