Question? Just ask us!
Free Encyclopedia of Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, Repair
InspectAPedia ® Home
SEPTIC SYSTEM INSPECT DIAGNOSE REPAIR
SEPTIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS
SEPTIC D-BOX INSTALL REPAIR
SEPTIC DRAINFIELD FAILURE DIAGNOSIS
SEPTIC DYE TEST PROCEDURE
SEPTIC FAILURE SIGNS
SEPTIC INSPECTION & TEST GUIDE
SEPTIC LIFE EXPECTANCY
SEPTIC SUPPLIES & PARTS
SEPTIC SYSTEM DESIGN ALTERNATIVES
SEPTIC SYSTEM DESIGN BASICS
SEPTIC SYSTEMS, HOME BUYERS GUIDE to
SEPTIC SYSTEM SAFETY WARNINGS
SEPTIC TREATMENTS & CHEMICALS
SEWAGE BACKUP PREVENTION
SEWAGE EJECTOR / GRINDER PUMPS
SEWER GAS ODORS
SEWER LINE REPLACEMENT
SINKHOLES, WARNING SIGNS
SOAKAWAY BED FAILURE DIAGNOSIS
SULPHUR & SEWER GAS SMELL SOURCES
TOILETS, INSPECT, INSTALL, REPAIR
TRAPS on PLUMBING FIXTURES
TREATMENTS & CHEMICALS, SEPTIC
VIDEO GUIDES: Septic Videos
WATER CONSERVATION MEASURES
WATER SOFTENERS & CONDITIONERS
WATER SUPPLY & DRAIN PIPING
WATER, WELLS, WATER TANKS: TESTING GUIDE
WASHING MACHINES & SEPTIC SYSTEMS
WASTEWATER TREATMENT BASICS
WINTERIZE A BUILDING
How to check out the septic system when buying a home.
This article series answers just about any question you might have about buying or owning a house with a septic system. The article gives critical advice to people buying a home with a septic tank and drainfield or similar septic systems.
We explain what a septic system is, we identify its basic parts, and we explain the basics of how private or onsite septic systems work.
This home buyer's guide to septic systems tells what inspection, testing, and maintenance are recommended when buying a home with a private septic system.Here we explain how to reduce the risk of a costly surprise by asking questions, visually inspecting the septic system, and by testing the septic system before buying a home. The drawing of a conventional two-compartment septic tank at page top and discussed in this article was provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.
Green links show where you are. © Copyright 2015 InspectApedia.com, All Rights Reserved.
The articles in this series explain what a septic system is and outline step by step septic inspection and testing for home buyers. Learning a little about how septic systems work (described here) and about septic cleaning (removing septic waste), and testing a septic system before buying a new home can help you avoid installing a septic system or replacing the septic system as a big surprise.
Because the septic tank and drainfield at a property are buried, thus hidden from view, because these components are expensive to replace, and because a costly problem can be present but not obvious, it is important to understand the septic system and to inspect and test it when buying a property served by its own private septic tank.
Septic systems include buried septic tanks (sewage tanks) and drainfields - expensive and hidden from view such as in the photo at left. This document provides advice for home buyers who are buying a home with a private septic system: homes using a septic tank and drainfield or similar soil absorption system.
Other chapters of this guide explain what goes wrong with septic systems, 5-recommends and describes septic inspection and test methods in more detail, explains how to be sure your septic inspection and septic test are conducted properly, tells you where to get more septic system information about a given property, and warns of unsanitary or dangerous site conditions.
If you need to know how to install a septic system,
or if you find that you have a sewage pit (cesspool) this website provides articles explaining those topics too. If you prefer to read a basic guide to septic system inspection and testing for home buyers all in one brief article,
Our schematic of a conventional two-compartment septic tank (below) illustrates the first of two major septic system parts: the septic treatment tank. The image is provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.
What is a Septic Tank and How do Septic Systems Work: Nine Basic Questions & Answers
To help buyers obtain the necessary information to address these questions, we have put
together this document to guide them in making informed decisions regarding
the potential problems and costs associated with a property's septic system.
How Septic Systems Work. Here is the minimum you need to know and what you need to do (or have done) when buying a property with a septic system
Our sketch below shows the second major portion of a septic system: the effluent disposal or drainfield or soakaway bed that disposes of clarified effluent liquid waste that leaves the septic tank.
So how does a septic system work? A private onsite septic system means that the waste from your building drains (sinks, showers, toilets) goes into a septic tank which retains the solids and lets the effluent flow into the soils on the property.
To avoid contaminating the environment, including nearby wells and waterways, septic system wastewater must be treated to reduce its pathogenicity. Luckily naturally-occurring bacteria found in the septic tank and drainfield soils accomplish this task - as long as the septic system is working properly.
In a standard septic tank and drainfield system, about 40% of the treatment of sewage wastewater occurs in the septic tank, and the remaining 60% occurs in the drainfield trenches and surrounding soils.
Properly designed and installed private septic tank and drainfield or soakaway bed systems are functional and sanitary. Private septic systems serve more homes in the U.S. and many other countries than any other waste disposal method. But the components are costly and do not have an indefinite life.
Below in more detail we provide a LIST of the MAJOR COMPONENTS of Residential Septic Systems: Septic Tank, Drainfield, & a Description of How Septic Systems Work
Steps to Take When Buying a Home With a Septic Tank
Because of the potential repair/replacement costs involved, and because the system is buried and cannot be exhaustively inspected and tested, you want to do what you can to evaluate the condition of the septic system before you complete the purchase of the property.
Here's what to do: If you are buying a home with a septic tank and drain field, here's what you need to do, as succinctly as possible. Each of these steps is described in more detail below, and in even more detail in linked-to documents.
Steps 1 and 2 are essential. Step 3 is usually a good idea. Step 4 depends on the results of steps 1,2,3 but is usually a good idea. Step 5 is not usually done but might be necessary. Step 6 is what you do if you're being really thorough.
Synonyms for "septic system" used by the general public include septic waste system, sewage systems, and water sewage systems, even Roman sewage systems. All of these refer to onsite systems which hold and separate sewage waste from its liquid effluent which is treated further and then disposed-of by any of a variety of means which we will discuss.
At this site we also discuss special considerations for handling septic waste such as garbage disposal septic tank waste volume and what to do about it. Perform these steps in the order we list them. (For example, don't pump the tank before a loading and dye test.)
See HOME BUYER'S SEPTIC TEST for more details about steps 1, 2, 3 in this list.
The six home buying steps listed above are explained in detail at
HOME BUYER'S SEPTIC TEST
but first you might want to review the basics about septic systems at
Watch out for conflicts of interest when hiring a home inspector or a septic system inspector to examine a property before purchase. Choose an inspector who is qualified, experienced, and who will protect your interest.
Because sale of homes is a low volume high stakes deal, everyone involved feels a lot of pressure. That pressure explains why a home seller and real estate agents are very nervous about any inspector who they thinks may "rock the boat" and jeopardize their sale, though that's no excuse for putting the new home owner and occupants at risk of financial injury or worse, personal injury.
Real estate is very much a "caveat-emptor" buyer beware transaction, and the buyer is expected to perform her own due diligence. In fact, in our OPINION some of the pertinent real estate laws, while reasonable on the face of it, such as excusing an agent from liability regarding any representation of property condition, may at times encourage ... well how should we put it ... not the most honest behavior.
The concerns felt by the real estate profession may have contributed to the recent elimination of the NYS Home Inspection Advisory Board who tried monitored and advised on legislation regulating home inspectors in New York State. That news, reported by NYSAHI, was a sad step in a bad direction.
But more encouraging, in April 2012, the Code of Ethics for Home Inspectors for the State of New York, Title 19 NYCRR, now includes this text:
That provision means that inspectors can't pay realtors for referrals. The fly in the ointment of that salve is that nothing prevents a realtor from "steering" a home buyer to inspectors whom the agent knows will soft-soap or under-report concerns at a property. All it takes is a list or a wink and a nod when naming names.
That is why we have long held that folks buying a home should obtain inspection services from experts who have absolutely no relationship with others in the transaction and who are referred by independent sources such as professional home inspector associations or friends or neighbors. In our OPINION real estate agents and even lawyers for whom real estate closings are a significant part of their business should only refer their clients to independently-maintained lists of inspectors and never to their own lists or friends.
The New York State Association of Home Inspectors (NYSAHI) considers placement by a realtor (or attorney) on a list of "preferred providers" constitutes a referral, as do oral or un-written referrals as well.
Watch out: septic system inspections are not included in typical state home inspector regulations and laws, even if the inspector was also performing a home inspection at the time. In essence, as of 2012, ancillary property inspection and testing services such as septic inspection and testing and environmental inspections and testing are not covered by home inspection regulations.
A home inspector or a septic system inspector cannot tell you whether or not you should buy a property. But s/he is expected to tell you about conditions that are dangerous, things that need near-term expensive repair or replacement (like a septic tank or drainfield if that inspection is performed), and about things you need that just don't work at an acceptable level of safety and reliability. An inspector who skips those items didn't do such a great job.
It would be unusual for the cost of repairs to be such a big portion of purchase price that a buyer should not proceed with the purchase. But a buyer needs to know what repairs are needed now and in the near future, what condtions are unsafe, and what conditions are causing rapid costly damage to the property - that's how the buyer can make a financially responsible financial plan, know how much money is needed, and know the priority of how to spend repair dollars.
Perhaps if enough cases of deception, manipulation, soft-soaping, or ms-representation by inspectors who are plagued by conflicts of interest reach the courts, those who are not moved by ethics will be moved by the law, and by the cost of failing to protect their putative clients.
SEPTIC SYSTEM COMPONENTS - the Basic Parts of a Conventional Septic Tank and Leachfield
Our sketch of a typical septic tank and drainfield (below) illustrates how waste moves from the building to the septic tank and how liquid waste is ultimately treated and disposed-of in the leachfield or drainfield.
The purpose of a septic system is to retain solid waste in the tank and to dispose of effluent waste water into the ground without contaminating the environment.
To accomplish this a septic system consists of the elements shown in the sketch above. In simplest terms, a septic system consists of a holding tank which retains solid waste and grease from household waste water, and an absorption system or "leach field" which disposes of liquid wastewater or "effluent" which leaves the septic tank for absorption below ground into soils at the property.
Let's just outline these main septic system parts in a little more detail:
Continue reading at HOME BUYER'S SEPTIC TEST or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
Suggested citation for this web page
Green link shows where you are in this article series.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: we are buying a home with a septic tank and know nothing about it. The home looks well maintained. Should we get the septic system inspected?
We are in process of buying a home with a septic system. Your information has been quite helpful. We know NOTHING of septic systems. I'm trying to figure out what kind of system it is, we've been told it's not aerobic so by default does that mean it's anaerobic? We know it was pumped 7 months ago and that the owner of 3 yrs has never had any problems. The house, built in 1986, is VERY well maintained as attested to by our home inspector. Fortunately I have a lifelong friend that lives on the same street so she's told me about her system, etc., but I'm not sure ours is the same. What concerns should we have? Should we absolutely get it inspected? I'd appreciate any advice. - Stephani S. DFW -Texas
Reply: yes, absolutely.
Stephani S DFW Texas
There are serious health and safety risks involved as well as possibly expensive repairs needed.
In the article above, at "Steps to Take When Buying a Home With a Septic Tank" we tell you what is recommended.
The basic approach includes asking questions, a visual inspection of the home and site, and then depending on what we learn, an escalating series of inspections or tests, depending on what is discovered at each step.
Question: there are septic smells at a property I'm buying. The realtor says they're going to replace the distribution box, pump the septic tank, and put in a "bio kit" - will anything good come from this?
I'm trying to buy a home in Vt. And I noticed a septic smell while walking around the property as I look down there's a stream of black water running. The owner called his septic people to check out the problem. This is the response from his realtor. "They replaced the dbox, pumped the field and put in a bio kit. They will come back in a week to see how its doing!" I'm not sure what I should view this. Anything good from this kind Sir? - Jack Garlin
Reply: not much.
Jack, the realtor is someone with a conflict of interest and not a person on whom you can rely to protect your interest, money nor safety when you are the buyer of a home. Even a well intentioned real estate agent in the case you describe will not know the condition of the system, will not warrant you at all about the future usability of the system, and is not held legally responsible for property conditions.
Pumping the septic tank gives the septic drainfield a few days off from having to absorb septic effluent. That might, for a few days, diminish the septic odor - fooling you into thinking everything is OK.
Fixing a bad distribution box is a good repair in that if the old box was routing all of the septic effluent into say (making this up as an example) just one septic drainfield trench, leaving three other trenches un-used, the overloaded trench will quickly fail. By routing effluent into all of the septic drainfield trenches we reduce the load on the bad trench and might get more life out of the system. It depends ... on the age of the system, soil conditions, and condition of the other trenches. You could ask the septic contractor what they found and what they recommend. The contractor won't want to make the realtor and seller mad by ratting them out, but you could point out that you are moving in and would be his new customer.
Question: Question: Septic system distances: I'm planning a garden at a property with an aerobic septic system and aerators. How far away should I plant? Aerobic septic system with aerators and sprinkler heads
I am buying a property in Forney, Texas that has an aerobic septic system. I believe the system has aeraters (sprinkler heads) in the back of the property. I want to have a vegetable garden and some fruit trees planted. How far away should I plant from the aeration field? - Marylin
What is the distance requirements from the septic to home and well to home? - Katie
Good question Marilyn and forgive that this sounds a bit glib, that's not intended - my OPINION is that you want your garden far enough away to not pick up septic effluent. That depends on soil properties - how water flows through the soil, as well as ground slope and of course the distance that the sprinklers actually spray. I'd allow for wind-blown effluent overspray too.
Take a look at PLANTS & TREES OVER SEPTIC SYSTEMS for added details.
Katie there is not a fixed distance from home (the structure itself) to septic tank nor to distance from home to a water well. For example a typical minimum recommended distance between septic tank and the structure is ten feet but some states allow five and others, 100. The maximum distances are set in part by terrain.
But what you should also be asking is what are the required distances between septic system components and other site features such as wells, streams, lakes, etc. For example required distances between a septic tank and a private well is typically 50 feet but varies up to 100 feet in some states.
Question: My septic inspector found evidence of a partly flooded drainfield - is that a septic failure?
We are buying a home and the inspector said there are 5in of water in vent pipe in seepage area. does this mean it's failing? - Lady
Lady I'm guessing you mean that an inspection pipe in a septic drainfield is showing five inches of water. Standing water in the drainfield would be evidence of drainfield failure. Now there could be a surge of water if a test was being run, but if the level was remaining static in the standpipe, the system is flooded and in failure. In my opinion.
Thanks for your response! I can only hope you read this one soon. Well, we are having quite a dilemma. The letter says that it has capacity of 1000 gal, and was at normal level, baffles are intact (although bill says baffle replaced), "vent pipe in seepage area had 5 inches of water in it," "ground at end of leach field had fractures between the trees...cause unknown." No drain back from leach field. No ponding at this time. "Operating under saturated conditions." "was a time several years ago where saturation on surface."
Lady a few clues are evident from your comments.
Thank you for making me feel sane. And, yes, the system had been pumped for the test. I am glad to know that I'm at least asking the right questions. We had planned to talk with the county tomorrow to find out more, but at least I don't feel like such an idiot now. I keep feeling like people think I'm making this up to complain about it, and I'm not sure why it's a surprise to anyone, especially since it was built in 1972.
You sound sane to me, but I add that most people don't buy a new home often, so they are at a bit of an experience disadvantage vis-a-vis other players in the transaction such as real estate agents, attorneys, inspectors who have other interests.
Question: My septic inspector failed the septic drainfield during wet conditions after Hurricane Irene; the owner disputes the results and may have added something to the fields to try to "pass" the system. Whom can I trust?
My inspector failed the drain field on a house that I wish to purchase yesterday September 6. 2011. On August 30th was the first inspection which was a few days after Hurricane Irene. The inspector said the tank needed a clean out. Our inspector recommended waiting until Saturday for the field to dry out due to the excessive rain from the Hurricane.
Then the homeowner insisted on being at the inspection and wanted no one on his property so he pushed the inspection to one full week since he was on vacation. In the meantime the tank was cleaned out. It again rained the night before and day of the inspection of the tank and field.
Our inspector failed the field. The homeowner who claims he went to school for septic engineering is disputing the results. He is saying that the inspector did not check the bed yesterday to see if it had drained and only looked in the tank. He claims the inspector said too much rain to test and told the homeowner and 2 witnesses that the septic should be fine, bed is far enough from house and he could test sometime in October.
Do you think the homeowner is lying and maybe adding or already added something to the septic to try to get it to pass inspection? We are debating having a different inspector return to the property. I am afraid he may hire someone he knows due to his admission of being a septic engineer. Also, can you tell if someone added something to treat the field? If you could please let us know ASAP. Thank you my whole world revolves around this issue. I have kids in school and soon no house to live in since mine is being sold in a few days. - R.F.
Reply: Caveat emptor: when buying a home you have to rely on consultants who are both competent and have no conflict of interest
A competent onsite inspection by an expert who has expertise in septic system testing usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem or answer questions about the condition of the system. That said, here are some things to consider:
Your inspector who wanted the tank pumped most likely would have asked that as an extra step in inspecting and diagnosing the system
A septic drainfield has to work even in rainy weather; indeed, however, if hurricane Irene had actually caused local area flooding, that'd be sufficiently abnormal as to decide to wait on testing
An owner who won't allow people on a property is in my experience waving a red flag of warning to watch out for a cover-up of a costly problem. I emphasize that point even though I understand that selling a home is a nervous time for the seller too.. Everyone wants everything to go smoothly. And on occasion I've seen sellers do very suspicious things not because there was really a serious issue, but because they were afraid there might be one. It's a mistake.
I agree with the owner, however, that just looking at the tank is hardly a competent inspection; however, one might see something at the tank, such as drain-back into the tank during pumpout or lost tank baffles that would be very indicative of a field failure.
In real estate law just about everywhere the courts opine that because buying a home is a major expense and because there are parties with strongly conflicting interests, a buyer who relies on representations by a seller or a real estate agent is ... well how should I say it ... being ill-advised. Details are at Conflicts of Interest at Septic System Inspections.
Home buyers are responsible for performing their own due-diligence and would be wise to rely only on advice from parties whom they are absolutely sure have no conflict of interest in the deal. Part of due diligence also involves doing your best to be sure that your advisors are not only unbiased, but competent.
In my experience and opinion, it's rare that a problem is so costly that buying the home is a mistake. It's correct, however, that the true cost of the property needs to be understood by the buyer to include the cost of necessary repairs for the property to be safe and habitable.
In sum, in the conditions you described, you would be wise to presume that on purchasing the home, at any time thereafter you are likely to face costly septic system repairs or even replacement of the drainfield; depending on the tank, its materials and conditions, there may be work there too. Age of the system, materials used, and other site clues would perhaps raise or lower the worry level but with no better data, the bottom line is unchanged.
Question: After I lived in my New House for a few months I had the Septic Inspected and it Failed - but the septic system "passed" when I made the purchase two months before. How could they sell a home with a bad septic? How could the first inspector pass and the second inspector fail my septic system?
I purchased a home in Rochester, NY in February 2012. No one had been living in the house for around six months so the bank requested $7,500 escrow. Once I lived in the house for 1-2 months I was told to get the home inspected and once passed I'd get the escrow money returned.
I got it inspected and it failed. The tanks in there are 500 and 300 gallons and are made of steel and have concrete covers. The tanks are from around 1968 when the home was built. The house was inspected and I was told it was fine. I never saw the inspection report but my lawyer did.
Do you know the NYS laws that cover this? How could they sell a home with a bad septic and how could it have passed inspection?
Company "A" Septic Tank Service inspected it on 7-5-11 and didn't note any problems. The bank then wanted it inspected again and the same company did it for them again on 12-12-11. Again nothing noted that anything was wrong with it. I was told the last time it was emptied was July, 2010.
I hired Company "B" to inspect the tanks and he failed them on 4-4-2012. He said the tanks were old and rusted and could cave in at any time and that the lines going into it were rusted and leaking. Both of these gentleman have been in this business for years and years and are know for their expertise.
Company "B" said when he went for schooling at Delhi they said that steel tanks were banned and not allowed since 1968. I believe him and trust him and feel he's looking out for my welfare and obviously Duane Marshall was looking out for the welfare of the sellers of my home.
Now what do I do? Is there a law that states it should have been changed over before the home closed? How could Company "A" pass it when Company "B" did not? I know that in two months the condition of them couldn't have deteriorated that much.
Please help. I don't know what to do or how to proceed. My lawyer seems to think I'll be lucky if I get the sellers to even cough up half of the $4,000 that Company "B" said it will take to replace it. The seller worked for and was a leader in a labor union his entire life. You can't tell me he didn't know and realized what he was selling and doing to me. I'm looking for any direction and/or help/laws to assist me?
- [Anonymous for privacy ]
A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem or evaluate the condition of a system - certainly not something I can accomplish by email. .
In my OPINION, if you did not receive an adequate or honest inspection and report of the condition of the property and its septic system before it was purchased, whomever steered you to an inspector who didn't do the job gave you very bad advice. So you may have three parties against whom you have complaint: the seller, the inspector, and the realtor.
You will want to consult your attorney again, or if necessary find one familiar with real estate law and financing, for an authoritative answer about what you can or cannot be compelled to do. Those are legal questions. My OPINION is that the terms and conditions of financing you cite are levied by the lender, your bank, and the specifics are not regulated by law. But it is my OPINION and experience that if there is a case of failure (errors and omissions) or real estate fraud, you may be entitled to some financial relief.
There is no doubt that there can be very serious conflicts of interest in real estate transactions. A home inspector or septic inspector who depends on real estate agents for referrals is serving two masters - his client (you) and the realtor (his "real" client). The inspector may not want to get in trouble with you, but s/he doesn't want to upset the real estate agent or referrals will stop. Stop dead.
In the home buyers septic system advice article above I include Conflicts of Interest at Septic System Inspections
I expect your attorney, realtor, and any other expert to confirm that there is no law in New York that would have required a property owner to replace a working, functional, steel septic tank after a certain date. However if a septic system is not working, it may violate local or state health department regulations and when that failure is discovered it would at that time require proper repairs.
At this point your priorities should not be on litigation or arguing, but rather on finding out exactly what will satisfy your lender, how to get that work performed, and how to make sure that your home and all of its systems are safe, sanitary, and functional.
Use the "Click to Show or Hide FAQs" link just above to see recently-posted questions, comments, replies, try the search box just below, or if you prefer, post a question or comment in the Comments box below and we will respond promptly.
Search the InspectApedia website
HTML Comment Box is loading comments...
Technical Reviewers & References
Composting Toilets - Books & References
Design Manuals for Septic Systems
Greywater System Books
Onsite Wastewater Disposal Books