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Septic system questions should be on every rural home buying list

STILLWATER, Oklahoma – Homebuyers moving from urban to rural areas need to take into account septic system basics, otherwise one’s dream house can run the risk of turning into an annoying money pit.
Septic system questions should be on every rural home buying list

Country life is different from city life in a number of ways, such as wastewater management. (Open Access Photo)

“In McClain County, we have a number of people who work in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area but who want to enjoy a more rural lifestyle,” said Wes Lee, McClain County Extension director. “For those who have grown up in cities, rural America comes with its own set of key questions for those either buying a home or building a house.”

One of the most important things to ask right up front is whether or not the home requires an on-site wastewater treatment system. In rural America, not every home has access to municipal sewer lines.

“Some of the simpler systems use gravity for wastewater dispersal and rely heavily on the soil to accomplish treatment,” said Sergio Abit, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wastewater specialist. “Other systems, particularly those that require electricity and involve mechanical parts driven by complex electronics, cost more and require a greater level of upkeep.”

There is no one-size-fits-all system, although components of a septic system will include a toilet and drains, household plumbing, outdoor tanks for wastewater storage and pre-treatment and the property’s soil that performs the final treatment.

“Efforts must be made to make sure the appropriate type of system is installed for the intended household size and that it is suited for the area’s soil and site properties and is professionally installed,” Abit said. “Remember, all systems require some form of maintenance.”

To ensure a system stays effective for years, it has to be used as designed and maintained as suggested. Abit said a malfunctioning septic system can not only have monetary consequences for the home seller, buyer or both, it could also result in health and environmental repercussions. Improperly treated wastewater contains hazardous pollutants – chemicals and microorganisms – that can harm the home occupants and neighbors.

Lee said the easiest way to determine if an area can be serviced by a municipal sewer system – or even if the town has a centralized wastewater treatment facility – is to ask the local utilities office. “Always verify and do it right off,” he said. “It can save you headaches later on.”

If a septic system is needed, at least 10,000 square feet should be allocated for the system in the general intended installation area. Dry areas on the property that are submerged in water at certain times of the year are not included. In addition, the area should be accessible to installers and the equipment needed in earth-working activities related to the installation.

The minimum size for a residential lot that needs a septic system is one-half acre if public water will be used in the house. If a drinking water well needs to be installed in the area, then a minimum lot size of three-quarters acre is required.

Questions to ask

Abit said there are a number of specific questions a prospective homebuyer should get answered right out of the box. First, are there maintenance records of the home’s septic system?

“Possession of a complete maintenance record shows the owner is taking care of the house and to some degree can vouch that the system should stay effective for some reasonable amount of time after the purchase,” he said.

The realtor is expected to know the details of a house, even those in rural areas, and so should be able to answer questions such as “When was the last time the septic tank was pumped?” or “When was the aerator last serviced?”

Second, will the septic system need to be updated if house expansions are made? A septic system is designed for a given home size, typically listed around number of occupants and bedrooms. If additional bedrooms are to be built after purchase to accommodate a larger family size, then the septic system may need to be modified. Abit recommends checking with the local Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality office.

Third, is the current septic system covered by installation warranties and service agreements? Oklahoma has a mandatory two-year maintenance period for aerobic treatments systems. This rule mandates the installer of an ATS to maintain the system, at no additional cost to the homeowner, for two years following the date of installation.

“This means it is important the realtor knows when the ATS was installed,” Abit said. “It is also helpful if the realtor is aware of any manufacturer warranties and whether or not the septic system is currently covered by some agreement with a maintenance provider.”

At the very least, the realtor must know who installed and who is currently maintaining the system so the homebuyer would know who to call should some issues arise.

Fourth, what if the septic system develops problems? Obviously, information about the installer and the service provider would be useful.

“Somebody who is familiar with the specific system installed would be a good person to call when problems arise,” Abit said. “Also, it is important to make sure the property has a repair area of sufficient size adjacent to the septic system installation. The repair area is where dispersal lines will be installed in case the first system fails. If structures have been built on the site that was originally designated as a repair area, this could be a serious issue.”

Fifth, what are the maintenance requirements of the existing system? Maintenance requirements vary with the type of system.

“If the homebuyers do not have experience with septic systems in a previous home, it is useful if the realtor knows about and can inform them of simple maintenance tips and requirements,” Lee said. “This is important because there could be instances when homebuyers are not willing to deal with the extra trouble of maintaining a system. Alleviating these concerns could mean the difference between the home being purchased or not.”

Common maintenance requirements of various systems are available online at http://osufacts.okstate.edu by consulting OSU Extension Fact Sheet PSS 2914, “Keep your Septic System in Working Order.”

Knowledge is job one

“It is a good idea to learn about the daily treatment capacity of the specific system in place,” Abit said. “Ask the realtor about the maximum limit of wastewater a system can treat in a day, and then make sure it is not exceeded. In some cases, this may require adjustments concerning major water uses in the house.”

Examples of adjustments would be to postpone doing the laundry until visitors leave, setting a limit on the number of loads of clothes washed per day or to refrain from using the bathtub, clothes washer and dishwasher at the same time.

In short, knowing how the existing septic system works will provide homebuyers some idea of the level of care and expertise needed to maintain the system. For example, if the house has an ATS with a spray dispersal system, it is necessary to constantly treat the wastewater with bleach prior to surface application to the yard.

“And don’t forget the basics,” Abit said. “You can’t just put anything and everything down the drain. Grease, hair and similar items have clogged plenty a drain and impeded the proper operation of a septic system. Also, always remember the most common cause of septic system problems is the failure of homeowners to pump out the septic tank. There is a limit on the amount of solids the septic tank can accommodate.”

For more detailed discussions about the various types of septic systems refer to OSU Extension Fact Sheet PSS-2913, “On-site Wastewater Treatment Systems Permitted in Oklahoma,” available online at http://osufacts.okstate.edu.

The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is one of OSU’s two state agencies administered by the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, and a key part of its state and federally mandated teaching, research and Extension land-grant mission.

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