Older homes have lots of life left in them, prompting homeowners with an eye for classic architecture or just enough budget for a fixer-upper to purchase them in their current state. Many people see an “as-is” home with a low price point as an opportunity to flex their DIY skills, build off their ideal template, or create a blank slate perfect for resale.

While the price may fall within your budget or the style speaks to your soul, old homes come with old house plumbing. Plumbing problems caused by outdated materials, wear and tear, or years of neglect can quickly turn an inexpensive home into a pricey plumbing project. 

You can fix minor issues on your own, but if you face full replumbing, you may want to call the best plumbing repair contractors in San Francisco. Professional plumbers know what to look for in old house plumbing, pinpointing necessary repairs and replacements so you can avoid more significant plumbing issues down the road.

What Are the Most Common Plumbing Issues in Old Houses in San Francisco?

Old houses in San Francisco have roots as far back as 1850, with many homes containing whole or part of the original plumbing. Even when the old plumbing is gone, it may have received replacements or repairs back when plumbing materials and techniques didn’t meet today’s building codes. If you purchase an old home in San Francisco, keep an eye out for any of these plumbing issues:

1.  Pipe Damage

Popular plumbing materials throughout history often involved dangerous materials that deteriorated after constant contact with running water. As recently as the 1990s, plumbing pipes failed because the material couldn’t hold up to modern-day water. Popular plumbing materials that failed include:

Lead Pipes

Today, nearly everyone knows the dangers of lead and how it can affect the human body. Too much lead creates illness in humans and animals, causing medical conditions like hypertension, anemia, fertility issues, and, in some cases, death.

A few decades ago, however, we used lead for nearly all home plumbing lines. Water mains, sewer lines, pipe fittings, and more consisted of lead. Many people died before we discovered that while tasteless, scentless, and invisible, lead presented a significant danger in our homes.

When you move into a new home, have your pipes tested to ensure they have no lead. Lead lines require updating as soon as possible to avoid potential illness or death.

Metal Pipes

Homeowners wanting to avoid lead poisoning soon turned to cast iron or galvanized steel pipes. Many homes converted to metal lines in the mid-1900s, replacing dangerous lead with what they hoped was a safer and longer-lasting material.

Unfortunately, these metals corrode and weaken after long-term exposure to water. Metal pipes rust, leaking contaminants that can stain your clothes and endanger your health. Besides polluting your water, too much corrosion can clog your pipes, cause them to crack, and in severe circumstances, break them entirely.


In the 1980s and early 90s, replacing copper pipes that had rusted often involved a newly-invented pipe material called polybutylene. These plastic pipes should have lasted for years, but oxidants in public water systems reacted poorly with the material. Polybutylene pipes began to flake and crack, polluting water and creating leaks wherever the material weakened. Homeowners who find polybutylene pipes in their old homes should schedule replacement immediately to avoid costly repairs and health complications in the future.

Signs of Damaged Pipes

Corroded or damaged pipes can show themselves to homeowners in many ways, including:

  • Discolored water
  • Discolored interior pipes
  • A constantly running water meter
  • Spiking water bills
  • Wet floors

2.  Pipe Bellies

Despite the funny-sounding name, pipe bellies indicate a severe problem with your plumbing. As the years pass and your foundation settles and shifts, old house plumbing sinks with it. Your pipes may begin to slope downwards, creating bellies where water collects.

Pipe bellies cause leaks, blockages, and other plumbing problems if ignored. Especially with drain and sewer lines, pipe bellies may allow toxic wastewater to overflow and contaminate the surrounding ground.

You may discover you have pipe bellies if you notice the following:

  • An area of your yard that appears greener than the surrounding ground
  • Interior plumbing problems like wastewater backing up or slow drains
  • The smell of sewage permeating your home or yard

3.  Older Fixtures

Besides using similar metals to old pipes, outdated fixtures may fall apart after decades of use or break at inopportune moments, such as while washing dishes or taking a shower. One of the minor signs of old fixtures, the consistent and noisy dripping sound of a leaky faucet, may lead to increased water use and a higher utility bill.

Old fixtures also often show signs of limescale build-up. Limescale consists of mineral deposits collected over time from hard water, showing up as white or gray splotches on your fixtures. Too much limescale may cause internal damage to your pipes. So, if your fixtures show hard water spots, you may want to hire a professional plumber to inspect the damage.

Even after replacing old fixtures with new ones, you may still find hard water stains if your city or well water contains too many minerals. Protect your plumbing from limescale build-up by hiring a professional plumber to install a water softener system. Water softeners remove minerals from hard water, providing better quality water for drinking, washing, and bathing.

4.  Failing Sewer Lines

Every type of pipe material fails eventually, but malfunctioning or broken sewer lines are the most concerning. Whether they belly, corrode, clog, or burst, faulty sewer lines create uncomfortable and dangerous situations, including:

  • Backed up waste and sewer water
  • Foul smells from your drains
  • Contaminated groundwater
  • Slow drains

New technology makes finding a sewer line failure easier and less invasive than it used to be. Using modern equipment, plumbers can now repair sewer lines without digging up and destroying your yard, driveway, or walkways. If they must break into your ground, professional plumbing teams can pinpoint your broken pipe and focus on that area instead of digging up the whole line.

5.  Bad Installation or Repairs

Many homeowners in decades past performed DIY plumbing, especially if they were a house’s original owners and builders. Some had classical plumbing training, while others hoped for the best while installing indoor plumbing for the first time. Consider that throughout the years, your old house has seen many plumbers, DIY and otherwise, repairing and replacing its pipes.

Trained plumbers can make mistakes, while inexperienced DIYers often miss the necessary steps while installing, repairing, or replacing plumbing. These mistakes can cause significant problems over time. Incorrectly installed or repaired plumbing lines can lead to problems with multiple plumbing aspects, including:

  • Plumbing fixtures
  • Toilets
  • Shower and bathtub lines
  • Drains
  • Grease traps
  • Water heaters

Faulty plumbing work can develop dangerous leaks, increase the chance of clogs or poor water pressure, and create other problems over time. When you move into an old home, hire a professional plumber to inspect your water lines and sewer pipes to ensure you have a safe and functional plumbing system.

How Can a Professional Plumber Help Me With Old House Plumbing?

When you hire a professional plumber to check out your old house’s plumbing, they follow a time-tested method to ensure you have the best plumbing possible:

1.  A Thorough Inspection

Your plumber will go through your home, testing faucets, flushing toilets, and checking the water pressure in your showers. They’ll inspect your water heater and its connections, checking its temperature and listening for sounds of sediment inside the tank. You may see them shimmy into your crawlspace to search for signs of leaking or pooling water, especially after winter, when many old pipes suffer damage from chilling temperatures or frozen water.

2.  Discussion and Determinations

The older the house, the more likely its plumbing may need repairs or replacement. Your plumber may suggest new drain lines, sewer lines, or fixtures to help you enjoy smooth-flowing water. They may also recommend water heaters or water softener systems, especially if your area has a history of hard water problems.

3.  Quote and Professional Service

After providing a quote and analyzing your budget, your plumber will schedule a day to come out and perform the necessary services to keep your home comfortable. Most plumbing repairs take less than a day to complete, though you may have to wait for parts or materials to come in. The plumber can provide an estimated timeline along with the quote.

Enjoy Your Old Home More With a Professional Plumbing Inspection

If you worry about your home’s pipes, Works Plumbing can help you with old house plumbing in San Francisco. We offer 24/7 emergency service and can meet your need for repairs, replacements, and upgrades. Works Plumbing also educates our clients on everything from hard water management to the main causes of clogged drains.

Call (650) 414-7261 to schedule your free consultation with Works Plumbing professionals in San Francisco, CA.

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