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Rural Buyer Beware: Examine Your Private Well and Wastewater System

Many people dream of one day owning a place in the country. However this could turn into a nightmare if you know little or nothing about the private well and wastewater system in your purchase. Is the water adequate or of poor quality? How will you dispose of your wastewater safely? Unlike city dwellers, rural homeowners are usually responsible for their water and wastewater systems.

Prospective buyers must become aware about the terrain, the proximity of the house to other structures, and the condition of the existing well and septic system. Building foundations may become unstable from high ground water levels or from excess surface runoff. Therefore, it makes good sense to investigate all aspects of the property. Many rural counties may not have such building codes, so an existing dwelling may not meet standards or may never have been inspected during its construction.

I have heard a few horror stories from homeowners about their purchase of a country home. After moving to their new home, they find that their well and/or wastewater system needs to be replaced, costing them tens of thousands of dollars. One friend of mine bought a house where a sinkhole later appeared. After several years of problems, he was lucky to sell the property at a loss of many thousands of dollars. There have even been instances where the house was subdivided from a larger tract, and the well and wastewater system were not included.

A trend is emerging in today's rural real estate market. Buyers are beginning to assess environmental conditions, including both private drinking water and their wastewater systems as well as such problems as sinkholes or abandoned wells, before investing in property.

In response to consumers' concerns, numerous states are beginning to require various types of inspections for property transactions. Failure of a seller to disclose known problems can be grounds for legal action by the buyer. Both seller and realtor can become liable if they do not fully mention such problems. With that thought in mind, all statements and evaluations must be committed to paper, signed, and kept for future reference.

If you are a buyer, you must carefully examine what you are purchasing. An assessment protects your investment so that when you sell your property you have no rude surprises. In years to come such property transfer assessments will likely be the rule rather than the exception. It is critical you make an accurate evaluation before you buy.

Most people buying a house with private water supply and wastewater system have no clue about what to expect. This applies particularly to those who have always lived with municipal water and sewer services. Even though an assessment may have taken place and been completed, in the flurry of closing sometimes the report is not presented until the last minute, and buyers do not fully understand the ramifications of the report. If the buyer has a savvy real estate agent, familiar with rural properties, the agent should read the report and advise his client before closing. Without such counsel, the new owner may have to pay a lot of money for a new well or a septic system, or to properly plug an old well.

Researching the status of the property's water and wastewater system is in your best interest. Avoidance of liability by full disclosure, protection of property value and identifying environmental impacts are all reasons to inspect your systems. In the inspection process, homeowner education becomes essential so you understand not only what kinds of systems are in place, yet how they operate and must be maintain.

Water System

Some questions to ask about your water system include:
  • Does the well cap or casing have any cracks or holes?
  • Is the well being grouted and secured from surface water pollution?
  • How far down does the well casing go and how deep is your well? (Request of copy of the drilling log.)
  • Are there any abandoned wells that have not been properly plugged? (Abandoned wells are direct route for contaminants to reach your groundwater.)
  • Do you get water from a spring? (Springs have a greater risk for contamination from surface activities around them.) Is your spring protected from surface contamination?
  • Was the water supply built more than 50 years ago?
  • When was this water last tested for nitrates and bacteria?
  • Was the water sample tested for chlorine before collection? (You may wish to have a clause in the contract about testing the water three months after the sale in case your bacterial water sample was microwaved to kill microbes.)
  • Is your wellhead secured?
  • Is the set back distance for both your well and wastewater 100 feet or more?
  • Is this water source located downhill from any potential pollution sources?
  • Is this source located closer to pollution sources than recommended?
  • Is it possible that contaminants siphon back into the water supply system?

Wastewater System

It is important to evaluate the wastewater system, since it may cost you up to twenty thousand dollars to replace. Unoccupied properties present a special problem. Other than visible damage, there is no way to verify that an unused system does or does not function properly. Evidence of hydraulic failure is not apparent. In those cases, the buyer should require that enough money to cover repairs be placed in escrow for at least 6 months, put the system into use, and see how it goes.

Also, inspection of all facets of the wastewater system may be necessary. Finding where the septic tank is just one of the many challenges since it may be buried and hard to uncover. What is tank's volumes, composition (metal, concrete, plastic, or fibreglass), as well as all facets of its structure. If it is metal then it may be corroding. Is the tank lid properly sealed? What are the conditions of the T's, and baffles? Also the absorption or drainfield must be checked. Some inspections require a "stress test" to see how well the drainfied performs.

Some questions to ask about your wastewater system include:
  • Is there adequate drain field capacity for the septic system?
  • What is its age, type of system, record of any upgrades or repairs?
  • Has it been longer than three to five years since this septic tank was cleaned out?
A failed wastewater system can threaten public health and water quality though direct or indirect contact between sewage and people. Certain things should alert you to potential problems:
  • The use of a chamber, holding tank, or collecting system that needs to be pumped when full.
  • Sewage discharging to the ground surface or to an old well.
  • Slowly draining water from toilet and sinks.
  • Evidence of sewage backing up into a structure (caused by slow soil absorption of septic tank effluent).
  • Smelly, muddy areas (caused by sewage oozing to ground surface).
Poor installation and construction of onsite septic systems is something that may be important in your purchasing decision. Also improper maintenance of septic systems is a major reason for wastewater system failure. Be aware that conventional septic systems usually have a useful life of no more than 30 years, depending upon a combination of factors.

Private Well Testing Act

In 2002, New Jersey passed the Private Well Testing Act; it is illustrative of emerging laws. This act requires landlords of certain properties to test certain private drinking-water wells once a year and provide results to tenants. Beginning in March 2003, private well testing for bacteria (total coliform), nitrate, iron, manganese, pH, volatile organic compounds, lead and possibly other parameters is required in the contract for sale of new properties. This applies to private wells, defined as having as having less than 15 service connections or of serving less than 25 individuals per day. In addition, the closing of title on the sale of property shall not occur unless the buyer and seller have received and reviewed a copy of the water test results.

States Examine Decentralized Wastewater Systems

The following question was posed in a recent survey conducted by National Small Flows Clearinghouse, a part of the National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities (www.

"Does your state have a pre-sale inspection protocol for onsite wastewater systems during property transfers?"

Below are some of the responses:
  • In Idaho the lending institutions require a home loan survey or mortgage survey of the water and sewer system. For wells and septic systems the local district health department (for a fee) performs this survey. Wells are sampled for bacteria (all) and nitrates (some). Faucets are run for 30 minutes to test the well for capacity. The septic tank and drain field permits and applications are reviewed in the office and on location or as-built drawings are brought to the home for the parcel review. While the well production test is in progress the drain field and septic tank locations are evaluated. Lending institutions also require proof of having the tank pumped within the last 3 years. No proof, in the form of a pumper receipt, then the tank is pumped out at the expense of the owner and the pumper provides a comment on the condition of the tank on the receipt. All information is given to the seller (typically the one who pays for the survey), who in turn provides to the bank. Occasionally information is turned directly over to the lending institution.
  • In Iowa, some counties that have time-of-transfer inspection ordinances typically require sellers or realtors to have the inspection done prior to the sale of the property. The inspection is either performed by county staff or private contractors, depending upon the county. Some counties require that the septic tank be pumped as part of the inspection, whereas some do not. If the system needs to be repaired or replaced, most counties allow the responsibility to be borne by either the seller or the buyer of the property. If properties don't get inspected until after the property transfer, then the buyer is responsible for the inspection and required work on the system.
  • In Louisiana, the seller of the home will contact the local parish office. The parish office will determine if the system in question was ever permitted, and if so will check to see what type of system was installed. If no permit is found then the system will have to be replaced with a permit able system. These steps are done before closing. The Department of Environmental Protection generates a letter that is presented at closing.
  • In Massachusetts all onsite systems must be inspected by a state certified inspector.
  • In Nebraska this property transfer is voluntary and is normally performed only when requested by the lender. The State Health Department will inspect the well and septic system and take a water sample for $100.
  • Finally in Oklahoma the property transfer is performed if requested by the lending institutions. There is no a state regulation that requires the inspections.
The need for inspections prompted by legal action as forced numerous states to adopt either training program for inspectors, specific certification and third party review. Plumbers, home inspectors, onsite designers and/or installers, engineers, and septic system pumpers are these third party inspectors. Because of liability concerns, twenty states provide inspectors working with local, state environmental and health agencies. However, there is no national uniform or consistent inspection process.

These are just a few examples of what some states are doing regarding inspections of water and wastewater systems during the transfer of property.

Caveat Emptor

As more and more people purchase rural property, the need to evaluate both the water supply and wastewater systems becomes more important. This is especially true as people invest their savings in property instead of the stock market.

More and more consumers are demanding increased accountability of what is being bought. Banks and lending institutions are becoming proactive in requiring property examination of private water and wastewater systems since it is in their best interest. If you, as a buyer, wish some comfort level with your purchase, investigate some sort of environmental property assessment or escrow account options. While they are no standards procedures for inspection of rural homes, more uniform approaches are warranted to identify the environmental and public health aspects of such property transfer. This may result as more consumers demand such environmental clarification.

"Caveat emptor" - you may be buying some future liabilities. Protect your assets when you purchase rural property by finding out exactly what you're paying for.

Copyright Rob Arner - All Rights Reserved.
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