Landlording & Rental Properties

5 Steps to Fix Clogged Pipes & Drains in Your Rentals

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Oftentimes clogged pipes and slow drains can be over dramatized in our minds as bigger problems than they truly are. With a little bit of diagnosing, many clogged or slow drains can be fixed quickly without the cost of a plumber. Whenever working with plumbing, make sure to follow instructions and only proceed forward with the scope of work you feel comfortable performing.

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Disclaimer: Although it may not be your first thought, wearing eye protection is always recommended with most home improvements. Drains may hold corrosive and caustic chemicals that can permanently damage your skin and eyes if not protected.

5 Steps to Fix Clogged Pipes & Drains in Your Rentals

Step 1: Prevent problems.

Stop drainage problems before they ever begin. Think of your property’s pipes like the arteries in your body; respect them and be careful about what you put down your drains. The biggest enemies of a drain are:

  1. Cooking grease
  2. Hair
  3. Soap scum
  4. Coffee grounds

Most clogs and slow drains can be prevented. Use a drain screen or drain great to catch hair in sinks and tubs.

Regular Cleaning (Home Remedy): Pour half a cup of table salt and half a cup baking soda into the affected drain. Next, add a half a cup vinegar and let stand for 90 seconds. Follow up by pouring a gallon or more of boiling water down the drain. Repeat monthly as needed.


Step 2A: Fix your clogged or slow draining toilet.

Children’s toys, excessive toilet paper, plant roots, etc. can all find their way into your home’s pipes. A toilet plunger is the first line of defense for clogged or slow draining pipes. Plungers work by creating enough negative pressure in the pipe to suction up a clog or at least loosen it enough to flow down your pipes correctly.

  1. Turn off the water to the toilet. This water valve can usually be found behind the toilet attached to the wall.
  2. Cover the toilet’s drain hole with the plunger. Make sure the plunger head is covered with standing water. If no water is in the bowl, add some to cover the head of plunger.
  3. Push down on the plunger and then up without breaking the suction seal. Repeat this process up and down until the clog is free and the water drains out of the toilet bowl smoothly.
  4. Flush the toilet to confirm the leak has been removed.
  5. After a handful of minutes if the plunger does not help, a drain-snake or drain auger may be needed.

Related: 5 Tips for Assessing an HVAC System When Buying a Home
Pro Tip: Plungers come in different sizes and shapes. Certain plungers are designed for toilets, and other plungers are made to contour to the shape of sinks. While both plungers may prove effective, for best results, make sure you are using the correct plunger for the job.

Step 2B: Fix your clogged or slow draining sink.

Thanks to most sinks having built-in drain stoppers, sink clogs are less common than toilet clogs. However, sink drains can slow down overtime due to the 4 main causes of clogs listed above. When aiming to unclog your sink, follow the instructions below.

  1. Remove the drain stopper, usually by turning it until loose and pulling it straight out. Some older drain stops may have an extra screw needing to be removed prior to pulling out.
  2. Plug up the overflow hole towards the front of the sink to keep water from entering while working.
  3. Make sure there is enough water to cover the plunger head and begin. Push down on the plunger and then up without breaking the suction seal. Repeat this process up and down until the clog is free. After a few minutes, if this does not work, a drain-snake or drain auger may be needed.
  4. Run the hot water for a few minutes to confirm clog is gone.

Step 3: Clean your sink’s P-trap.

A sink’s P-trap is the curved piece of pipe that you see beneath any sink in your investment properties. This part of the pipe is shaped with a U-type bend to help catch heavier objects that may accidentally fall down the sink, such as rings and other valuables. This makes a sink’s P-trap a great location for hair, grease, and debris to pile up into a clog. Follow the steps below to check if your sink’s P-trap is clogged.

  1. Place a bucket directly under your sink’s P-trap prior to disassembling.
  2. A sink’s P-trap is a small piece of piping that will typically connect the sinks drain-tailpiece to the waste pipe going into the wall and out of the home. Using pliers, remove the coupling nuts that attach the trap between these two pieces of pipe.
  3. Once removed, look through the P-trap pipe. Is it clean or clogged?

Clean: If the P-trap is clean, then the clog was not originating from this point and is deeper in the pipes. Continue to step 4 where we will be snaking the pipe to free the clog.

Clogged: This is likely the main reason for your clog or slow water drainage. Clean the interior of this pipe with a plumbing snake, bendable wire, or bottle brush. Inspect the pipe that leads into the wall for additional clogs, grease, and debris. After re-attaching the P-trap pipe, run hot water down the drain to ensure no clogs remain. If a clog remains, please continue to step 4 where we will be snaking the pipe to free the clog.


Related: How I Bought a Fixer-Upper Fourplex for $1 Down: A BRRRR Case Study

Step 4: Snake your drain.

Plumbing snakes work the opposite way of a plunger. Instead of suctioning a clog up words towards you, we will be pushing the clog from behind to continue it flowing down the drain. Please follow the written directions on your plumbing snake or auger as listed. Additionally, use the guidelines below to help.

  1. Remove the drain stopper if applicable.
  2. Make sure the diameter of the snake’s head/tip will fit easily down the drain.
  3. Push the head/tip of the snake into the drain opening and turn the handle on the auger.
  4. Continue manually pushing more and more of the snake into the drain until you feel a resistance.
  5. Rotate the snake’s handle rapidly until you feel the blockage free and you can continue pushing the snake further.
  6. Periodically pour water down the drain to see if the clog has broken free.
  7. If the clog is a solid object then the auger head may entangle in the object. Pull the snake out of the drain to see if the clog attached and comes with the head of the snake. Run hot water down the drain for a few minutes to ensure drain is unclogged.

Step 5: Contact a plumber.

Search around online and ask trusted friends to recommend a plumber they have used and are happy with. Additionally, your local real estate clubs, along with this website, can be great resources to find reputable plumbers and handymen/handywomen locally.

Short-Cut: Liquid Clog Remover

If it works, it works. Follow the directions on the bottle.

Disclaimer: Liquid clog removers should not be used in toilets. Many of these liquid clog removers contain caustic chemicals that will damage the porcelain and/or other materials in your toilet.

Chronic Clogging

If you are experiencing regular clogging and slow drains, the problem may not be with clogged pipes, but rather the slope of the waste pipes leaving the home. Wastewater and waste-solids are carried out with the help of water and gravity. If the waste pipes leaving the home do not have a steep enough slope/grade, the water may be standing still in the pipes and causing frequent backups. Raising or lowering different ends of the main waste pipe out of the home can help encourage water to flow downwards and away from the home.

In conclusion, it is fun learning about home repair and sometimes figuring out things for ourselves. This article does not talk about cracked pipes, broken water heaters, sump pumps, low water pressure, and many more common plumbing issues. For these problems, please check around the Internet for solutions, check out the Forums on this website, and/or simply call a friendly plumber in the area to begin building a relationship. Either way, plumbing issues are a natural and expected part of owning property. If renting or holding property, expect and account for these minor issues periodically.

Any questions about how to unclog your pipes and drains?

Leave your comments below!

Investing since 2002, John started in real estate accidentally with a four-bedroom mobile home inside of a pre-existing mobile home park. Over the next 11 months, John added 10 more mobile homes to...
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    Replied about 4 years ago
    Chronic toilet clogging lately can be caused by the latest trend of use of so called flushable wipes. Do an online search and you will find that these are causing a big problem. Some cities are installing grinders to deal with them. I have a new tenant who kept calling with a stopped up toilet. After snaking out a scrap, I finally just left a toilet auger with her, and showed the daughter how to use it, since they seem intent on continuing to flush those. Tenants deny flushing them, but you can see the pack at the sink, and none in their trashcan. Sooner or later, they will probably stop up my outside line. What’s you guys’ policy on who pays for plumbing problems? Kinda hard to prove its tenant’s fault, right?
    Kimberly H. Residential Real Estate Broker from Chicago Suburbs, Illinois
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Our leases say no wipes, flushable or not, and it’s one of the things we tell them at lease signing. If tenant uses and a plumber needs to come out, they pay to repair. Did have this happen with tenants, and they did pay.
    Michael Boyer Investor from Juneau, AK
    Replied about 4 years ago
    neat topic… If I had to do just one task at a turnover of a unit, it would be to make sure the drains flow freely…clogged or slow ones can impact tenant satisfaction or worse yet result in a flood when someone leaves a faucet on…in fact, for longer tenancies, I empower tenants some with a bottle of commercial drain cleaner or tell them about the softer science project baking soda and vinegar approach…..even giving them information and strainers to keep debris and hair out of the drain in the first place can help, too.
    Paul Stern Investor from Bettendorf, Iowa
    Replied about 4 years ago
    The first drain clog came a little after 10pm on a Sunday. Luckily it was a 4-plex all with unfinished basements and the tenants were all used to this. So first thing Monday I called the first plumber I could find in Google maps. She politely told me to call a drain cleaner. You see a drain cleaner in my area averages around $100 per service while the plumber will make a call for $75 which doesn’t cover time, material or any services. I have been pleased with response time, service and cost. Believe me my drain cleaner deals with stuff I never want to. He is one of the most valuable members of my team. He tells me how to educate tenants and for repeat visits can help me hold tenants financially accountable. Great topic and one you will be dealing with sooner or later if you are investing in real estate. Thanks # John Fedro
    Jerry W. Investor from Thermopolis, Wyoming
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Nice topic John. You forgot the plug that is the worst, rust. Some of the old plumbing units used galvanized pipes for a lot of the drains from sinks, those have rust flake off and can block pretty severely. Sometimes a plumber can free them, sometimes not. I hate tearing pipes out of a wall to replace them, and even more cutting up cement. Anyway great advice. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
    Kyle Hipp Investor from Appleton, Wisconsin
    Replied about 4 years ago
    A trap is not designed to catch objects but rather to prevent sewer gas from entering the home. It is advisable to not go through the fixture with a snake. When doing a sink, I remove the trap as that is the biggest issue usually, then snaking the line down from there. Jerry nailed it that another major problem is old galvanized drain lines that rust shut from the inside. Lastly, I will NEVER use liquid drain cleaner, it doesn’t solve a problem longterm, and especially in older homes does more damage than good. 2nd lastly, when installing a new trap or underline plumbing, always use PVC, the silver chrome pipes will eventually rust through
    Deanna Opgenort Rental Property Investor from San Diego, CA
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Liquid plumber is basically bleach, which does an excellent job of dissolving hair. So if it is a hair clog that is the problem, it works like a charm. Biggest problem I have had with my rental is tampons — they are designed to hold fluids, and they do. The slope issue is tricky– too little slope OR TOO MUCH can cause problems (with too steep the fluids go too fast and leave behind..shall we say the “solids” settle out of the waste stream to form a clog. Straight drop not an issue, of course, but the turn at the bottom could be. My rental’s slope seems to be a bit steep, and there may be a slight angle or bad connection that is catching things. As long as no tampons go down the drain no problem & certainly not worth the $2k the ever-so-helpful plumber wanted charge to replace 50′ of 5 year old ABS sewer drain). In my 1970’s home we’ve actually had decent luck getting slow toilets to flow with dishwasher detergent (breaks down grease & , er “organic” matter). We have ABS sewer, so our options are better for de-clogging.
    Phil Chapman Investor from Monroe, North Carolina
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Helpful article John! To add something from my recent experience which occurred in my main home. The day before we were going on vacation back in June (when else would Murphy’s law kick in? :-), the toilet in our basement backed up into the floor. Was able to get our local emergency plumbing service out here on Saturday and Sunday (this one took a while to diagnose). We have a septic system and after running 200 ft of drain snake, he never hit the clog and we never saw the snake come out into the septic tank. So, they ran a camera in and identified a point 10 feet before the septic tank where it seemed to stop. So they dug that up and discovered we had a 2-part septic tank and we didn’t have enough of the right bacteria to handle the waste. So, long story short (if its not too late for that), they pumped the tank out and highly recommended a product called Bio-Clean to dump into the septic system monthly. It is like Rid-X, but the commercial-grade version recommended by plumbers. I’m sharing this only to say, if you have a rental house on a septic system, invest in some Bio-Clean as a good preventative measure to prevent a costly emergency plumbing visit.
    Jenna Hunter
    Replied over 3 years ago
    I feel like my toilet is leaking since four days ago the water has been getting lower and lower. It was great to realize, through the article, that the water valve can usually be found behind the toilet attached to the wall. I don’t know much about toilets so I will be certain to get a professional to look at it to get it fixed as soon as possible!
    Trayson Evans
    Replied over 3 years ago
    Growing up, I had to share a bathroom with my two older sisters. I’m not sure that the shower clogged because of them. I think that part of the problem was that the bathroom was in the basement of the house. I assume this would make it harder for the water to drain. There often was a lot of hair, though. I heard something like what the article says about removing the drain stopper and there was always hair on it. This usually was only a temporary solution and we needed extra help to solve it completely.
    Trayson Evans
    Replied over 3 years ago
    Growing up, I had to share a bathroom with my two older sisters. I’m not sure that the shower clogged because of them. I think that part of the problem was that the bathroom was in the basement of the house. I assume this would make it harder for the water to drain. There often was a lot of hair, though. I heard something like what the article says about removing the drain stopper and there was always hair on it. This usually was only a temporary solution and we needed extra help to solve it completely.
    Glani Kali
    Replied 11 months ago
    Hey guys I have been having this problem with my sink in the basement. It gets clogged almost on a weekly basis. The p-trap doesn't look like anything i have seen before. A friend of mine recommended this: ... What are your opinion on this? Has anyone used it? Still wondering if I should purchase this.