Dear Barry,

The home we are buying has a septic system rather than a sewer hookup. The real estate agent disclosed that the leach field has limited volume, but she explained that this simply means we will have to pump the tank more often. We are not certain that we understand this correctly. Does this mean we will need to be mindful of the amount of water we put through the septic system on a daily basis? If so, is this acceptable, or is the agent merely downplaying what could be a major problem? – Jayme

Dear Jayme,

There are minimum legal requirements governing the size and volume of septic tanks and leach fields. If the system in question has limited volume, then it is either in violation of those requirements or is in the downhill phase of its longevity. Either way, you could be facing costly replacement of the system once you take possession of the property. To spare yourself this major expense, get some expert advice before proceeding with this purchase. The system should be pumped and professionally evaluated by a licensed septic contractor, and you should consult with that contractor to gain a full understanding of any inherent problems. You should also check with the local building department regarding their minimum standards for an adequate septic system and leach field.

Regarding your second question, prudent real estate professionals know better than to advise clients in matters that exceed their level of professional expertise. For an agent to make statements that minimize a potential septic problem and that sidestep the likelihood of costly repairs is unprofessional and irresponsible. Fortunately, you were not persuaded by this undue reassurance.

Dear Barry,

My home was built by the original owner in 1959 and sold six years later to my parents. An unusual aspect of the house is a highly complex low-voltage lighting system that has caused problems for many years–first for my father, and now for me. I can remember my father’s frustration with lights that worked occasionally or not at all and his inability to find an electrician who could comprehend the workings of this complex, oddball system. He said they’d spend several hours, scratch their heads, and finally give up. Now that I’ve inherited the property, these problems are mine. What can I do to get these lights in working order? – Frank

Dear Frank,

Low-voltage relay lighting was moderately popular during the 1950s and early 60s among a small fringe of high-tech experimentalists–usually engineers and university professors with starry-eyed visions of Frank Lloyd Wright innovations. Now that these systems are old, they are great when they work but utterly frustrating when they don’t. And to make things worse, very few electricians have had sufficient experience with these rare systems to develop any measure of practical expertise.

One possible way to locate a qualified expert would be to contact your local electrician’s union to see if they can recommend an individual of exceptional esoteric knowledge. Otherwise, you’ll have to cold call a list of electricians in the yellow pages and ask the question, “Are you familiar with low-voltage relay lighting?” If this approach fails, it may be time to have the home rewired in a conventional manner.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at


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