When are You or the City Responsible for Sewer Lines

Sewer line repairs are not cheap. When you have sewage backing up from your basement or a collapsed sewer line, you will part with good money to have the problem fixed.

The thing with sewer line is that waste comes from your home and ends in the public sewer lines and most homeowners have a problem understanding which part of the sewer line is their responsibility and what part is the city’s responsibility.


The city is responsible for the main public sewer line which runs along the street, and where all the neighborhood private sewer lines are connected to. On the other hand, the homeowner is responsible for the sewer line from the house to the street, including the section outside your property line (lower lateral).

And that is where the confusion usually is for a lot of people. Most homeowners believe (or think) that they are only responsible for the section of the sewer line between the house and the property line.

That is however not the case. The public sewer line in the street is usually some distance away from your property line.

The section of sewer line between your property and the public sewer line (called the lower lateral) is usually the homeowner’s responsibility. This is despite it being on the public side of your property.

In simple terms, if you are having a sewer line problem that is not being experienced by your neighbors then that is your responsibility. If however you and your neighbors are having sewage backups, it then means that the public sewer line is clogged and is therefore the city’s responsibility to fix it.

Homeowner’s insurance does not cover sewer lines unless they are destroyed by something outside of your control. On the other hand, if your sewer line fails due to poor or lack of maintenance, incorrect installation or basically neglect on the homeowners part then the same will not be covered by the insurance.

It costs between $1000 and $4000 to repair a broken sewer line which translates to an average of $2500.  It will however cost you between $3000 and $25000 for a full sewer line replacement depending on the length, depth, area, materials and basically the scope of work.

Sewer lines will last for 75 to 100 years depending on material and maintenance practices. Poorly maintained or installed sewer lines will however not last that long. PVC sewer lines will last for more than 100 years as they do not corrode and are not attacked by tree roots.

When is the City Responsible for Sewer Pipes?

Image Credit: Sonoma City

Although what I have written above is the general rule of thumb, rules may change from place to place. One thing you can do to actually be sure when your city is responsible for the sewer line is to pick a phone and call them.

I will however want to explain to your 2 terminologies that you may hear and fail to understand what they mean. A sewer line (your sewer line) has 2 sections. These are the upper and the lower lateral.

The upper lateral is the section of sewer line between your house and your property line. Your property line is at the sidewalk or curb near the street.

The lower lateral is the section of sewer line connected to the upper lateral and the public sewer lines. This section of pipe is usually outside your property line but is usually your responsibility as the homeowner.

So, why do we have an upper and lower lateral? Why not have one piece of pipe from the house to the public sewer line?

Sewer lines are installed strictly under a specified slope to help the waste and wastewaters drain out of the house via gravity, and with less likelihood to clog and backup.

Public sewer lines are however way too deep. When the sewer line from the house reaches your property line, you will need another section of pipe to connect it to the main city sewer line. And that is where upper and lower laterals come in.

Repairing Upper and Lower Sewer Laterals


Now that we know that the homeowner is responsible for repairs involving the upper and lower sewer line laterals, how should the homeowner approach any repairs if such are deemed necessary?

The first thing you should do when you suspect there is a problem with your sewer line is to get a professional to have a look at it. DIYs don’t work very well with sewer lines and you can actually make the problem worse than it originally was.

A professional plumber will have a sewer line inspection camera which they will feed down the sewer line via the sewer cleanout and check the overall condition of the sewer pipes. From there, they will recommend if a repair is sufficient or if you need a replacement.

If you don’t have a sewer cleanout, the plumber will have to remove the toilet or access the sewer line through the plumbing vent.

Repairing a sewer line in the upper lateral just needs coordination between you and your plumber. This is because the upper lateral is in your private property.

It becomes a challenge when you need to perform repairs on the lower lateral. Although I have said that the lower lateral is your responsibility and not the city’s, you will still need to involve the city because the work impacts public spaces like sidewalks and roads.

This is when the work involves replacing the sewer lines , as you have to dig through the sidewalk or road.

The city also needs to ascertain that the work is done to the right specification so that it does not negatively impact the overall working of the neighborhoods public drainage.

Does Homeowner’s Insurance Cover Sewer Lines?

The first thing most homeowners want to know the moment they have problems with their sewer lines is whether it is covered  by their home insurance. The answer to that question is yes and no. It depends on the type of damage.

If the damage to the sewer line is caused by something sudden and that is out of your control then you will be covered. However, if there is sewage back up in your house, the line is leaking, the line have collapsed or the sewer line is badly clogged by roots, you will pay for the repairs from your pocket.

Examples of cases when the sewer line may be covered by the insurance include:

  • Lightning
  • Fire
  • Volcanic eruptions
  • Earthquake
  • Vandalism
  • Explosion
  • Falling objects (like aircrafts)
  • Hail/windstorm

As I said, the source of the damage needs to come from something outside your control. Clogs, backups, slow drains, leaks etc are however things you can control and are therefore not covered.

What you can do to prevent yourself from the same is check if your insurance provider offers an endorsement that you can add to your standard policy. Such will cover sewer backups but not physical damage.

Usually, the endorsement will cost between $40 and $50 a year and will pay $10000 should your sewer line suffer backups. Given the damages caused by sewer backups, $10000 may may not be enough to cover the cost of damages.

Signs of a Collapsed Sewer Line

 The following are the telltale signs of a collapsed sewer line:

1. Frequent Sewer Backups

With a collapsed sewer line, there will be no way for waste to flow out of your house to the public sewer line, and even when it does, it will be slowly and the line will clog a lot.

As a result, sewage will back up from your drains in your house’s lowest levels, which for most people is the basement. Sewer backups can destroy your house, are a health hazard and most importantly are expensive to repair.

2. Sewer Smells Outside the House

Is there a sewage smell outside your house? The smell is very strong outside the house but not inside the house?

You most likely have a collapsed sewer line which is leaking and when the ground warms up the smell comes up. This problem could however also be caused by a wrongly installed plumbing vent.

3. Lush Green Lawn

Is there a spot on your lawn that is unusually green and the grass looks healthy compared to the rest of the area? That could be due to the fact that the grass is receiving nutrients from sewage leaking from a collapsed pipe.

When the leak is severe, you will have a soggy yard instead of lush green spots. In some causes you could also have sink holes or cracking slabs.

4. Insects and Rodents Infestation

Insects and rodents infestation in your property could indicate a source of nutrients for them, which in this case would be leaking sewage.

Of all these problems, the worst you can have a sewer backup since it will need to be fixed immediately. You may even have to vacate your house.

Causes of Sewer Back Ups

  • Old, corroded and/sagging sewer lines
  • Clogs as a result of tree roots
  • Pouring grease in drains
  • Flushing what you shouldn’t flush
  • Poor installation
  • Clogged city sewer lines
  • Heavy downpour

How to Prevent Sewer Backs

  • Have your sewer lines inspected and tree roots cut at least once a year
  • Replace old pipes with PVC pipes
  • Don’t pour grease down drains
  • Only flush toilet paper
  • Use a sewer backflow valve

Leave a Comment