A water and sewer line protection program endorsed by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has some residents on edge due to poor customer service and management of the optional, low-cost program.
The program offers Detroit homeowners protection for water lines at $2.49 a month, for sewer lines at $5.49 a month — or both for $7.98 a month. The city’s water line is at the front of a property and carries and pumps water to customers, while the sewer line is at the back of a property and carries waste water away from the home.
American Water Resources (AWR) is the provider for these service line protections that DWSD partnered with to offer the discounted rates specific to Detroiters or households with DWSD as their service provider.
DWSD Director Gary Brown endorsed the warranty program in May and urged Detroiters to sign up. He said the program helps save DWSD customers from the expense of water and sewer line damage.
“Several hundred homeowners this past winter had burst water service lines that cost them thousands of dollars to repair,” he said in the news release. “Severe issues necessitating home sewer line replacement can in some cases cost more than $10,000.”
So far, more than 8,000 residents have signed up for the AWR program, and there have been more than 100 claims made. It’s different from DWSD’s Basement Backup Protection Program, which is only available to 11 Detroit neighborhoods.
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AWR offers protection programs in more than 40 states, for under $10 per month. AWR was unable to respond to our request for comment in time. AWR customers in some Metro Detroit cities like Royal Oak and Dearborn Heights pay $5.49 a month for water line protection and $9 a month for sewer lines.
The water and sewer line protection programs do not cover conditions that happened before customers signed up for the program. It also doesn’t repair any section of a sewer line that’s inside the home or damage caused by natural disasters like floods.
AWR promises a rapid response as one of the benefits of its program by dispatching a local plumber to answer claims. The company has had one third-party contractor handling all Detroit claims, AWR spokesperson Alison Bibb-Carson told Outlier Media in an email Monday. She did not provide a timeline of adding more but said it takes time to find contractors who fit with AWR’s standards.
However, on Tuesday afternoon, Bibb-Carson said via email that AWR now has three contractors for Detroit claims, but she did not respond to requests for contractor names or proof of contracts.
Disorganized customer service
Many claimants have complained about being unable to reach a representative from the company or about having their claims denied without notice or explanation. The AWR website says customer service is available 24/7.
East English Village resident Tamika Webb, 45, signed up for the combined sewer and water line protection program in May after some of her neighbors and coworkers shared the AWR pamphlets they received in the mail urging them to sign up. There is a 30-day waiting period after customers sign up for the protection program before they can make a claim.
Webb then had some sewer backup on July 8 and filed a claim with AWR but had a hard time getting a response or aid from the company. So, later that same day, she hired her own plumber to fix the issue for $150. She also shared her frustration on Nextdoor, and found that she wasn’t the only Detroiter not receiving any answers.
Leah Carmichael, a dispatcher at the Hazel Park-based contractor Slades Plumbing & Sewer Service, said the business has worked with AWR since 2017 and has had a great partnership with AWR, but that it’s been hectic ever since the new Detroit partnership launched in May.
“They need more contractors because we’re bombarded,” Carmichael said.
Prior to the new partnership for DWSD customers, Carmichael said she typically received five to 10 claims a month from AWR, but now it’s about 25 to 30 claims a week. Slades employs three plumbers but only two work with sewers.
Webb, the East English Village resident, bought the newly renovated brick colonial home with her husband a year ago. She has homeowners insurance but decided to also sign up for the AWR program to increase protection.
“It’s a historical home that we’ve invested so much in,” she said. “I’m just trying to protect this investment.”
The sewer backup she had in July needed to be fixed immediately because she couldn’t turn on any faucets or flush the toilets without the backup worsening. She said she called the phone number on her AWR plan confirmation letter, but the representative who answered could not find her account information and told Webb they weren’t able to help Detroit residents.
The AWR representative then transferred her to the Detroit office, where Webb reached a sales representative who couldn’t help her either. Webb was then transferred to someone from claims.
Finally, the claims representative assigned Webb’s case to Slades. But after a few hours, Webb still hadn’t received a call back. She was unsuccessful in reaching someone in claims who could offer an update.
That’s when she hired her own plumber, who fixed the issue within the hour. Later that same day, she learned that Slades denied the claim because they thought her home was a Detroit Land Bank property. Those homes usually come with pre-existing conditions. Webb said the home was a Land Bank home years ago, but it was renovated in 2020. She purchased it in 2021 from a private seller.
Carmichael confirmed Slades closed the claim without going to the home to assess the issue in-person. She said they have too many claims to work on that prevents them from going out to a home that may not be covered by the protection plan.
“I can see how the mix-up happened, but what I was frustrated with was that no one called me to even validate the information,” Webb said.
Slades reassigned the claim, but Webb already requested to close her account with AWR the week before.
“I have a big problem with Detroiters not getting the service that we deserve, and if we’re paying for something that the city promoted, then we should be getting that service — and that includes exceptional customer service,” she said.
Too little, too late
Bibb-Carson, the AWR spokesperson, said she was unaware Slades denied Webb’s claim without assessing the property in-person, adding that AWR reiterated their protocol with the contractor about making sure in-person assessments are made for each claim to determine whether the issue is new or pre-existing.
“We do not pre-screen any houses before we accept customers into the protection program,” Bibb-Carson said. “So, the homeowners are completely responsible for the condition of their homes, including work that was performed by previous homeowners.”
This means that customers need to know whether their water line was improperly installed or whether there is damage caused to their water line or sewer line in a previous attempt to repair it; neither issue would be covered by AWR. AWR suggests customers read the program’s terms and conditions, which outlines what is and what is not covered in a claim.
It wasn’t until Outlier Media reached out to AWR about Webb’s claim that they reassigned the contractor to her case. Carmichael reached out to Webb to reschedule a visit, but Webb said there was no reason since the repair was already completed.
After speaking with Webb about the sewer backup, Carmichael said they would not have been able to repair Webb’s sewer backup through the AWR plan because it doesn’t cover repairs of a sewer line inside the home, according to the terms and conditions.
Carmichael said that many claims their office receives from AWR involve issues that aren’t covered by the protection program — such as a blocked kitchen sink. Carmichael echoed Bibb-Carson’s suggestion for customers to read what’s actually covered before making a claim. Carmichael added that she’d like AWR to also review the claims before sending them to her company.
“It shouldn’t be me having to do this. It should be AWR doing this,” Carmichael said.
This article was produced in partnership with Planet Detroit.
Reach MALAK SILMI, the Report for America Corps Member for Outlier Media, at email@example.com or 734-985-0377.