May 21st, 2017
Waste is a terrible thing to mind - and it's something that your homebuyers have to consider when they are looking at a home that has a septic, rather than a public sewage, system. Homebuyers may be surprised to learn that septic systems aren't limited to rural areas and small towns - cities with older neighborhoods/suburbs that were independently founded and then later absorbed by the city proper might still use septic to dispose of their waste. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, one in five U.S. households use either an individual onsite or small community system to treat their wastewater.1 Since it's likely that you and your homebuyer might encounter a septic system when house hunting, providing them with a little education goes a long way.
Septic in a nutshell
In its most basic form, waste leaves the home by way of a pipe that feeds into the septic tank, which is where, through settling and biochemical processes, the waste is separated into solids and liquids. The solids are left in one chamber of the tank where they continue to break down while the liquids (water, oil, grease, etc.) drain into a second chamber where further separation occurs. The remaining liquid is then released, through multiple pipes, into what is called a drain or leach field, where, over time, any harmful bacteria is processed and removed.2
When looked at from this perspective, the buyer's first thought is going to be, "Yuck. What is going into the ground - and the water - where I might be buying a home?" From a scientific standpoint, it is a safe, natural process - when all systems are running optimally, the water that makes it into aquifers is safe. But the two most damaging things to septic systems, like anything else, are often time and people.
Looking out for number one - the buyer
The best way for a buyer to learn about a home's septic system is from the current owner: the size of the tank, what it's made of, the age of the entire system, cleaning history, etc. While a buyer will never be able to know if an owner is doing right by their septic system in terms of what they are flushing or draining from their home (and every website on septic systems has a list of "dos and don'ts" in terms of what can and can't go into a septic tank), knowing the tank's composition (metal rusts), size (is it appropriate for the current and expected usage) and cleaning record, and the age of the leach field (which has a typical lifespan of 15-30 years3) all make for a good start.
The average home inspection only includes a superficial study - testing the drainage from the house, injecting a dye into the water to see if anything improper is getting into the leach field, checking for odors inside and outside. If a buyer is concerned about the state of the system, a more extensive inspection by a licensed septic company is in order.
Getting down to business
Who pays? That's something that needs to be negotiated between the buyer and seller and you can have baked into the contract - and it's important to know that a tank pump and test can cost a few hundred dollars while, according to HomeAdvisor, the average cost to repair a septic tank is $650-2,291, while the cost to repair a leach field checks in at $7,200-20,000.4 So, if a buyer really wants the house and the seller doesn't want to pay for the inspection, it is probably in the buyer's best interest to pay for the inspection. And, of course, if the seller is a bit too reluctant and/or combative on this point, you may find yourself following your gut and telling your buyers that something doesn't smell right.
Should a buyer stay or go?
With proper use and maintenance, a septic system will hold its integrity over the course of its intended, useful lifetime. It's also important to remember that a standard sewerage system has risks and can be costly to repair and replace (as anyone who has had to have their front yard dug up to replace a broken main can attest) if it is old, not properly used and falls into disrepair. As with all things, you can provide your buyers with this and other information, but it is up to them to do their homework and self-assessment to determine whether or not a septic system fits in with their lifestyle and housing needs.