How to Buy, and Live in, a House with a Septic System.

Just about every house in the San Francisco Bay Area is connected to a public sewer system. Of all the homes I’ve sold, only three have had a septic system. The first time I helped someone with a septic system, I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated. After three transactions I am by no means an expert, but I’ve found they aren’t as scary as I once thought they were. And, with the economy improving and clients looking at purchasing vacation property out in the country, it’s probably worthwhile to run through the logistics here on the blog so you know a little more about what to expect. Here it goes…

A septic system has two main components — a tank and a network of perforated drain lines commonly referred to as a “leach field.” In the simplest explanation possible, as sewage runs into the tank the “solids” go to the bottom and the liquids slowly fill the tank. Inside the tank is bacteria which breaks the solids down to eventually turn them into liquids. When the tank is full, the liquids flow out a port in the top of the tank and into the leach field to be absorbed by the surrounding soil. Like I said, I’m making this extremely basic. For greater detail, Wikipedia has a great article on septic systems here.

Septic systems are pretty simple, but one of the issues with it being so simple (not to mention the fact that people don’t like to deal with “smelly things”) is the idea that if it’s out of sight it’s out of mind. Depending on how much it’s used, it’s a good idea to budget having a septic system serviced every 2-5 years. Servicing is, basically, the same process as hiring an inspector to test it when you buy the house. So let’s talk about testing, and servicing, now.

A septic test isn’t cheap. The base price, in my experience, is about $850. There’s a couple of add-ons with that price, though. The inspector has to be able to access the tank, and to do that they have to be able to remove the lids on the top of the tank. For reasons unknown to me (it doesn’t seem very smart…), most people bury the lids for their septic tank. Of the three systems I’ve seen in my transactions, one was buried in a lawn and another was buried in the soil next to a driveway. If the inspector has to dig out the lids you’ll get to pay for it by the hour, and their hourly rate is normally between $90-100. The other add-on happens if the tank hasn’t been serviced in a while and the solids are, well, solid in the bottom of the tank. If the inspector has to “break up” the solid waste in order to completely drain the tank, they will charge an additional $200.

The test, itself, is pretty simple. They remove the lids, drain the tank, check the interior and the connections, and do a 30-minute flood test on the leach lines. If no components look broken, and if no water runs back into the tank from the flooded leach lines, that’s considered a pass. For the most part, if there’s going to be a problem, it’s most likely to be in the leach lines.

Leach lines are perforated pipes that start at a level that’s three feet underground and extend out from the tank and down so they drain. They are buried in a mixture of gravel and sand to assist in releasing the water into the surrounding soil. As water builds up in the lines it soaks into the gravel, eventually into the soil, and ultimately becomes part of the groundwater. Because a leach field is normally (you guessed it) in a field, it’s pretty common for leach lines to have trouble with tree roots. If roots get tangled up in your leach lines, that line will likely need to be replaced, which involves excavation of the old line and replacement with a new one — a multi-thousand dollar repair.

So a few, random pointers about acquiring a house with a septic system:

  • Most owners know they need to have their septic system serviced every 2-5 years, but VERY few actually do it. During your contingency period, ask the seller for a copy of the invoice from the last time they had the system serviced. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, chances are they haven’t had it done.
  • Ask your agent if they have a referral for someone to dig out the lids if they are buried, and have that person show up the day before the test. Paying a gardener to dig a hole costs a lot less than paying the septic inspector.
  • Many times, a buyer will ask a seller the logistics of their septic system, including how many gallons the tank is (1500 gallons is the baseline tank), how many leach lines they have (normally between two and three) and how long they are (normally 50-100 feet in length). You can ask the seller, but if the system was installed decades ago they may not remember. An easy way around that is this: during your inspection period, ask the seller to go to the city or county (wherever they would file a building permit) and get a copy of the permit for the septic system. Armed with that info, bring that to your septic inspection and ask the inspector what he or she thinks. Is this system is an acceptable size for this structure? Would you be able to add another bathroom if you wanted to? He or she is not an engineer, but their feedback can be invaluable.
  • Remember that a septic system that’s good for one family may not be good for another. For example, if a house in the country is purchased from an older couple by a young family of five, that’s likely to be a 3-4x increase in the amount of use. It’s a good idea to get the inspector’s feedback on how the additional dishes, showers and laundry could affect a system if your use seems likely to increase.
  • Try to be there for the inspection. Most inspection reports only call out items that are “acceptable” or “unacceptable,” but the inspector will give you a lot more insight if you meet them in person and get them talking.

Be aware that all of the things we’re not supposed to put down the sewer system are ESPECIALLY bad in a septic system. You’ll want to limit the amount of food waste that goes down the kitchen disposal, and never put anything down the toilet that isn’t biodegradable (like paper towels, etc.). Lastly, you’ll need to use household detergents that are environmentally friendly. The reason is simple; the system’s ability to break down solid waste is dependent on bacteria. If you use bleach-based dishwasher or laundry detergents that kill bacteria, you’ll soon have a problem with solid waste in the tank.

Lifestyle Real Estate Services has worked with a couple of great septic companies, both here in the East Bay as well as out in the Central Valley. We are happy to refer you to one if you would like, just send us a message and let us know.