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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. This includes pumping the tank on a regularly scheduled basis, keeping the drain field clear of trees or shrubs which can clog drain lines, and limit water use.  Excessive water use is a major cause of septic system failure.

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:

Buying a Home with a Septic System & Title 5 Inspections

Home buyers should know that home inspections don’t include a septic system inspection, also known as a Title 5 Inspection.  Title 5 Inspections are required and must be performed by a person licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.  Title 5 is part of the Massachusetts State Environmental Code and regulates all septic systems in Massachusetts. The average cost for a Title 5 inspection is between $400 and $800. Some towns require septic pumping at the time of inspection. Pumping a septic tank usually costs $200 to $300, depending on how many gallons the tank holds.

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 and if it’s up to code.  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. Septic systems are designed based on the number of bedrooms within the dwelling. If more people move into the home than its system was designed for, the increased demand on it may lead to problems.

Systems on vacant properties which have been dormant for a long period of time may have significant issues with the effectiveness of the leaching field, so buyers need to be sure the inspector is aware of that.  As well, if the home being purchased has a septic system and a salt-based water treatment system, make sure the water treatment system backwashes 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

Unless the home is being purchased with cash and no bank involvement, a Title 5 test is required by the Buyer’s bank. 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.  This is especially helpful when it passes because then it can be listed as “Title 5 certificate in hand.”

If the inspection 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 understand 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.

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, size of the household, 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 and will 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 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.

How Septic Systems Work

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

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.

Septic System Maintenance Tips

One of the most important steps you and your family can take is limiting your use of water. Efficient water use can improve the operation of the septic system and reduce the risk of failure.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Use septic safe toilet paper.
  • Don’t flush anything other than waste and toilet paper.

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. You may hear gurgling sounds or notice 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, get a thorough septic system inspection immediately.

Helpful Links

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.
For information on failed septic inspections, click here.