What you need to know when buying and selling a home with a septic system in Massachusetts

What you need to know when buying and selling a home with a septic system in Massachusetts

When buying and selling a home with a septic system in Massachusetts there are a few things you need to know to make sure the sale goes through.  the first thing is you may want to read the Title V Code Section and you can access is directly from the State right here!

Do I need a Title V Inspections no matter what?

No, there are exceptions.  You do not need an inspection when the house transfers title between

  1. Between current spouses;
  2. Between parents and their children;
  3. Between full siblings; and 
  4. Where the property is held in a trust.
  5. Refinancing a mortgage or similar financial instrument;
  6. Appointment of, or a change in, a guardian, conservator, or trustee;
  7. Any other change in ownership or the form of ownership where NO NEW parties are introduced (e.g., for estate planning or in a divorce);
  8. The property owner or buyer has signed an enforceable agreement with the Board of Health to upgrade the system or to connect the facility to a sanitary sewer or a shared system within 2 years following the transfer of title, provided that such agreement has been disclosed and is binding on subsequent owners;
  9. The property is subject to a comprehensive local plan of septic system inspection approved in writing by MassDEP and administered by a local or regional government; and the system has been inspected at the most recent time the plan requires.

If those exceptions don’t apply then YES, you do need a passing Title V inspection so, it may be helpful to understand how the systems can be designed and what can or cannot fail.

Basic System set-up

Just as home serviced by a city sewer system all the pipes in the house eventually go to one Main pipe and that main wastewater pipe then takes the water and the solids out of the house.  On a sewer line it goes into a city sewer pipe and then is pumped to a treatment plant where the black water, gray water and the solids are separated and treated.

For a septic system the black and gray water and solids go to a huge concrete box and once the concrete box or holding tank fills with the water and solids, the solids will sink to the bottom of the tank and remain there until professionally pumped (which is every 2 -3 years).  The water is then pushed through a “Distribution-Box (D-Box)” which distributes the water to a system of pipes that feed into a yard. 

Water disbursement from tank to yard via seepage pit

This is where the design of the systems vary and in some towns two holding tanks are required.  Once the water is ready to be disbursed into the piping system there are seepage pits or leach fields.

A seepage pit can absorb the black water also called clarified effluent and gray water.  So, the septic tank retains solids and grease, floating scum, allowing clarified effluent to enter the seepage pit for disposal into the soil.

Seepage pits are dug vertically into the ground to collect the waste water from the septic tank. Most seepage pits are built so that at least four to six feet of soil covers the top of the pit. The pit is buried so deeply into the ground, most of the waste water processing is done by anaerobic bacteria. The seepage pit is made of poured or cast concrete and is surrounded by rocks so the waste water can percolate into the ground after processing.  If a seepage pit fails, the untreated waste water will flow back into the residence.

A seepage pit requires regular inspection and pumping so the biomat at the bottom of the pit does not become too thick and prevent the permeation of treated water into the soil. Every three to five years, the seepage pit may need to be pumped (By the Way this is also recommended for all septic systems). A seepage pit is designed to receive “clarified effluent” or black water from a septic tank, or if the pit receives only graywater water then it’s called a drywell.

Gray water is water from sinks, laundry, shower, all water except the toilet. 

Definitions for clarifications

It may be helpful to define 4 terms here because sometimes when you read articles some writers use these terms as synonyms and there are distinctions that help you understand existing septic designs:

A Cesspool: is a hole in the ground, lined with site built or manufactured perforated sides / bottom that receives raw sewage, black water, including solids and liquids, allowing effluent to seep out of the cesspool into surrounding soils. There is no separate effluent disposal system.

Cistern: a holding tank above or below ground used for storing clean water for drinking or other household uses.  It has nothing to do with a septic system.

Drywell: is a hole in the ground, lined with site built or manufactured perforated sides / bottom that receives graywater or other non-sewage water such as roof drainage – so there isn’t any black water or effluent.

Seepage pit: a hole in the ground, lined with site built or manufactured perforated sides and receives liquids only (i.e. not a cesspool).

Water disbursement from tank to yard via leach field

The other way water disbursed if through a leach filed which lays horizontal in the yard.  One way to identify the location is now there is a vent pipe required so, this is where the pipe lie in the yard. 

Just as a pit the leach filed or drainage field is a network of perforated pipes that are laid in underground gravel-filled trenches to dissipate the effluent from a water-based collection and storage/treatment or (semi-)centralized treatment technology. They allow for a further treatment of the effluent and to recharge groundwater bodies.

The main thing to understand is that no matter the drainage system, all the designs incorporate gravel that disburses the water into soil that absorbs water and filters the water naturally before going into the watershed below all the homes.  Think of it this way, the soil in a wetland will not be able to absorb as much water as say soil in a dessert.  A lot of buyers tell me they don’t like the hump of the septic system in the yard but, the “hump” is an intrigal part of the system so if you really don’t like it then you probably need to buy a house serviced by a sewer line.

The schematic of a seepage pit (right, courtesy USDA) shows typical construction of a site built seepage pit using brick, block, or pre-cast concrete rings with open joints, surrounded by stone to improve soil absorption.

A side note is if you are buying or selling a house with a well and septic, there are distance requirements so the two systems can operate properly. 

Title V Test

Now you know basically how systems are designed – what about the Title V test?

It is now required for the sellers to provide a passing Title V report when as and the law was changed because a lot of transactions fell apart when the septic systems failed and either the buyer or the bank did not want to move forward with the purchase so, now it is the sellers responsibility. The test is typically around $800.

The Title V tests are to be done during normal usage of the property so, toilets flushing, laundry and showers etc. however, some houses are vacant so the soil has had time to dry out so to speak and it’s hard to determine if under normal usage the system would show signs of failing. This is very important that a buyer understand this and the buyer has a contingency plan should the system fail under normal usage.

The day of the test the septic system inspection should include a discussion with the homeowner to determine the history of the system, size of the household, a review of the system permit, a tank inspection, a distribution box inspection, a drain field bed inspection, and a house inspection. Usually they charge you extra if they have to dig out the lid so be aware. 

The inspector will evaluate the tank and associated water use. No leaks or cracks can be in the tank. The inspector will dig test pits 2-3 feet down to check for signs of standing water or biomat growth for the drain field test.  The D-Box will also be inspected to insure all mechanical equipment is in good working order.  Inside the home, he will flush the toilets, run water in the sinks, and run the washing machine through a full cycle to see if the household plumbing is all going to the system and working correctly.

Reporting requirements The report takes about a week and Inspector must use the MassDEP-approved inspection form and provide the report to the governing health department within 30 days of the inspection. 

The buyer or other person acquiring title to the property served by the system must receive a copy of the inspection report.  One thing you can do as a buyer is to go to town hall to see when the initial system was installed so, you can determine if it is likely there will be problems in the future.

For sellers, often times sellers put the house on the market and have not completed the Title V test, which can be a risk as if the septic system fails it is a big expense and time delay.  Some towns take the full 90 days for review and approval as many of the towns don’t hire full –time staff or share environmental engineers for a specific region.  Then there is the installation and then the final approval which can add several weeks. 

It’s a good idea to get a few prices too because there is the cost for the engineering drawings, the permit costs and the installation costs.  For the installation costs there can really be a big range. I’ve seen everything from 11K to 30K for the same system.   Not always do sellers have the luxury to do the tile v test and then take the process slow so sometimes you just have to go with the flow.  If you are planning to move in a few years from now know that once the test is completed is valid for 2 years unless it is pumped annually and then it is valid for 3 years. After that time frame you have to re-do the test.   

Loan options and tax credits? I’m glad you asked!

If you don’t have the cash handy to repair or replace the system there is a loan program in Massachusetts participating lenders offer low-interest rates to eligible homeowners through this Massachusetts Housing Program.

Some septic installers will also be paid out of the closing proceeds but, that is part of the negotiation of the real estate agent and usually there is a document that needs to be provided by the attorney as well to secure payment.

Massachusetts Septic Tax Credit

When installing a new system there is a State tax credit The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides.  The amount changes over times and I want this blog to be timeless so, here is the link State of Massachusetts Tax Credit for Septic Systems.

One thing that drives me crazy about this Title V and septic system is the size of the system depends on the bedroom count.  Every town also has a different definitions of bedroom as well.  From a health and sanitary standpoint when I was an urban planner, a person is only required 50 sq. ft. of living space. so think about that for a second (2000 sq ft house @ 50 sq ft = 40 people)  Some have the perspective that the system is taxed by the number of occupants but I think the jury is out on that because you could have a family that has six kids and put bunk beds in the bedroom with 3 bedrooms.  It may not be just 1 person per bedroom. Right? This part is a little all over the place but at the end of the day this is what we have to work with.

Often I see a listing sheet for a home for sale 3 –bedroom septic but the sellers have converted one of the rooms into a bedroom. Se be aware of the idiosyncrasies and look at the floor plan as to how you are going to sell and buy the property.

The house is for sale and says Title V Failed

 Are houses sold with failing septic systems in Massachusetts?  The answer is yes, typically those properties are sold to contractors or developers who have plans or the means to replace the system. For example if an older home is going to be demolished and a new subdivision is built. A convential loan will not loan on a house that has a failed Title V.

Any part of the septic system can fail and if one part fails then sometimes just that individual component needs to be replaced.  Often times in Massachusetts it’s a D-Box that needs to be repaired or replaced.  It’s rare the concrete holding tank fails but the inspection does look at the box to make sure it is operating correctly.

Septic System Maintenance Tips

One of the most important steps is limiting the amount of water which can improve the operation of the septic system and reduce the risk of failure.

  • Install water-saving devices such as low flow showerheads and toilets.
  • Repair leaky faucets and toilets immediately. A leaky toilet can cause a good septic system to fail very quickly.
  • Do not put paint thinners and other chemicals in your septic system. They destroy naturally occurring microbes in your septic system which are necessary for it to function properly.
  • Keep grease, fat, and food wastes out of your septic system as much as possible.
  • Garbage disposals may not be used with a septic system unless the system has been specifically designed to accommodate a garbage disposal.
  • Don’t allow vehicles or equipment to drive over or park on the drain field. This may compact the soil and crush the piping.
  • Don’t plant anything over the disposal field except grass.
  • Don’t cover the drain field with asphalt or concrete.
  • Use septic safe toilet paper.
  • Don’t flush anything other than waste and toilet paper.

I hope this has been helpful and if you have any questions are are thinking of buying or seling a home in Massachusetts I would love to help you!

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