When selling a home, the owner wants to get top dollar and sell it as quickly as possible. When buying a home, the prospective homeowner wants to get their money’s worth from the property with as little renovation as possible. Unfortunately, the presence of polybutylene piping can impede the goals of both buyer and seller.

What Is It?

Extensively manufactured and used from 1978 until 1995, polybutylene pipe is a water supply piping that was less expensive, more flexible, and easy to install than copper piping. It is most commonly found in the “Sun Belt” due to the heavy residential construction from the 1980s through the mid-1990s. It is estimated to have been installed in 6 to 10 million homes overall throughout the United States.

Not only was polybutylene piping (shown at right, photo borrowed from nachi.org) used inside the homes for water distribution but also for outside underground water mains. It typically is 1/2 to 1-inch in diameter and can be in several different colors. The lines generally are stamped with the code “PB2110”. The best places to check for it are the water supply feeds for the sinks and toilets for inside and at the water meter, main water shut-off valve, and where the water supply enters the home for outside. Note that sometimes polybutylene piping was used with copper piping at junctures; so, you cannot assume there is no polybutylene piping just because you do not see it immediately in the areas stated.       

The Problems

It has never been scientifically proven, but it is believed that oxidants in the water supply systems, such as chlorine, react with the polybutylene piping material, causing it to flake apart on the inside of the piping. Eventually, small fractures deepen, cracking through the pipe, and it begins leaking. Manufacturers contend that most of this occurs at joints and unions; and thus, the problem is caused by improper installation. Whatever the real cause, it weakens the water supply system, which can fail without any warning causing both personal property and building damage. The older the pipe, the more likely a problem can occur.

Not every PB system leaks, but the material is susceptible to corrosion when it comes into contact with chlorinated water, resulting in breakage and splitting of PB piping.
.. Martin Schneider, The Baltimore Sun

Throughout the 1980s, lawsuits for alleged defective manufacturing and defective installation for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages were filed. Some homeowners had (and many still have) problems with their insurance companies:

In some cases, homeowners are finding that homeowners insurance companies will either cancel their coverage when extensive damage is caused by [polybutylene] or refuse coverage to homes piped with PB.

.. Arizona Water Resource, University of Arizona

What Should Realtors Do?

Before all of the polybutylene pipe lawsuits, you could tell buyers that a home is being sold “as is”. Raynor v. Wise Realty Co., 504 So. 2d at 1364 and Johnson v. Davis, 480 So. 2d at 628, however, show that the courts are moving toward eliminating the false sense of security upon which sellers and real estate agents have long relied, ruling in favor of new homeowners over sellers and their agents. Different jurisdictions have different legal requirements concerning realtor disclosure, but it seems that judges nationwide are looking more at “what is the right thing to do” in each case. So, you need to protect yourself.
When you represent a buyer, you want to protect their interests (and yours) by asking the listing agent if the home has polybutylene pipes:

  • If not known, you can either not show the home or, if the buyers wants to give an offer, make it dependent upon the seller getting a home inspection for polybutylene pipes. (Note that a home inspection can only tell you if there are polybutylene pipes present in a home, not if and when they may leak.) Also, as you show the home, do some checking yourself under the sinks and at the hot water heater.

  • If it does have polybutylene pipes, ask if the seller is going to replace the piping or give an equivalent reduction in the price of the home. If a reduction in price, you then need to discuss with your client the need to do a replacement of the piping. When polybutylene pipes are present, always protect yourself with a written disclosure of the situation to your client, keeping a copy for your records with the client initialing. Include in the written disclosure that hundreds of thousands of polybutylene pipes have leaked and a single leak can cause catastrophic damage. You also should have the client sign a waiver agreement, stating you disclosed this information and freeing you of any liability. Then, if they don’t replace the piping and it leaks, they cannot say you didn’t warn them and take you to court.

When you represent a seller, check for polybutylene pipes, ordering a home inspection for them if necessary. If they have polybutylene pipes, suggest they replace them with copper:

  • It takes about a week for replumbing for the average home,

  • The cost is about the same as recarpeting the home,

  • You will be able to add a powerful new selling feature – new copper supply piping with a 40-year warranty,

  • They have more of a chance of getting their asking price, and

  • The home should sell faster. If the seller chooses not to replace the polybutylene pipes, give them a release agreement to sign that protects you from all potential liability.

In conclusion, polybutylene pipes are substandard and present realtors with an issue for their clients – both sellers and buyers. Always ensure you protect your client, as well as yourself, when dealing with polybutylene pipes. Just remember:

“… the pipes are like ticking water bombs for many … homeowners … who will one day face their own leaks because of polybutylene …”
.. Gene Tharp, Personal Business, The Atlanta Journal Constitution