Septic System

Septic Systems and the New Homebuyer

While most homes in the United States are connected to a town or city sewer system, about a quarter of homes dispose of household sewage through a septic system. If you're buying a home with a septic system, pay attention: there are hidden issues that could potentially cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Questions for the Seller

The seller should answer a number of important questions:

  • Are there known defects in the septic system?
  • When was the septic tank last pumped?
  • Where is the manhole to access the septic tank? (Get explicit directions -- it is probably buried 2-3 feet underground -- you don't want to have to search with a shovel!)
You may find answers to some of these questions on the seller's disclosure -- but ask if you don't find them.

Septic Inspection

During a typical pre-purchase home inspection, the home inspector will do no more than a visual examination of the plumbing within the house. (Several states, notably Massachusetts, have substantially higher requirements for septic inspections). Some home inspectors will do a visual inspection of the drainfield upon request, and they may also be willing to do a "dye and flood" test for an additional fee. The dye test involves pumping a substantial amount of dye into the home's toilets. After a waiting period, the inspector will return to see if the dye has surfaced in the leaching field. If you still have concerns after a dye test, you should hire a licensed septic contractor or engineer to run additional tests.

Other Pre-Purchase Risks to Consider

If you think you might add another bedroom in the future, you should find out the capacity of your septic system. (Why bedrooms? State regulations typically link septic capacity to the number of bedrooms in a house, on the theory that more bedrooms means more septic usage.) In New York state, a 1-3 bedroom house will require a 1,000 gallon septic tank. Each additional bedroom will require an additional 250 gallon capacity. If your septic tank is too small, adding a 4th bedroom could require that you install an entirely new septic system! Not only can this cost tens of thousands of dollars and add months to your schedule, you may be forced to replace an existing low-profile septic tank with a raised-bed septic tank. For small lots, this can detract from landscaping and decrease the resale value of a home.

Another risk is that many towns are slowly moving from septic systems to town sewer. The Kaufman family of Pepperell, MA bought a home with a brand new septic system in 2002. Five years later, they were presented with a $10,000 bill from the town to finance the installation of sewer pipes on their street -- even though they had no intention of connecting to town sewer! According to Meredith Kaufman "All our neighbors were celebrating because they had old septic systems. But it was just the opposite for us: we had factored the cost of the new septic system into the price of our house." A quick check with your local Department of Public Works or Waste Water Treatment can alert you to potential issues.

Septic systems are an effective, safe and environmentally friendly means of disposing of household wastes. However, be sure to ask a few extra questions and run a few extra tests before you buy your next home -- your bank account will thank you!



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