Talk of the Town - The pipes, the pipes are calling December 18 2003

But they'll shut up for 5K

An irrepressible conflict. The clash of armies. The Blue & Gray.

A Civil War story? No, this involves real hostility. It's about selling my house.

Putting your home on the market evokes critical backwash from every would-be buyer, all of whom double as architectural, landscape and interior design experts. But that's nothing compared to the home inspector.

When people are interested enough in your house to consider an actual purchase, they send an inspector. He visited our establishment and made the following report:

"Plumbing: The main source is polybutylene blue, which is prone to breaking and was used in some homes until 1996. Polybutylene has a 50 percent failure rate and is the subject of a class action lawsuit.

"Inside plumbing is gray polybutylene plastic piping, which has a history of failure. Because of depleted class action suit funding, any repairs or replacement of existing blue and/or gray piping will be the responsibility of the purchaser."

I couldn't even spell the name of this stuff, much less know it was in my home. A week ago, if someone asked me about polybutylene blue, I'd have guessed it's the cause of America's latest drug epidemic. That's the price for cheating my way through 10th grade chemistry.

But polybutylene is the one of the biggest dirty little secrets to ever run through Middle America, having been installed in countless U.S. homes between 1978 and 1995. Like F-5 tornadoes and grapefruit-sized hail, it's a disaster that originated in Texas. At least that's where early PB (I'll never think of peanut butter the same way) failures occurred.

Friends from Texas who live in our neighborhood escaped this plague. Put wise during their days in the Lone Star State, they reached Georgia asking that polybutylene not be used in the construction of their home here, spending an extra $300 for good old copper pipes. Lesson: Given a choice between some five-syllable synthetic and a basic metal, always go with the one listed on the Table of Elements.

Those of us not from the land of Texas tea have to suffer the consequences. In my case, it was a demand from opposing counsel, the term I use to describe (at least it's the only printable term I use to describe) the people who might buy my place.

"They want us to re-plumb the entire house," reported my wife, who heard it from our realtor, who heard it from their realtor, a grand dame whose continued requests for this and that led me to believe that the Sudetenland will be her last territorial demand in Europe.


At first, I thought it was some bizarre wish to have fruit trees installed on the property.

But no. Our alleged buyers wanted us to pay for complete removal of all polybutylene pipes and their replacement with new, non-PB material. They thoughtfully provided a plumber's estimate for the work, which added up to $7,200.

Wait a minute. What happened to the purchaser being responsible for new plumbing? Particularly galling: There is nothing wrong with the pipes in our house; we've never had a leak. And to qualify for the class action, you must have water seeping through your walls. The system is basically urging me to go out and bust a pipe so I can qualify for reimbursement.

And what's so bad about a 50 percent failure rate? Human beings are 100 percent defective; sooner or later we all give out, with the possible exception of Dick Clark.

As with so much surrounding the sale of my home, I ranted, raved and did a dinner theater-quality impersonation of King Lear — at the conclusion of which I gave in.

Because it turns out that most of my neighbors, equally afflicted by the polybutylene curse, have had to do the same if they wanted to sell their homes. They didn't announce it to the general public, but they gave in on the pipes. And realtors, possessing a delicate sensibility usually associated with great white sharks, know this.

Ergo, at closing time, I'll be $5,200 poorer. It was a moral victory to find a plumber who'd do the work for two grand less than the other estimate.

Given the Civil War motif, a battle of the blue and gray in which both colors represent the losing side, it is appropriate to close with an observation from Lincoln that describes one's feelings about selling a home under financially adverse conditions.

Being president, he said, is like being the man who was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Someone in the crowd asked how he liked it, and the man replied that if it wasn't for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk.

Singing polybutylene all the day.


Glen Slattery is prone to breaking in Alpharetta.

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