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Smelly Home LessonsPlumbing surprises can teach you pricey things about how a house works--and how it doesn't!

A skunk.

Looking back, I probably should have taken it more seriously when I awoke to the sound of our toilet hiccuping. But, like many guys, I knew as much about plumbing as I do about my own gastrointestinal tract. I figured our pipes were suffering the equivalent of a night of hot wings and cheap beer--their noisy complaining would settle down by morning, right.

A few hours later, when I rolled out of bed to catch an early flight for a weekend business trip, my wife, Jenny, and our kids were still asleep. But the toilets--all three now--were emitting a gassy, floor-rattling chorus of belches to rival Barney from The Simpsons. "That's odd," I thought as I downed my breakfast and called a cab. "I hope it can wait till Monday."

It couldn't. With my overnight bag in hand, I stepped outside and confronted a strange sight. Near the edge of our house, a gurgling fountain of effluent was pumping across our front lawn. Moonlit bits of white tissue were dancing in the dark flow. The scene looked like the opening credits from The Beverly Hillbillies--not exactly "Texas tea" or "black gold" but definitely "bubbling crude." Then the odour hit my nose and I knew that this unexpected eruption on our property was going to make us less rich, not more.

"Honey, we need to call a plumber!" I hollered. "We've got a geyser of poo in our yard!"

As the airport taxi wheeled away and my wife stood fuming in her pyjamas, I composed a mental Post-it note: Goodbyes are always more romantic when they don't include the phrase "geyser of poo."

Finding an Old Faithful of raw sewage spewing from your lawn is never the best start to the day, but Jenny and I had extra reason to worry about the state of our pipes: We had recently added a second storey to our bungalow, and the work hadn't exactly gone according to plan. (Note to our contractor if you're reading this: Please answer our legal notices!) Like most couples, we had taken great interest in the project, from the big vision of the blueprint to the minor decorative details. But our imagination ended where the ceramic tiles hit the floorboards. We had dithered over sinks, faucets and eco-friendly, low-volume toilets. After we flushed, though, we hadn't a clue how or where everything went. We assumed that the plumbing had been done by--how would you say?--a plumber.

Alas, our contractor turned out to be the kind of shyster who puts the "sue me" in assume. In the rush to finish our overdue reno, whomever he had hired to install our pipes was probably more familiar with the penal than the building code (the ever-changing bible of construction rules that sloppy contractors and DIY homeowners are forever running afoul of). At least, that's what the plumbing inspector suggested when he flung open our bathroom cabinets, examined the illegal S-traps and let out one of those whistles you know will cost a bundle. Then he climbed into our attic. When he returned, he looked as if he had stared into the bowels of hell itself.

Yes, our basic plumbing wasn't up to snuff. Even worse, the entire venting system hadn't been finished and was spouting toxic reek into the open space above our kids' bedrooms. Every time we flushed, we were fouling our own nest.

That nightmare of bad plumbing ended up costing us six grand and two weeks without working toilets. No wonder I was nervous when I called home to get an update about our latest sewage woes. The news didn't sound good: Yellow police tape squared off our lawn like a murder scene, and workers were running a digital camera on a wire down our backed-up pipes to diagnose the problem.

I tried to look on the sunny side of our mess. "Hey, we won't need to fertilize next spring!" I told Jenny. But even a thousand miles away, I could hear the ka-ching of plumber fees mounting again as our house got an unexpected colonoscopy.

Homeowners never like to sink money into plumbing or drainage. It can feel, quite literally, like you're flushing your hard-won dough down the john. Every husband figures that he can fix what's wrong on the cheap with a plunger and a monkey wrench the size of a baseball bat. (Trust me, he usually can't.) Yet, a dry basement and happy pipes are essential to a home's health--and your family's health, too.

During our reno, we had squandered stupid amounts on fripperies like quartz countertops, hardwood floors and a walk-in shower that looked like the transporter from Star Trek. But we had balked at fixing even old plumbing concerns. When we bought the house five years earlier, we had been told that the garage flooded in heavy rains and that its frame would rot and collapse if we didn't correct the drainage. (We live on the West Coast, where buildings need to be as watertight as Noah's Ark.) Every winter, we would weigh our options--install a perimeter drain or take a sunny vacation?--and then say "Mañana!" to paying a contractor. Maybe I could dig the ditch myself and save some pesos. It never happened, of course.

Now we had to confront our years of neglect. By the time I returned from my work trip, the plumbing crew had tamped down our turd fountain, and our neighbours had stopped gawking at the frontyard cesspool. (I was right: We wouldn't need to fertilize.) The culprits who had gummed up our drains turned out to be a poorly installed outflow pipe, an open access hole, a hard plastic ball and either our dog or our three-year-old son--we decided not to interrogate further.

The bill arrived and our savings suffered a hit. A few months later, we voluntarily took another blow to the bank account: We called the pros to finally fix our wet garage. We even went with the highest of three estimates we had so that we were sure it would be done correctly.

Our son, at least, was thrilled to find a digger in the driveway. We didn't tell him that the other option had been building sandcastles in Mexico come January. At the time, it felt like a cruel choice, but when the rains descended and the garage stayed dry and none of our pipes backed up, all that family treasure buried in the dirt seemed well spent, not wasted. We could finally say goodbye to flooded garages, burping toilets, toxic attics and geysers of any kind shooting from our home and garden.

David Leach is co-writing a memoir with his wife about how not to renovate a house.

For more "plumb" advice, check out our super-duper plumbing primer.