It’s in your best interest to have the system inspected by a professional inspector, even if you are hiring a home inspector. A home inspector will assess the condition of visible plumbing in the home, but will not conduct a detailed assessment of the septic system itself.
Most inspectors routinely conduct a dye test. This involves injecting a fluorescent dye into the septic system. If the dye shows up on the surface of the ground above the drainfield, the septic system is failing.
You should also ask for an “open pit test.” This test involves pumping out the tank and removing the dirt that covers the top of the tank and distribution line. Mirrors or video cameras are then lowered into the tank so that it can be thoroughly inspected. While not inexpensive, this test is the only way to determine the condition of the holding tank. Since a new septic system can run as much as $15,000, this test is worth the cost.
While the inspector is onsite, also ask if the septic system meets current code requirements. And, be sure to discuss your water usage needs to determine if the system is up to the task.
A septic certification is a written document stating that an onsite sewage disposal system has been inspected and found to be in satisfactory condition according to established standards. It identifies the approximate location, size and configuration of the system components. It is not a warranty that the system will function properly over a period of time in the future.
Buying a house with a septic system
It’s a good idea to clarify whether the home is hooked to a public sewer or if it uses a septic system. In most areas, sellers are required to disclose a septic system. But, they may not disclose much about the condition of the system, unless you ask.
If a septic system exists, find out as much information as you can about the system. Here are some questions to ask the current owners:
What is the age of the system?
A properly maintained septic system will last about 25 years.
Has the system been maintained regularly?
Find out if the system has been pumped regularly and about any repairs that have been made. Also ask for the name and phone number of the septic system service company. Call the septic company and ask how the system has been maintained and if any problems exist.
What is the water capacity?
Septic systems have a maximum water capacity. If your water usage is greater than the usage that the septic system is designed to handle, you’ll have to consider cutting back on water use or upgrading the septic system.
Is it up to code?
Septic systems must meet strict codes to comply with environmental safety and health standards. These codes have become more stringent in recent years. So, a septic system installed to code years ago may now require an upgrade to meet current requirements.
If the septic system needs an upgrade, it’s best to know before closing and to negotiate the upgrade as part of the sale. A motivated seller might be willing to give you a monetary credit to pay for the upgrade. Or, the seller may be willing to upgrade the septic system as a contingency of the sale.