Leak Lessons: Volume 2

Lemme tell you, our master bathroom’s wallpaper wasn’t its only problem-to-be-remedied recently. So brace yourself while we weave a little plumbing tale that spanned over the last few weeks (in fact it just wrapped up a few days ago). You know how we solemnly swear to share the good, the bad, and the ugly? Well, this one can be filed under “the bad” and “the ugly” with a side of “the gross.” So for everyone’s sake, we’ll leave out the graphic pictures.

During the process of buying this house we noticed a very small, dried out water stain on the ceiling in the living room, right below where the master bathroom was. We and the inspector concluded it was likely from a toilet overflow from long ago, since the stain was only about 3″ wide and long dried up. So we weren’t too alarmed and just figured it was solved decades ago, so a little primer and ceiling paint were all that it needed. We never even photographed it, but here’s a hint as to where it was.

Then this fall, the toilet started to act up. Namely in that it would occasionally clog (this is your first hint to put down your breakfast) and when we attempted to plunge it, well, it would back-up into the shower. If that first hint didn’t work, something tells me you’re putting your breakfast down right about now.

Yeah, it was gross. And since a certain half of this relationship was already queasy from growing a tiny human, I was the only one on duty (a little pun to lighten the mood). Usually a bit more plunging and maybe a bit of snaking would fix the issue. I say “usually” because this happened more than once. And before you start judging our gastrointestinal prowess, I should note that this sort of back-up sometimes happened when the toilet wasn’t even involved  – maybe after a shower or after I shaved in the sink. We googled for answers and contemplated calling in a pro, but the “incidents” were few and far enough between that we figured we could hold out ’til we remodeled the room.

But last month came the back-up that plunging could not conquer.


And in all of my furious plunging, I managed to create a new water stain in the ceiling below. I’d later learn that all the pressure of such vigorous plunging had compromised the wax ring and water started leaking again. That was our cue to call in a pro. He removed the toilet, ran an 150 foot snake and dislodged what he concluded was “years worth of paper build-up” way down in our pipes somewhere. Phew! Problem solved.

Except it wasn’t. Fast forward another week and the shower starts to back-up again. In fact, it happens as I’m using the tub to fill up the steamer during may latest wallpaper removal spree. So not only was that process miserable on its own, I was doing it with a less than fresh-looking (and smelling) shower nearby. Not to mention that we’re both beyond frustrated that our first call to the plumber didn’t solve the problem. So yeah, clearly the picture below was taken before the back-up happened. Just look at me all footloose and fancy free.

Remember when I called this post-wallpapered look: “gas station bathroom.” I was really thinking it was more reminiscent of that scene in Trainspotting. Yeah, you know the one. And if you don’t, well, I highly suggest that you NOT google it right now. Okay, maybe our bathroom wasn’t that bad. But it was bad enough that I was embarrassed that this was the state the plumbers would see it in.

Then again, things didn’t get much prettier once they arrived. Now that I think about it, I guess they’ve pretty much seen it all.

The plumbing company sent a different guy this time and, after explaining the series of events, he had a pretty solid theory. But it meant cutting into our ceiling to confirm it. Welcome to our crash course in two-story home issues. Kinda made us miss the days where virtually everything was visible from a crawl space or attic.

His hunch was correct. All of the master bathroom plumbing was configured wrong. And it had been for 30+ years since they built this house. A key element – the slope of the main drain pipe – was incorrect. So rather than having gravity to help water leave the vicinity, it was actually sloped uphill – so water and sewage that should have been flushed down and out of the house would collect and pool and eventually back-up into the lowest opening in that bathroom (i.e. the shower). In the words of Clara: yuckaroo.

The only solution was to cut a bigger hole in the ceiling and have the experts replace all the plumbing. It even meant cutting out one of the load-bearing joists and reinforcing it with a new one so the new pipes could be configured at the right angle, so it was nothing that we dared to attempt ourselves.

Did we like having our house torn apart? No. But we were pretty relieved that the root of the problem was finally getting fixed. And I’ll admit that we were pretty entertained by the view through the floor.

It only took them a day to complete the task (they came back a few days after their initial diagnosis to get it done) along with a somewhat painful $650 check, but we were relieved that this hidden-behind-the-walls issue that had plagued this house for over three decades was finally solved. Which meant we could finally get back to our little bathroom update. And hey, while the toilet was removed, we were able to strip that small swatch of wallpaper that had been hiding behind the bowl, so that was kind of funny (very marginally at the time, but more so now).

But we were still left with that gaping hole in the living room ceiling well after the bathroom was trimmed out and painted.

We went back and forth about drywalling it ourselves – which basically involves mudding, taping, sanding, re-mudding, and re-sanding. Smooth ceilings are especially tricky (imperfections are a lot more visible up there) and we knew any remaining dents or seams would have bugged us forever, so we finally just pulled the trigger and called a highly recommended local drywall guy.

He fixed it flawlessly in a few hours for around $100, and was also very nice (he said Sherry looked like Topanga from Boy Meets World, which pretty much made our day). So now all we’ve got to do is prime and paint it.

Update: A few folks have asked if our home warranty would have covered this issue (that actually ran out before this fiasco) but it most likely would not, since this was an “existing condition” (the plumbing didn’t break after we moved in, it was configured this way for 30 years, so that’s not something typically covered by a home warranty).

These unplanned homeowner curveballs never feel good (especially when we’d rather be spending that money on fun updates that we can actually see and enjoy) but it’s nice to have things all put back together again. The irony is that we have another “oh the joys of home ownership” story unfolding (it’s still halfway-solved, so we’ll wait for the full resolution before crying on your shoulder). Please tell us we’re not the only ones. Regale us with some of your tales of woe in the plumbing/heating/other house systems arenas. We’re all in this together. Right?

Psst- The “Volume Two” part of this post’s title is thanks to this original leak lesson that we dealt with a few years ago at our last house. Best thing about that one is that it was something we could solve ourselves (read: zero benjamins).


  1. Dena says

    Those surprises are never fun and usually happen at the worst possible time (during renos, during maternity leave, day before vacation). Looks good though. Mind if I ask the name of the drywall guy? Because I have my own hole in the wall problem, too…

  2. says

    We’ve done our fair share of DIY plumbing projects, but there’s definitely a time to call in the pros. I know it’s no fun to write checks like that when it doesn’t include improving anything visible. Here’s hoping that’s the last of your plumbing woes!

  3. Alison Hinson says

    One Thanksgiving we decided to put up new adhesive walls around our tub. We knew the old walls were allowing water to leak and the caulking was continually black from mold growing from the inside. Ever smelled molding drywall that has been molding for years? We had to take turns removing it from the bathroom because the smell was so bad!

    • Vicki Cornelius says

      I think you got a great deal on the price to do that plumbing repair–
      to do all the work and replace part of the joist…
      probably would have run 1K in my neck of the woods…

      And perfect case in point that even the BEST inspection can’t show you what is being walls (or in the ceilings)…
      it is always a case of buyer beware unless you can check every stage of construction process…

    • Jolene says

      They do have x-ray vision!!! Some of the home inspector guys have those infrared gadgets that can see the plumbing and stuff. Very impressive! I’m not sure your deal is something they would catch as a matter of course, but they would in a home buyers dream world.

  4. says

    I feel your pain! My fiance and I bought our first house in April and in October we had a particularly nasty rain storm. All of a sudden the wall/ceiling in our study started “crying”. Cue the flurry of towels, garbage bags, duct tape, etc. to try and protect our 100 year old hardwood floors! It was really annoying to have to unexpectedly shell out a few hundred bucks to fix the roof and ceiling, but thankfully, it was just a small tear in the roof lining. It could have been so much worse! Glad you guys have a working bathroom again!

  5. MB says

    Ugh, that’s the worst. So glad you got it fixed. My worst experience started with a burned out oven light. New bulb did nothing, and it finally bothered me enough to call someone to look at it. Who then informed me that the wiring to the oven was incorrect and had actually shorted the control board and he was impressed no one had been shocked. SERIOUSLY?!?! Eleventy squillion dollars later, wiring and ovens fixed. Yuck.

    • Andrea says

      OMG! Luckily no one got hurt!!

      When my parents finally got around and bought a new kitchen for their flat, it turned out that all the kitchen appliances (dishwasher, fridge, stove, oven and microwave) ran on ONE single outlet. The guy who came to fix that and install a high voltage system said it was just a lucky coincidence it didn’t catch fire and burn down the whole house.

  6. April says

    I love this post. Keep on keeping it real. Also, good call on hiring out the drywall. I’ve attempted a few patches myself, and I swear, you need an advanced art degree to get that thing looking decent. Either that, or I just really stink at drywall-ing.

    • says

      It’s rough right?! Sometimes we re-mud and re-sand three times instead of two which helps to smooth things out a bit more, but for bit 4′ wide areas like that in a ceiling we were convinced we’d see one of the seams as clear as day or something. The drywall guy was seriously an ARTISTE!


  7. tia says

    keeping with the bathroom theme, i once had a clogged sink that turned into a semi-remodel. while fixing the clog the plumber noticed our loose toilet (which would rock back and forth a little when you sat down) which led to the discovery of a rotting sub-floor. i ended up getting pipes replaced, a new toilet, and a new floor. definitely wasn’t in the budget plan at the time but it had to be done.

  8. Sandra says

    Yeah it’s a pain to deal with these things and writing a check that big is no fun. On the plus side you know your house that much better. I always enjoyed learning about and exploring the guts of my houses. Leaves me feeling there’s nothing to be scared about, it’s not rocket science and anything can be fixed. :)

  9. Lisa says

    Wow! That must’ve been really frustrating! How do you prepare for these really expensive jobs? How much would you put away per month to make sure that you can cover a large price tag when you need it ASAP?

    • says

      We’ve had a savings account for the last 8 years of home-ownership that we just constantly contribute as much as we can to each month. Our method is really simple in that we just pay off all of our bills in full, and anything left goes in there. We’ve both been savers since we met in NYC, so it’s nice to have the love of that “safety net” in common, and when we moved into this house we made sure we had squirreled away as much as we could so we’d hopefully be covered in case a bunch of things went wrong all at the same time (knowing this house was empty for over a year and that many things like the furnace and roof were severely damaged motivated us to cover our bases). I don’t think there’s really a magic amount to know you’re covered in general though (some disasters are taken care of by a warranty or insurance and others are cheap while some are mind-numbingly expensive) so I’d just recommend saving as much as you can over time, and watching it slowly grow. For example, we coupon, drive one car, make a lot of meals at home, and just generally try to make lifestyle choices that allow us to save money that might otherwise go towards extras in other categories, like nice haircuts/highlights, fancy nights out, expensive clothing, etc (more on that here).


    • betty says

      I always wondered this too, so i’m glad someone else asked as well.

      the second part of this question I have is, so your saving for the nursery, future kitchen/bathroom overhaul, other small project, etc… do unexpected house problems come out of this same pot? or do you have ICE savings and project savings? sorry.. if its too personal of a money question.

    • says

      Yes, we have one big pot going, so it does make it a little bit tricky. Basically we have a baseline “safety net” number that we like to keep things at, no matter what, and as it slowly grows above that more and more, we might say “ooh, now we have $300 for that item” and can take that out without going below that baseline safety net, if that makes sense. When we’re saving for larger things like a car (we like to pay them off all at once) or a kitchen redo (same thing, we like to pay them off in full) we’ll just keep saving and saving for years instead of months, and waiting for it to hit that “point” of enough that we can pull out to get that job done without depleting the safety net that we always want in there.


    • Megan says

      Not sure this would work for everyone but for me, the easiest way to save money is to pay myself first. My work pays me through a direct deposit and I have it set up so 10% of my paycheck goes directly into savings and the rest into checking. I try to put more into savings when I can but it’s nice to have that guaranteed amount going in twice a month without having to think about it.

    • Stardancer says

      There’s a guy called Dave Ramsey who runs a program called Financial Peace. He recommends that people save up $1,000 for a basic emergency fund. For a bigger one, he likes 6 months’ worth of your household expenses (just the important stuff like bills, not including things like restaurants). Obviously that’s just a guideline, but it’s a good place to start.

    • Sara says

      This was my question exactly, Lisa! Thanks for asking, and thanks for answering, Sherry! It’s one of our goals to save more this year, and we’re excited to start that. (Next month, of course, as we just had a little student loan snaffu and an ER visit for our little boy – who is fine now, thankfully – uffda, those surprises!)

  10. says

    Good decision to call in an expert (or two) to solve this problem! Plumbing is one of those areas best left to the pros, especially when it involves sewage backup. Yuckaroo is right!

    We’re getting ready to replace our toilet entirely – our plumbing isn’t bad, but the toilet itself is about 30 years old, and at one point it was “reconfigured” with a different tank, and now the bowl and tank don’t work well together. Pleasant times!

    Currently we’re dealing with the refrigeration system in our kitchen. We just bought a new refrigerator – it was a very last-minute unplanned purchase (our old one suddenly died without warning), so we had to do some quick research and thinking to make sure we got what we wanted/needed.

  11. Julianne says

    I’m laughing in commiseration with you. We bought a 3 year old house thinking “great, all the appliances will be fairly new.” We have replaced everything but the stove and have had the a/c, furnace and water heater serviced extensively. We even found out the exhaust pipes for the furnace were installed at the wrong angle and to properly fix it we’d have to have a new whole cut in the roof. Yeah… we opted for the cheap get by for now fix. I feel like nothing surprises me now. Good times.

  12. says

    Oh you guys! Sherry-your poor morning/all day sickness! Gotta love the photo of the Burgs looking at John through the floor though. We had a plumbing issue in our home that I noticed while loading the dryer in our basement. There’s a drain right in front of the dryer that I found had celery & onion coming out of it (from a previous dinner that I had put down the garbage disposal). Toilet clogged the next day, so we called a pro and he snaked through everything….save the details, but we can flush ONLY toilet paper now. It had 30 years of other “ahem” items backed up too.

    It’s jobs like fixing plumbing and cleaning your air ducts that feels really good to do, but it’s not exactly photo-worthy. Kudos you two!

  13. Lily says

    That’s a happy ending. I have heard stories that plumbers, electricians, air conditioner repairer ect…charged hundreds of dollars but still couldn’t fix the problems for good. How do you find good drywall guy, plumbers, electricians, even roofers….?

    • says

      We are really into looking up online reviews and asking people for recommendations. A while back we’d just do the phone book thing and it felt too random, so it’s nice to hear they’re nicely rated by a bunch of people online or recommended by a friend who has used them – although it’s never 100% (we still have our share of great and not-so-great service).


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