DEAR BARRY: When we bought our home, we did not have the septic system professionally inspected. Instead, we ran water at the sinks, bathtub and shower for more than an hour. There were no backups, so we thought everything was OK because our water test exceeded normal use. Recently, the system was serviced, and we learned that the septic tank is substandard and will soon collapse if not replaced. Are the sellers and real estate agent liable for their failure to disclose this condition? –Ryan

DEAR RYAN: The sellers and agent were required to disclose the problem only if they knew about it. It is highly unlikely that the agent knew the condition of a buried tank. The sellers, on the other hand, may or may not have known, depending on whether there was a septic inspection during the time they owned the property.

But regardless of who knew, your agent and the sellers’ agent should have recommended that the septic system be inspected. That would have been normal procedure in the course of the transaction. There was simply no excuse for letting that go by. If you were advised to have a septic inspection but declined to have one, that was a decisive mistake.

It was also a mistake to think that a water test would provide an adequate evaluation of the system. There are many kinds of septic problems that are undetectable by merely running water down the drains. A proper septic inspection involves opening the tank and draining the contents to expose the condition of the interior. The fact that sinks and showers were draining had no bearing on the condition of the tank. A septic tank can be collapsing and still allow water to drain. Someone should have advised you accordingly.

DEAR BARRY: When we bought our house, the home inspector said he suspected a gas leak in the crawlspace under the building. The seller hired a plumbing company to find the leak. According to the plumber’s invoice, all gas lines were checked and no leaks were found. He determined that the house had been vacant for months and the dry drain traps were allowing sewer gases to enter the building. But after we moved in, the gas smell persisted, so we called the gas company. They found a gas leak that was so dangerous we were ordered out of the house immediately. Do we have recourse with the seller or the plumber? –Becky

DEAR BECKY: The sellers apparently acted in good faith. They hired a licensed plumber to repair the gas leak that was discovered by your home inspector. They appear, therefore, to be free of liability. The plumber, however, appears to have been professionally negligent, having failed to discover the gas leak or its source. What we don’t know is how the plumber tested the system for leaks. A common method, after checking all fittings and fixtures, is to turn off the supply valves at all fixtures and then to observe the gas meter to see if the reading changes. Unless the gas leak was intermittent rather than continuous, the plumber should assume some responsibility for the repair costs.

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