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What Home Buyers and Sellers Should Know About Septic Systems in Massachusetts

With proper maintenance, a septic system can work efficiently for as long as you own your home. On average, a system should last approximately 25 years. When it does come time to replace the system, the cost is anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 or more, so if you’re buying or selling a home with a septic system here are a few tips you should know:

Home buyers should know that home inspections don’t include a septic system inspection, also known as a Title 5 Inspection.  Title 5 Inspections must be performed by a person licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.  It’s up to the buyer to ask the seller specific questions about the septic system, such as finding out the last time it was pumped.  It should be pumped every 2 years and if there are more than 5 people living in the home, it should be pumped every year. It’s also a good idea to know how many people currently live in the house. If more people move into the home than its system was designed for, the increased demand on it may lead to problems.  Septic systems are designed based upon the number of bedrooms within the dwelling.  A home that may have more bedrooms than the system was designed for is a home that may have an early system failure.

If the home being purchased has a septic system and a salt based water treatment system, make sure the water treatment system back washes into a dry well.  Connecting a salt based water treatment system to a septic system is a violation of Title 5.

Selling a Home with a Septic System

Homeowners who are thinking of selling should make sure their septic system is properly maintained. This includes pumping the tank on a regular schedule, keeping the drain field clear of trees or shrubs which can clog drain lines, and limiting water use.  Excessive water use is a major cause of septic system failure. Inspecting your septic system annually is another good way to monitor your system’s health and address minor issues before they become cause for major repairs.

Unless the home is being purchased with cash and no bank involvement a Title 5 test is required by the Buyer’s bank. Title 5 is part of the Massachusetts State Environmental Code. It regulates all septic systems in Massachusetts. The purpose of Title 5 is to provide for the protection of public health, safety, and the environment by requiring the proper construction, upgrade, and maintenance of on-site sewage disposal systems (septic systems).

Sellers should always have their septic system tested prior to listing their home for sale.  This is especially helpful when it passes because then it can be listed as “Title 5 certificate in hand.” If it fails for a small, inexpensive reason then it is best if the seller can repair it so that it passes.  If the seller cannot afford to fix it, the property can be listed as “Failed Title 5 report in hand.”  While it may turn some buyers away, having the report is the best way for buyers to know and plan on what they are dealing with.

Massachusetts Tax Credit for Failed Title 5 Costs to Upgrade

In Massachusetts you can get up to a 40% tax credit towards the cost of repair or replacement of your septic system provided the cost is $15,000 or less. The Commonwealth provides a state tax credit of up to $6,000 spread out over 4 years to defray the cost of septic repairs to a primary residence. The credit is only valid once the upgrades are complete. In order to get the full amount you must file for this credit every year over the 4 year period and you must complete a Schedule SC form. For more information, visit the Massachusetts Department of Revenue website.

As a seller it is much better to obtain a clean Title 5 PRIOR to listing your home so that buyers feel as if they don’t have to worry about it and will not have any issue obtaining a mortgage.

If you own a condo with a septic system, unless otherwise indicated, the condo association is responsible for the inspection, maintenance and an upgrade of the system for the unit.

Buying a Home with a Septic System

If you’re buying a home in Massachusetts, it’s a good idea to thoroughly review the Title 5 report to identify any issues with the system. You can also ask the seller how old the septic system is, if the system is up to code, and find out the name of the septic system company the homeowner used. Remember, you have the right to review the entire Title 5 report prior to signing the purchase and sale agreement. If you have questions about the report, contact the inspector .

Remember, a copy of an inspection is not a guarantee that the system will not have problems in the future. It is up to you to take steps to properly maintain the system once you buy the property. As mentioned above, in Massachusetts you can get up to a 40% tax credit towards the cost to repair or replace the septic system if the cost is $15,000 or less. For more information, see the Massachusetts Department of Revenue website.

If the home you’re buying has been vacant for a long period of time, consider when the inspection was completed and determine if the system needs to be re-inspected.  Systems that have been dormant for a long period of time may have significant issues that are not easily detected especially related to the effectiveness of the leaching field.

How Much Does Septic System Testing Cost?

The average cost for an inspection is between $400 and $700. Some towns require septic pumping at the time of inspection. Pumping a septic tank usually costs $180 to $250, depending on how many gallons the tank holds.

How Septic Systems Work

Conventional septic systems consist of a septic tank, a distribution box, and a leaching field. Your septic system treats your home’s wastewater by temporarily holding it in the septic tank. In the tank, waste solids separate from the water. The solids are decomposed by bacteria and later removed when you have the tank professionally pumped.

Your septic system treats your home’s wastewater by temporarily holding it in the septic tank.

After the partially treated water (effluent) leaves the tank it flows into the distribution box which distributes this water evenly into the leaching field. Drainage holes allow the water to drain into gravel trenches and then slowly seep into the soil where it is further treated and purified (secondary treatment). Some alternative systems use sand or peat instead of soil. A properly functioning septic system does not pollute the groundwater.

Conventional septic systems consist of a septic tank, a distribution box, and a leaching field

Septic System Maintenance Tips

Caring for your septic system saves you money and extends the life of the system itself. One of the most important steps you and your family can take is limiting your use of water. The more water you conserve, the less water enters the septic system. Efficient water use can improve the operation of the septic system and reduce the risk of failure. Title 5 prohibits water treatment systems from going into septic systems in any amount.

  • Install water saving devices such as low flow shower heads and toilets.
  • Repair leaky faucets and toilets immediately. A leaky toilet can cause a good septic system to fail very quickly.
  • Make sure clothes washer and dishwashers have full loads before running
  • Do not put paint thinners and other chemicals them 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.

Septic System Signs of Trouble

If there is a problem with the home’s septic system, the sinks may drain slower than usual, even after using a plunger. Or you may hear gurgling sounds. One of the most common signs that the septic tank is having problems is a foul odor around the house. A less obvious sign of trouble is a patch of lush green grass in the drainage field of the septic tank. This patch of grass is receiving a larger amount of nutrients and liquid than normal indicating a leak. If you observe any of these signs, it’s time to get a thorough septic system inspection.

What Happens During a Septic System Inspection?

The septic system inspection should include: a discussion with the homeowner to determine the history of the system, a review of the system permit, a tank inspection, a distribution box inspection, a drainfield bed inspection, and a house inspection.

The inspector will compare the size of the tank and the expected water use. He or she will make sure there are no leaks or cracks in the tank by using flashlights, mirrors, and cameras. He’ll check the mesh filter (on new systems) to make sure it is clean, and will check to see if the tank needs to be pumped.

For the drainfield test, the inspector will dig test pits to check for signs of standing water or biomat growth. He or she may dig 2 to 3 feet down and check the color of the rocks and sand and make sure the system is draining properly. He will inspect all mechanical equipment (pumps, aerators, alarms) to ensure they are in good working order.  Inside the home he will flush the toilets, run water in the sinks, run the washing machine through a full cycle to see if the household plumbing is all going to the system and working correctly.

The septic distribution box is a most important component of a septic system. Without even distribution of effluent, the drain field will be used unevenly. As trenches in the drainfield become overloaded, portions of the drain field will fail.

By having your septic system inspected and pumped regularly, you can prevent the high cost of septic system failure, protect the groundwater, and preserve the value of your home.

Where to Find an Approved Septic System Inspector

Valid system inspections must be done by inspectors approved by The Department of Environmental Protection. You can find a list of DEP approved Inspectors here.

For tips on how to properly care for your septic system, visit the EPA’s SepticSmart website.

For more information visit the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Related: What Home Buyers and Sellers Should Know About Septic Systems in New Hampshire

Questions about buying or selling a home with a septic system?

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