outside toilet with wooden door

Septic Systems 101 for Home Buyers

If you’re a city dweller who is looking for a home in the suburbs, it’s likely that you’re looking at homes with septic for the first time.  This situation tends to make buyers nervous. It needn’t. 


Let’s take an overview of what a simple septic system is, how it’s maintained, and what you can do if you’re buying a home that uses one.  A septic system is a self-contained system for disposing of sewerage. They’re frequently found in rural and suburban areas that do not have public sewerage systems.  The system one sees most often is a holding tank in which enzyme and bacterial action decomposes the waste material and buried lines in a drainage field use soil to strain out what remains. 


Septic permits are usually issued specifying the number of bedrooms a house may have that is to be built on the lot for which the permit is being issued.  How well the soil percolates (how well water drains through the soil) on the lot is taken into account when issuing the permit. It typically costs between $6,000 and $10,000 to install a conventional system in the part of the country I live in.  Systems are usually adequate for the size of the house because of the permit system.  


When a system and the demands of a household are in balance, it can be literally years between times any maintenance is needed.  Some jurisdictions require that they are pumped periodically. There are companies that make a specialty of this. In my area, it costs about $200 to have a septic tank pumped. 


Home Buyer Precautions


There are a number of things a homebuyer can do when buying a home with a septic system to minimize the possibility of having a problem.  You can make your contract offer subject to a septic inspection and pumping. You can ask the seller to sign an affidavit stating that to the best of his knowledge the permit was issued for the number of bedrooms the home has, or, alternatively, you can check at the courthouse yourself.  Just call and ask what department handles the permits, then call that department and ask about archived information.


Water should not stand for hours after heavy rain on the property with a septic system.  There should never be any unpleasant odor associated with a septic system.


Alternative Systems


What we’ve been talking about is a simple conventional septic tank and drain field.  It used to be virtually impossible to install a septic system where the soil does not drain well, or where the water table is high.  Clay soils don’t drain well. High water tables are often encountered near the ocean, near marshy areas, and in areas near large bodies of water.  Some pretty amazing systems which can handle problem areas have been designed in recent years.


I was recently talking to a builder friend of mine who is building a new home for his own family.  The soil on their property drains very poorly. He has done some research and has contracted out having an alternative system installed.  He got three bids which ranged from $18,000 to $60,000. After talking to the manufacturer, he accepted the low bid. It looks like the finished job will come in right at $20,000 and the contractor is following the procedure recommended by the manufacturer.


I’ve seen very few re-sales of properties using these super-duper systems-on-steroids, but I predict they’ll start turning up fairly soon.  My builder friend says he could build a house on a rock using the best new systems. It sounds like we have some interesting developments to look forward to, doesn’t it?


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