Buying or Selling a Home with a Septic System?
Moving house or buying your first property is supposed to be exciting. For most of us, it’s a life-changing decision, a step towards that perfect lifestyle, a move to be closer to that perfect job.
But even at the best of times, buying or selling a home can be a challenge. (Yep, you can picture it now: trying to negotiate while your kids run around, fighting over who gets which room…) And the last thing anyone wants is to move into a property, thinking everything’s great, only to later come across problems like a leaking roof or a broken septic system.
Here at GroundStone Wastewater Services, we get a lot of enquiries about buying or selling a home with a septic system. Unfortunately, most of these questions come across our office after the fact, when the home has been sold and the new residents have already moved in.
You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’ve bought a property with septic tank problems or where your buyers come after you, seeking compensation.
So, to ease your worries, here are our top questions to ask when buying or selling a home with a septic system:
Buying a home with a septic system
Where is the septic system and where does the treated wastewater drain?
These seem like pretty straight-forward questions, but they can save you a lot of trouble down the track, particularly if you’re planning to do your own home renovations or extensions, add a storage shed or plant a garden. The location of a septic system can even dictate where it is safe or unsafe to park a vehicle.
So if you’re inspecting a property with a septic system, make sure to ask for a plan of the system. Where is the septic tank? Where does the pipework run? Where does the treated wastewater drain?
Has the septic system been regularly maintained?
Usually, a septic tank or sewage treatment plant will need to be pumped on a scheduled plan and treatment plants should be maintained annually. Periodic services and maintenance between annual visits also need to be carried out to make sure the system is running smoothly and efficiently.
If a septic system hasn’t been maintained properly, there is a chance that part of the mechanism may malfunction or might already have signs of trouble. So make sure to ask the seller for receipts from tank pumpings, service visits and any repairs that have been made.
How often has the septic tank been emptied?
When you are sifting through the service visit and maintenance provider receipts, look out for any signs of issues. For instance, if the home’s septic tank is being emptied every few months – as opposed every 3 years (depending on the home size and amount of occupants this can vary from 2-5 years) – this could mean the septic system isn’t functioning properly.
Ask for the contact details of the septic system maintenance company that has been conducting the services or tank pumpings and give them a call. They’ll be able to tell you whether the system has been maintained regularly and whether there are any existing problems.
How much does septic system maintenance cost?
Those of us who have bought a property before will be all too familiar with one of the biggest downsides of owning a home: the ongoing costs. The last thing you want is to move into a home with a budget in mind, only to discover that certain aspects of the property will push you over budget.
So if the home you’ve set your heart on has a septic system, make sure to find out how much the maintenance, services and tank pumping will cost. You can get an idea by looking at previous invoices or get in touch with one of our maintenance experts for a quote.
What is the water capacity? Ask for the System Design’s Daily Design Flow.
Different septic systems can handle different amounts of water. Make sure to ask for the maximum water capacity of the home’s septic system and compare this against your general water usage. If you usually use more water than what the septic system can handle, you will either need to cut your water usage down or have the septic system upgraded.
How old is the system?
A septic system that has been properly maintained will last for an average of 25 years.
Is it ok for a seller to sell a home with a septic system that’s in poor condition?
It depends. Both on the condition in which you are personally willing to accept the property, and whether the septic system (even in good condition) meets environmental safety and health standards.
The most important thing is to do your research. Has the septic system been maintained regularly? Can it be accessed by a maintenance person or a pump truck? Does the septic system need an upgrade? All of this information will help you uncover any issues that might pop up down the track and to better negotiate the price of the property.
If the septic system does need an upgrade, you might be able to negotiate the upgrade as part of the sale. If you or the seller are hoping for a quicker transaction, the seller might be willing to lower the price or to give you a monetary credit to pay for the upgrade.
In Canada, septic systems have to meet strict codes to comply with environmental safety and health standards. The stringency of these codes has increased over the years, which means a septic system installed to code years ago may need upgrading to meet current standards. So even if a septic system is in good condition, it might not meet the necessary standards. A septic system professional will be able to tell you whether a specific system meets current codes.
Is any part of the septic system on third-party land?
Is the pipework, drainage area or the septic tank itself on a neighbouring property or farmland? If so, this could be a problem. The best way to judge this kind of situation is to meet the neighbour or landowner and ask about access.
If they’ve previously had a bad relationship with the sellers of the home you want to buy, you might be denied physical access to the septic system, even though the system would legally belong to you. You would then have to pursue the case through the court system. No one wants that kind of trouble.
Another question to consider is whether the septic system or drainage area serves just the property you’re looking to buy, or is it shared with a neighbour? And if it’s shared, who’s paying for the maintenance, services and any other costs involved? In a situation where the septic system is shared, find out whether there is an existing formal agreement that all parties will contribute to the costs.
What is access like to the property?
This is an important question to consider if you’re planning any future renovations or extensions. For the septic system to work properly, the septic tank will need to be emptied at least once every 3-5 years. Pumper trucks will need to get within 30 meters of the septic tank in order to empty it.
Selling a home with a septic system
What will the buyer expect?
At the very least, the buyer will want to know the condition of your septic system. So determining the condition will be a crucial step in your pre-sale process.
The buyer might also want to see your service record. Have proof of regular maintenance, services and tank pumps. If you don’t have a record or invoice for these, you should be able to obtain them from the maintenance company.
You might also be asked for a plan of the system, and details like the water capacity, the age of the system and how much maintenance costs each year.
What if the septic system is in poor condition?
If your septic system needs an upgrade, the buyer will most likely want to negotiate an upgrade as part of the sale. If you don’t have time to organize an upgrade, the buyer might be willing to consider a lower price or a monetary credit to cover the cost of the upgrade.
In Canada, septic systems have to meet strict codes to comply with environmental safety and health standards. The stringency of these codes has increased over the years, which means a septic system installed to code years ago may need upgrading to meet current standards.
My septic system is in working order. Do I need to arrange an inspection anyway?
We highly advise having your septic system inspected by a professional – and we’re not saying this just because we’re in the business! A home inspector will only be able to assess the visible condition of your home and plumbing. They won’t be able to inspect the condition of the septic system itself.
Knowing the condition of your septic system and having proof that it’s in working order and to government standards will make pricing and negotiations easier for you.
What will a septic system inspection involve?
A typical septic system inspection involves a simple dye test. To conduct the test, the septic systems professional will inject a fluorescent dye into the septic system. If the dye shows up on the ground above the drain field, your septic system has failed the test.
You may also want to ask for an “open pit test”. This involves emptying the tank and removing the soil that covers the top of the tank and distribution line. Then, mirrors or video cameras are lowered into the tank to allow for a thorough inspection. This test can be pricey, but it’s the only way to accurately determine the condition of the tank.
While the septic system professional is at your property, ask for any additional information you might be missing, like maintenance records, the age of the tank and the water capacity. They’ll also be able to tell you if the septic system meets current code requirements.
Noting the condition of the distribution box and the septic system’s drain field are key components in evaluating the system’s function. This could mean using a pipe camera and looking for visible signs of malfunction on the surface.
Although in Canada septic systems can only be inspected by a registered professional, in this video from Washington state the inspector goes through some of the similar duties that most inspections would go through.
A note on septic system ‘experts’: Who’s one, and who’s not?
As mentioned, a home inspector will only be able to assess the visible condition of the home and plumbing. They won’t be able to inspect the condition of the septic system itself.
Your real estate agent is not a septic systems expert either. Most agents are not educated about septic systems and the tests or maintenance records that are necessary to determine the condition of the tank.
Believe us – we speak with so many people who have bought a property with a malfunctioned septic system, thinking the system was in good condition because the real estate agent told them the tank had been regularly pumped. An assessment like this is just not good enough. (And even if the tank has been pumped, if records show the tank is being pumped too often, this can actually mean there’s a problem with the system).
We can’t stress enough that it’s in your best interest to have the system inspected by a professional septic systems inspector.
Feel free to give us a call: 250-768-0056 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to help you through some of those tough questions.