What it Means When the Listing Says the Home Is Winterized

Dated: February 5 2020

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Icicles on pipe and garden faucet

Winter weather can freeze pipes, potentially causing extensive damage to the home.

The Winterization Process

While not every unoccupied home for sale in Middle Tennessee is winterized, it can be a sensible precaution in homes that are likely to be vacant for a significant period during cold weather.  Estate properties, REOs (Real East Owned or bank-owned property, such as foreclosures), HUD houses, or simply homes where the sellers have relocated prior to putting their house on the market, may all be more vulnerable to damage, with no one on site to ensure that pipes don’t freeze.  After all, even in our own homes, with the heating on, when the temperature really plummets we may decide to leave a faucet or two dripping overnight to ward off frozen pipes! 

In a vacant home, toilets are not being flushed, and water is not regularly flowing through the pipes, so there is a higher chance of pipes freezing, because non-flowing water is more prone to freezing than water that is moving. (Hence the overnight drip trick!)  Water expands as it freezes into ice. This expansion creates pressure within the pipes that may cause them to leak at joints in the piping, or even to burst. With vacant properties, the chance of pipes freezing is magnified because the heating is often turned off or set low to save money.  In addition to potential damage to the frozen pipes themselves, there could be significant water damage to other aspects of the home when the weather warms and the water flows again, especially if no-one is present to shut the water off quickly.  

Plumbing winterization is a process used to prepare household plumbing for cold temperatures, in order to prevent this ugly scenario of leaks, burst pipes and the subsequent water damage.

The process starts by shutting off the water supply at the street and at the house main inlet.  All faucets are fully opened to drain the water out, and left open. Water in any appliances including water heaters, dishwashers and refrigerators is drained.  Gas is shut off at the water heater and other appliances as needed. Toilets are flushed until empty, and then special antifreeze solution is poured into the toilets and drains.  Air is blown into the pipes, forcing all water out of the pipes. Usually, a plastic wrap is placed over the toilet to ensure it is not used. Winterization notices are posted to toilets, sinks, showers, tubs, water heater, water meter, dishwasher, and sinks.  Notices that the property has been winterized should also be posted at the home’s entryway, warning against use of any plumbing fixtures. If the home has radiant or steam heat (“wet heat”), additional steps are taken to winterize the heating system.  

What About Inspection of a Winterized Property?

In order to conduct a thorough inspection of a property, ALL utility services need to be available— electric, gas, water & sewer.  To fully inspect and test plumbing (and any “wet heat” systems), the home would need to be de-winterized. De-winterization is not part of a home inspection, and if the inspector is unable to perform the inspection due to the house still being winterized, a buyer may be charged for a wasted trip.  Or the inspector may simply write up the inspection report “disclaiming” the plumbing as unavailable to inspect, leaving the prospective buyer with limited information as to the condition of the plumbing, and possibly the heating system.

If having the property de-winterized is not an option, or if neither buyer nor seller is willing to pay for the service, one option is to have the home inspection without testing the plumbing system.  This simplifies scheduling and reduces inspection-related fees, but… there could be expensive non-obvious damage to the plumbing that won’t be discovered during the inspection period. Alternatively, the buyer could ask the home inspector to perform an air pressure test on the empty water supply lines.  This can determine if the lines leak or hold air, how much they leak, and may indicate where leaks are. However, this does not test the drain lines, and is not as informative as a full inspection. The option with the best chance for really learning about any plumbing system issues is to have the hose de-winterized and thoroughly inspected.  Unfortunately, this is the most expensive path, and requires the most advanced planning and coordination. However, arranging de-winterization and re-winterization services, as well as negotiating between buyer and seller regarding who pays for these services, is one more benefit I can provide for my clients. 

Buyers considering a winterized property should expect to incur some expense (probably in the range of a few hundred dollars) for de-winterizing and re-winterizing a property in order to have a full inspection.  You will need to balance that cost against the potential for later discovering expensively damaged plumbing if it’s not inspected. On the plus side, perhaps there will be less competition for a winterized property, offsetting the costs of due diligence.

When the home of your dreams is winterized, you will have some extra challenges to navigate as you move through the inspection and bargaining process.  Don’t leave yourself out in the cold: give me a call and let me help you through the process, from start to finish.

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James Houk

A graduate of MTSU, I worked on local independent films before becoming a REALTOR®. And as different as those jobs may seem, they’re both really about the same thing – taking people’s dreams an....

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