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Wide Disparity In Sewer Estimates Prompts 4 On Your Side Consumer Investigation

DENVER (CBS4) Sewer scoping has become big business in the Metro Area as sewer pipes get older and the real estate market heats up. Companies are sending cameras down the sewer, looking for roots, cracks, and structural problems in the pipes. If the camera finds a problem, then the cost of repair can be astronomical.

"It's a pretty dirty business," said Denice Reich, a long-time realtor in the Denver market.

Reich says that within the last 5 years, sewer scoping has become a key part of home sales. Buyers are asking to have the lines checked as part of the home inspection and in many cases, the sale hinges on the results.

"I think I have a PhD in sewers," Reich joked.

Reich showed CBS4 the bills associated with one client's home. The company who scoped the sewer quoted her a price of $18,500 to replace the line. Reich brought in another company to bid on the job and that company quoted a price of $5,400 to do the same work.

"I see it all the time, you should never, ever get the person who sends the camera down to bid the job," Reich said.

She calls that a conflict of interest. There are companies that just do the scoping, and if they're not in the competition to fix the pipe, they're more likely to be honest about your line. Reich says that she's even heard of cases of companies showing old DVD's to new customers.

"Some of them are using old bad sewers to show the homeowner that they have a defective line," she explained.

That's what Lola Broughton thinks happened to her.

"He wiggled the scope around and said, 'See there's a big hole in the sewer line.' Broughton explained. "But I just felt like what I was looking at wasn't real."

The estimate to repair the big hole in her sewer line was $17,272.73.

"Oh I said to him, 'What? Are you kidding? Excuse me, that may be nothing to you, but that's a fortune to me," Broughton recounted.

It was a fortune that she wouldn't end up paying. Broughton didn't panic, instead she called several other companies to check her line. Each company had a different opinion, she heard everything from "repair the small hole" to "nothing to worry about".

"I just want people to be aware that they don't have to take the word of the first contractor that comes into their home," Broughton advised.

One way to make sure that the DVD you're looking at is actually your sewer line is to make sure the technician gets some shots of the surrounding area before going down the sewer pipe, that way you know it's your house.

4 On Your Side did its own investigation. CBS4 had several companies come out to several locations. The first thing the investigation uncovered is the disparity in charges for the scope itself. Several companies charged $99 to send a camera down the line and make a DVD of what the camera sees. Some companies tack on charges for removing a toilet or going into a crawl space to get to the sewer. The company should tell you about those charges up front.

Beware of the companies that don't give estimates for scoping before they come to the house. One company showed up and charged $366 dollar for the scope and another $75 dollars for the DVD. Another company charged $325 dollars for the scope but included the DVD. One company promised the scope would be free. On one visit it was free and included a flash drive of the scope. When CBS4 called that same company to another location, the tech told our hidden cameras that the scope would be free but the flash drive would cost $337. Homeowners want to get a copy of the scope, it will help them get second opinions on the line and further estimates for repair.

As part of this Consumer Investigation, CBS4 found a sewer line that is original clay pipe from 1911 and hired a couple of Denver plumbing companies to scope it. Hidden cameras captured very different opinions from the company's technicians.

"Your sewer line needs to be replaced," one technician told our undercover producer.

"So overall… I say it looks okay," the other technician said.

The company that said that the line needed to be placed also said the roots were so bad that the camera couldn't make it all the way to the city connection. He was emphatic that the entire line needed to be replaced.

"You're starting to see roots.. and actually dirt from around the pipe starting to get in on the inside. So that is a questionable joint,"

The other technician called the roots "nothing major". He said the sewer might need to be replaced eventually but it was still good for now.

"It's definitely not broken... or dirt coming in... or anything like that."

"So do you think I need to replace it?" the CBS4 producer asked.

"It's just a matter of opinion," he replied.

Both companies gave us estimates of around $14,000 to replace the 100-year old sewer pipe.

"For the same repair, I've seen ranges from $3,300 to $8,500 to tens of thousands of dollars," said Reza Kazemian, Director of Denver Wastewater Management, a division of Denver Public Works.

Denver Wastewater Management is working with Denver residents so they don't get taken. Homeowners can bring their sewer scope DVD to the office for a free second opinion.

LINK: Denver Wastewater Management: (For an appointment call 303-446-3400.)

"More than half of the tapes we review don't need to be replaced," Kazemian told CBS4 Consumer Investigator Jodi Brooks.

Kazemian looked at the scope CBS4 had done of the 100-year old sewer. He determined the line was okay. He suggested it needed to be cleaned out with a roto-rooter, but felt it didn't need to be replaced.

"If these people would've paid the 13, 14-thousand dollars to have this pipe replaced, would they have been ripped off?" Brooks asked Kazemian.

"Mostly likely, yes," he replied.

Sewer scoping is more of an art than a science. One of the reasons that CBS4 is not naming the companies involved in this investigation is because they're not doing anything illegal. A company can charge whatever it wants for a product or service. It's up to the consumer to do their homework and get the best price they can.
RELATED: More Reports By 4 On Your Side Consumer Investigator Jodi Brooks

- Written for the Web by CBS4 Special Projects Producer Libby Smith

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