Sometimes sewer backups happen. We look for someone to blame, but often there just isn’t blame to be found. How do we prevent it from happening? And if it does, how do we protect ourselves from the financial storm that follows?
Suppose for a minute that you just spent $10,000 converting an unfinished basement into your awesome new recreation room. Somehow, the sewage backup that occurred three weeks later, ruining your new carpet, furniture and recently installed drywall didn’t factor into your vision of awesomeness. What a horrible, stench-filled mess. You’re disgusted, angry and someone’s going to have to pay for this affront. Wait until you find out that someone is you.
Let’s start with your local sewer utility: wouldn’t it be their fault? The answer is “maybe,” but more likely it is “probably not.” Because sewer utilities provide a public health service, and in many cases are governmental entities, even when they are responsible they may enjoy some form of immunity or cap on damages that limits their liability. State laws vary, so this scenario could differ based on your location.
Next, the backup might not have occurred in the sewer main at all; it could have been an issue with your lateral – the sewer line running from the building to the sewer main. In almost every case, the sewer utility is not responsible for the maintenance and working condition of the lateral; the property owner is. Repairing or replacing the lateral is expensive. Thankfully, many plumbing contractors can perform a camera inspection to determine its condition. Often clogs, including root balls from trees, can be removed at a reasonable cost.
So it’s nobody’s fault, but the homeowner’s insurance policy will cover this claim, right? Again, it depends. Many homeowner (and for that matter, business) policies exclude sewer backup. Unless your policy has been endorsed to specifically provide this coverage, there is likely no coverage. Fortunately most companies are willing to add coverage for a modest premium. Check with your independent insurance agent to confirm that your policy includes this coverage, or add it if you don’t.
Could this loss have been prevented? There are multiple backflow prevention devices available that can be installed by a plumber. Check with your local plumber to see if this is a sensible option for you; particularly if your property has a history of sewer backup issues. Your local sewer utility can often be a helpful resource for prevention ideas as well. These devices aren’t 100 percent effective, so you’ll want to do your homework.