Buying or Selling a Home with a Septic System-What you Should Know

Pamela Cloud, Coldwell Banker Preferred Media Pa.

If you are looking to buy or sell a home on an acre or more in Delaware or Chester county, chances are the property will be served by an on-lot septic system. Next to a new roof, a septic system is one of the most expensive components of your home.  Because it can’t be seen and it’s been “working fine,
it’s often the last thing people think about. It’s also one of the first things that can kill a real estate transaction.

Home with a septic system
Septic system in back of home.

When it comes to real estate transactions, the less  surprises the better,  which is why I advocate proactive planning on all levels, and especially when it comes to septic systems.

If you are selling a home with a septic system, knowing its condition  before you list   makes a huge difference in how you market and price your property and who you market to.

If you are buying a home with a septic system, knowing its condition prior to writing an agreement will save you weeks of inspection time–or just spare you from a property all together. In my experience, the biggest issue for buyers and sellers with regard to septic systems is the uncertainty involved due to the time needed to test, design and install a system.

Like other inspections on the Pennsylvania Agreement of Sale, the septic inspection is an optional inspection elected by the buyer.  Unlike a home inspection, it may take longer to get on the calendar of a reliable inspector, simply because there fewer of them.  A septic inspection can range from $250 to $1000, depending on the system.  Some buyers may balk at spending the additional money. However, considering a simple repair can cost $250 and a replacement can cost upwards to $30,000, it is money well spent. This is also why, as a seller, you are giving the buyer a valuable gift when you present the buyer with a property that has been pre-inspected. You are also saving yourself from weeks of preventable stress once you’ve received an offer on your property.

Septic Tanks
A septic system has many components–all underground. Pictured here: a newly installed system: holding tanks, pump and piping leading to the drain field.

For most systems, there are multiple components to a septic inspection: 1) the tank and its parts are inspected to make sure they are in good order 2) a probe of the drain field and 3) if warranted, a hydraulic load test. There are as many inspections as there are septic systems. In the interest of brevity, and because I am not a septic expert, I am keeping this as simple as possible. According to the Pennsylvania Agreement of Sale, the seller is responsible for identifying and providing access to the system. The septic  inspection also differs in that the seller is responsible for any pumping (if required) and returning the yard to its previous condition.

Some sellers have their system cleaned before they list their property. It is important to note that having a system cleaned is not the same as having a system tested. In fact, having a system cleaned may hinder an inspection. If you are considering this, call a reliable inspector or trusted Realtor first!

Drain Field
This is what a drain field looks like. A long trench, filled with pipes running the length of the field, covered by crushed stone, then covered with soil.

If the system passes, that’s great and the deal can move forward. If it fails, negotiations can become tenuous for both buyer and seller.  A “failed” system can still work fine; it just means that the system is not performing to testing standards.

 “Failing,” typically refers to the hydraulic load test, which measures the absorption rate by introducing water into the system over a period of time and measuring how long it takes to absorb into the ground.

Once the system has been identified as “failed,”  the buyer can terminate or ask for a repair or replacement. Many buyers  assume the seller is required to replace a failed system. However, like everything else, this is a negotiable term.

If the seller accepted a low offer on the property, they may not be inclined to install a new system, or they may not have the means to do so. A seller may further reason that once the system is replaced, the home will become more marketable and will be worth more money.  Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

The buyer may point out that a septic system is just another utility, like electricity or water, and should be in acceptable working order.  Accordingly, if the septic system is not replaced, the seller goes back to square one, with the failed system added to the selle’s disclosure and potentially pushing the sale out another 45-60 days. So, it may be in the seller’s best interest to replace the system.  As you can see, there is no one “right” answer and the solution needs to be worked out and agreed to by each party to the transaction.

The Pennsylvania Agreement of Sale provides contingencies at each step. It is important to read and understand your rights and responsibilities under the contract or be working with someone who does.

Replacing a septic system is not as simple as repairing a window or replacing a roof. Before an estimate can be obtained, perc and soil tests need to be performed. These tests require permits from the local health department.  It is the seller’s responsibility to apply for the permit and hire a licensed septic contractor to perform the tests. A health official must be present, and in a busy real  estate market, this process can take two weeks or more. Once the tests have been completed, a plan can be designed for seller and buyer review and  approved by the proper governmental authorities. This can take another week or more. All the while, the clock is ticking on other contingencies on the Agreement of Sale. Buyers and sellers need to be cognizant of their responsibilities and other contract contingencies during this time.

With information in hand, the seller can decide whether to replace the system.  Assuming both parties are in agreement, the  work can start.  Installation follows, and if the weather cooperates, the job can be completed and approved in a week or so.

It is important to note that the length of the septic system contingency is unlike any other in the Agreement of Sale because the steps listed above can easily exceed the 45-60 day escrow period.  The uncertainty is caused by the protracted nature of the septic process where neither the buyer nor the seller know whether the deal is moving forward.  So, while there are a lot of great things about septic systems (and many systems test fine), buyers and sellers need to understand that time and patience are essential. Being flexible with settlement dates is not always easy when you consider rate locks, school or job start dates or the settlement of other properties.

Disclaimer: This content of this article and website is for informational purposes only and should not be used in lieu of a qualified  professional or governmental authority.

Joe Walls and team in front of completed job awaiting final inspection by the township inspector.
Joe Walls and team in front of completed job awaiting final inspection by the township inspector.

If you are considering listing your home, now is the perfect time for a pre-sale  consultation with a licensed septic contractor or full inspection by a licensed inspector. If your system fails and it needs to be replaced, it would be wise to have the appropriate tests performed and get a design, if possible.

Even if you are not able to replace your system, you will be giving yourself and your future buyer valuable information that will aid in everyone’s decision-making, reducing the uncertainty that can cloud a transaction.

Like any other repair to your home, if you decide to install a new septic system, doing it before you list your property keeps you in control of the timing and terms, without the pressure of the dates and timeframes outlined in the Agreement of Sale. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and being proactive will enable you to move forward selling your home with one less worry.

As a Delaware County/Chester county area expert, more than 50% of my clients have bought or sold homes with septic systems. If you are thinking of buying a home with a septic system or listing your home with a septic system, choose an agent with experience in this area.  Contact me today to arrange a no-obligation consultation!

Many thanks to Joseph Walls for his expertise and his team and the homeowner for allowing me to photograph this newly installed system!

Pamela Cloud is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Preferred in Media, Pa. (office: 610-566-1100) with experience selling homes with septic systems. If you are thinking of buying or selling a home, please contact Pam directly 484-883-8231 or pcloud@cbpref.com

4 thoughts on “Buying or Selling a Home with a Septic System-What you Should Know

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    1. Louis, I changed the buttons so now you should be able to “reblog” this on your owns site and write your own introduction. If you can’t publish my post in its entirety with photos and full credit. and a link back to my site, then probably better to take it down. Thank you.

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  1. Thanks for bringing to my attention that the seller is responsible for any septic tank pumping necessary. My husband and I are going to be putting our house up for sale soon, and I’m pretty sure the septic tank is about ready for pumping. We’ll definitely look into having someone come and do that before we list our home so it’s taken care of.

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    1. Lillian, thank you for your comment. Please note that this article was written with respect to the Pennsylvania Agreement of Sale as written in 2013. It looks like you are from Nebraska. You should consult a local realtor for advice regarding protocol in your area. Good luck with the sale of your home! Pam

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