What Realtors® need to know: Sewage systems and inspections
Kelly Leighton
Feb 5, 2016
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Residential buyers across the commonwealth who do not have public sewer service available have on-site sewage systems. As a Realtor®, it is your responsibility to be knowledgeable and be able to inform your clients what having a on-site sewage system entails.

“Buyers purchasing an existing home realistically want to know before closing what the on-site sewage system components are and where they are located,” said Mansfield Realtor® Bob Wood. “Some homeowners will know some of the answers to this, but a very large percentage will not.”

Wood refers to May 15, 1972 as the beginning of “Modern Day Sewage System Permitting and Planning.” From that day on, most systems would need a sewage permit and/or design required to get a building permit and/or to repair an existing sewage system. That would normally be on file with the local sewage agency that the township has contracted with to handle such matters. The sewage enforcement officer (SEO) and agency are the direct link between the township and the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) regional offices throughout the state. The SEOs and sewage agencies will normally be located in the county they are servicing, explained Wood.

So, if you’re searching for existing records on behalf of your clients, some of the existing records can be found under the name of the owner at the time the system was permitted and installed. According to Wood, that is typically not the current owner.

“Locating the permit and design can save the listing agent a lot of time and effort in completing a successful sale. However, it is still common to find owners of a property who have lived in that home 10 to 50 years and have no idea where the system is, what it is made out of and have never had it pumped or know if it’s actually functioning,” said Wood.

In anticipation of needing to know this, whether a future home inspection occurs or not, the listing agent needs to do the following find the tank location. Should a home inspection be ordered by a buyer, PAR’s “Standard Agreement for the Sale of Real Estate” requires under the clause “on-lot sewage” that the “seller at seller’s expense will locate, provide access to and empty the individual on-lot sewage disposal system. Seller will restore the property to its previous condition, at seller’s expense prior to settlement.” Remember you should never pump the system prior to the inspection being completed as they would have to fill it again with water if they wished to complete a dye test. It could be pumped afterwards, explained Wood.

Wood added that many people do not know where their tank is. They don’t want to dig up their entire yard to find it. If the home is functional with the water running, technology exists to drop a “birdie” down the toilet that will find its way to the tank so that a pumping company or contractor can stand over the top of the tank and dig there. When the tank is exposed, you need to make sure it is concrete. When pumped, you need to know there was a baffle at the outlet preventing solids from leaving the tank and entering the leach field, which will eventually kill it. Baffles can be put in after the fact but the leach field could be damaged.

Today’s modern systems have a two-compartment tank with solids at the front and liquids out the back, which are then pumped or siphon fed into the leach field. The pump is intended to pressure dose the entire bed and shut off. If the pump goes back it can be replaced. You or a home inspector will be looking for effluent reaching the surface of the ground near where the leach field exists. If you are seeing “greener grass” than normal in that area effluent is trying to break out. The inspector or local SEO will determine if any upgrades or repairs are necessary. If you find a metal tank, it has or will begin to deteriorate and eventually cave in. You should recommend its replacement, said Wood

“The SEO and home inspector need to be perceived as friends of both parties. The current homeowner will always feel unhappy about the discovery of issues requiring in many cases significant cost to repair or replace an existing onsite sewage system that is malfunctioning or was never actually built to function properly. On the other hand, one of the most litigated issues in Pennsylvania is post-closing problems involving on-site sewage systems with defects that were never disclosed and/or the failure of the system shortly after closing. This cost can be built into the negotiations related to the purchase of the property,” said Wood.

About the Author
Kelly Leighton

Kelly Leighton is the multimedia content manager at the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors®.

View all posts by Kelly Leighton