DEAR BARRY: The home we’re buying was built in 1947, and it still has the original septic tank. We plan to have a septic inspection but are still worried. We’ve never had a home with a septic system and don’t know anything about possible problems with one. The seller promised to pay for a septic inspection and then backed out of his offer. So we’ll be paying to have it inspected. But even if the inspection goes well, how difficult is it to live with a septic tank? –Raluca

DEAR RALUCA: People who move from the city to the country are often mystified by septic systems. With a municipal sewer system, you simply flush it and forget it. With a septic system, you still own what you flush. But that ownership is not necessarily a problem, as long as the system is in good condition. What matters for you, as buyers, is to proceed with caution. A septic tank, after all, is not something to blindly jump into. So before you get your feet wet, here are some basic guidelines.

If a septic system is properly installed, if it is not very old and if it has been serviced regularly, it will probably provide years of trouble-free use. In this case, we’re discussing a 1947 septic system, and that raises a red flag in all three categories. First, you don’t know if the system was properly installed. A permit may not even have been required 60 years ago. The system may have been installed by a rancher or handyman with no professional experience. The tank might have been made of boards that are now rotted and collapsing. And the leach lines that convey liquid waste from the tank to the soil might be congested with solids.

On the other hand, the system might have been properly installed, but there is still the issue of advanced age. A tank that was substantial 60 years ago could now be deteriorated and in need of replacement. An old concrete tank could be decomposed and crumbling. An old steel tank could be rusted through. And the leach lines could be clogged with masses of coagulated crud.

Lastly, there is the issue of maintenance. Who knows how often the tank was drained and serviced over these many years? Septic systems are often neglected until there is a plumbing problem, such as a backed-up toilet or shower. Lack of maintenance is the most common cause for failed leach lines.

Replacement of a septic tank or of leach lines can cost many thousands of dollars. So be sure to hire a septic contractor who has been in business for many years and who will totally drain the tank and fully evaluate the leach line system. If possible, try to be there when the inspection takes place, and ask as many questions as necessary to gain a full understanding of the system.

In most cases, it is the seller who pays for the septic inspection. The unwillingness of this seller to provide that basic level of disclosure should be a warning to you. There may be other property conditions that are not being disclosed. So be sure to hire the most thorough and experienced home inspector you can find. And be sure to attend that inspection, as well.

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


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