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Septic tank schematic (C) Carson Dunlop AssociatesHome Buyer's Septic System FAQs
Questions & Answers on Buying a Home With a Septic Tank

  • HOME BUYERS SEPTIC SYSTEM FAQs - CONTENTS: questions & answers about buying a home with a septic tank & leachfield, what tests should be performed, what inspections are useful or useless, where the risks and trouble may lie hidden from a home buyer when the property has a new, abandoned, old or unknown-condition septic system tank and soakbed or seepage field.
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs & advice about buying a home with a private septic system
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Questions & answers on how to check out the septic system when buying a home.

These questions address some of the most common problems that come up when you are buying a home or other building served by a private or on-site septic system: typically a septic tank and soakbed or drainfield. There are questions about valid and in-valid septic inspections and tests, the right order of inspecting and testing, and where you may get into or avoid both trouble and surprise expenses.

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. The drawing of a conventional two-compartment septic tank at page top and discussed in this article was provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.



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FAQs About Buying a Home with a Septic Tank & Soakbed or Leach Field

Illustration of a conventional septic system including tank, D-box, and distribution field.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

Even at a well maintained home it would be a mistake to assume that a buried system such as" we link to some basic information you will want to read.

You should not buy a property with a septic system without some due diligence in discovering just what is installed and what clues or tests indicate that the system is or is not likely to be functional.

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.

Putting in a "bio kit" on a failed septic system is sort of a pig-in-a-poke. I am guessing that someone is adding an aerator to an existing septic tank. The aerator can improve the level of treatment of the septic effluent, thus reducing (but not eliminating) the degree to which effluent discharged from the tank contaminates the environment.

And depending on septic tank design, the aerator might, by keeping septic tank contents agitated in a single compartment tank, actually speed the destruction of the drainfield by pushing solids out into the drainfield.

If the present septic system is in failure mode - that is, effluent is not being handled by the drainfield, symptoms include odors and smells on the property. Even if the odors are diminished by some means, by no means has that "fixed" the failed drainfield. Expensive repairs are likely to be in your near future.

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

Reply:

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.

So I'm afraid that an arbitrary number like 20 feet would be just arm-waving speculation, and an absolutely safe number like 100 feet may be overkill. Details about recommended planting distances from septic fields for trees, shrubs, and gardens are given at PLANTS & TREES OVER SEPTIC SYSTEMS.

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.

You can find all septic system component clearance distances in a table at the article titled SEPTIC CLEARANCE DISTANCES

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

Reply: Yes.

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.

Follow-up comment:

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."

Here's my concern. I don't know a ton about septic systems (although after this week, I could site laws in 5 states and name each component to you). But, everything I see is saturated=failing. And, if it failed it past (saturation on surface) and hasn't been fixed (it hasn't), and is currently saturated but operating...is that really right?

To me, that would be a failing system or a defect in the septic. Saturated + pooling in past + dry weather/saturated now.

But, their realtor and our realtor just want the letter to be "reworded" to sound better. When I spoke with the technician who did the review, he said, I should be good to have no back up in house, but it could be a problem if I ever needed a permit and health dept came out.

My thought would be to have a 2nd opinion, but my realtor feels the test passed. I also feel like the history of previous surface saturation would qualify as a defect, which wasn't on disclosure.

Can you help me understand what I am missing? I really like the house and don't want to be a pain, but it isn't adding up?

Reply:

Lady a few clues are evident from your comments.

"baffle replaced" - the previous baffle, whose job is to keep solids in the septic tank, had failed enough to need replacement. By the time it's noticed and repaired, solids have most likely been flowing to the drainfield, adding to clogging and reducing its life.

"normal level" and "no drain back in the tank" - mean that at that MOMENT the drainfield was not so saturated that the effluent is so high that it flows backwards into the septic tank during pumpout. That does not, however, mean that no drainfield areas could be saturated or at end of life.

"Operating under saturated conditions" means the drainfield had been seen in failure mode. We don't know if the problem was local surface waters and runoff, groundwater, or purely septic effluent. That distinction will be significant in deciding what repairs are needed - we need to direct groundwater and surface runoff away from a drainfield. And when a drainfield is "saturated" it is not working, not treating effluent, and is contaminating the environment.

No ponding "at this time" is a safe way of having made the realtor happy but covered the inspector for liability. No ponding could be because of little or no use, tank pumped out to give a respite, the season of very hot dry weather, or other events that temporarily make the fields look as if they're working.

With the history that you report, the septic system has failed in the past, and as no one has reported to you that any substantial repairs (like new drainfield or found and repaired broken drainfield piping) have been performed, it has NO predictable future life. (Without actually digging up more components we don't know exactly what's wrong - a broken pipe is a minor repair compared with replacing a drainfield. The latter sounds much more likely from your description)

Your plan to buy the home would be irresponsible if it didn't include funds to repair or replace the septic system.

Comment:

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.

Reply:

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.

Real estate is a tough business; when I've witnessed court disputes the judge always has taken the position that because a buyer knows it's a big financial decision with other parties who have conflicting interests (realtors, seller, some attorneys, and some home inspectors), the judge feels that the responsibility for due diligence is on the buyer, and the judge won't accept an argument that you relied on "puffing" or obfuscation by anybody else.

I'm not advising not to buy the property - it would be very rare for me to inspect a property and find that there was absolutely nothing in need of attention. But buy with a better picture of the real cost: purchase price plus necessary repairs, and proceed accordingly.

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 ]

Reply:

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. .
That said, here are some things to consider:

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.

Question: what causes a new septic system to over flow at the distribution box?

(July 28, 2014) Anonymous said:
what causes a new septic system to over flow at the distribution box

Reply:

A broken, settled effluent line or lines on the outlet end of the D-box or an improperly-constructed field or a flooded field.

Question: home owner needs help with septic system at a new house

(Sept 4, 2014) kuldip said:
Hi i wonder if you can help me with my septic situation on new built house (18 months), total bed area is about 145ft.(N TO S) by 30ft. (E TO W), upon moving in i always saw wet spots in various places and informed builder and he said that is normal when grass grows you wont see them, i wasn't happy with answer as i felt i shouldn't see wet spots but its my 1st time using septic system so i thought hes right.

After last winter finished, upon snow cleared i saw a hole near where my septic distribution box is (found later), and now i informed the builder and the city inspector, dug around and D. box OK and done more tests and found that too much earth put on top of sand bed, so they arranged to remove 4 truck loads of gravel as the sand wasn't breathing.

After completing that and they done the grading, i am still noticing the side where D. Box is that the ground is wet, not the entire bed but from the D. box to the north 10ft. by 4ft. stays wet/moist, called in city inspector/builder/installer and done test and found sand bed close to starting from perforated pipes about (6ft away)

water starting seeping after removing gravel from top of seepage bed (which is sand covered with gravel) and done test about12ft away and no water showed any trace, they took sand away to test and now i get report sand ok, but i still have same problem, and im afraid the problem will be covered under grass and the builder say its ok,

can you help, any suggestions, who else can check if the bed system is working properly or not, please answer soon as i have meeting with them again.

(The bed is (N. S.) 115ft by 30ft (which is sand covered with gravel) and then 30ft. by 30ft. (perforated pipes buried in gravel-filled trenches) sorry about long

Reply:

KU

I'd like to help but am confused enough by the question that I have to say you'll be best served by an on-site expert such as an experienced septic engineer or installer.

Generally we do want to investigate wet areas: if it's due to leaking effluent where it should not be, that cause needs to be diagnosed and fixed.

if the wet area is not sewage effluent but groundwater, it is important to find its source and direct it away from the fields - lest we flood the field and thus reduce its life.

Question: testing an abandoned or un-used septic system

(Sept 24, 2014) R.W. said:
how do you/I test an old septic system that has been dry for several years.

Reply:

You cannot reliably test the drainfield of an un-used septic system unless the septic tank is first full (as it might be) - so it's necessary to first open and inspect the tank.

At that time there is additional and very important information that may be visible by looking at the conditions in the tank such as its baffles and such as signs of abnormal tank levels.

Details are at ABANDONED or NEW SEPTIC SYSTEM TESTS

Question: what's the best type of septic inspection: camera or tank pump-out?

(Sept 24, 2014) Anonymous said:
Which type of inspection is preferable? one that uses a camera to examine the pipes, etc. Or one that cleans out the tank and then visually inspects things?

They are about the same price. (the tank was pumped out a year ago and need not be pumped for another 3 years)

Reply:

Anon the two types of septic inspection you describe are very different and give different information. A scoping camera gives conditions of pipes but nothing direct about condition of the tank, baffles, D-box, nor drainfield.

An "inspection" by either means that looks only at the tank is heading you for trouble as only a part of the system - the least troublesome part - is being inspsected.

See HOME BUYER'S SEPTIC TEST

Question: how far away can the septic tank be located

(Oct 12, 2014) Anonymous said:
can I put my septic tank 100 feet from my home, or how far can I put my septic tank away from my home

Reply:

You can get to any distance necessary but you may need to use a force-main or pumping system depending on the distance and the changes in elevation from septic tank to building.

Article Series Contents

 

Home Buyers & Home Owenrs Septic System Care Articles

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