Buying a home with a septic tank
Sewers and human waste may not be the first things you think about when looking for a new home, but many rural and semi-rural properties do not have mains drainage and so rely on a septic tank. This can have important legal, practical, and costly implications, particularly since environmental regulations could mean that an old system is now unlawful.
Septic tanks and water quality
If you are buying a property without mains drainage, you will want to make sure it has an adequate way of disposing of waste. Nobody wants raw sewage backing up into their new home! However, it is also important to ensure that the waste system meets all relevant legal requirements.
Most domestic non-mains sewage systems must comply with environmental protection legislation. Different criteria apply depending on the type of system, its age, and whether it discharges into the ground or directly into a water course like a ditch or a stream.
A septic tank is one type of waste system where a property is not on a mains sewer, and many septic tanks are basic and tend to be associated with older properties. In simple terms, they work by collecting waste in underground chambers. Solids settle at the bottom and start to decompose while the wastewater drains off, either into the soil through a leach field or into a water course. However, the latter can give rise to problems of contamination and a septic tank which discharges directly to surface water is now unlawful.
The regulations aim to protect water quality, and in the event of contamination the Environment Agency could fine you and force you to upgrade your system or even to replace it completely.
Identifying the waste system at a property
A seller has a duty to tell a new owner about the waste system and to give details of its maintenance requirements, but many homeowners are still unaware of this or may not volunteer the information early on, as attention is often focused on the house more than any grounds.
Fortunately, the searches and enquiries which your solicitor will make as part of the conveyancing process should confirm whether a property has mains drainage. The property information form, which the seller completes, should also give details of any off-mains waste system, including the date of its installation and when it was last serviced.
When viewing a property, ask the seller or his agent if it is on the mains sewer. If it is not, ask about the waste system.
Should you decide to buy, let your solicitor know what he said the arrangements are, so they can then check this agrees with the results of the conveyancing searches. Your solicitor can also investigate any potential issues. For example, a system may need rights over adjoining land or building regulations approval, and your solicitor will check these are in place. Clarifying matters early on can help speed the conveyancing process up, give you reassurance, and head off potential problems.
How a septic tank could affect your negotiations
In most cases, a correctly installed well-maintained system, is unlikely to cause any issues. Even where a property has an older septic tank, provided it does not discharge directly into surface water, then it may still meet the relevant standards.
However, where a septic tank discharges straight into a watercourse, or otherwise breaches the regulations, you may want to discuss this. For example, you may want to ask the seller to bring his system up to current standards before you complete your purchase or seek a price reduction to reflect the cost of putting in a new system yourself.
In some cases, it may even be possible to connect into the mains or to bring the old system up to standard, for example by installing a new drainage field. Talking to a specialist engineer or environmental consultant can help you work out your options, and the cost implications.
How your solicitor can help
If you are buying a property which has off-mains drainage, then it is important to find a solicitor who really understands the issues involved as environmental legislation is complex.
A good solicitor will not only ensure the arrangements meet the relevant statutory requirements, but that any new proposals will comply. For example, if a septic tank needs to be reconfigured to include a leach field, they will check that your title includes or has rights over the relevant land. This will avoid the solution to an old, non-compliant, septic tank creating unexpected problems. You can then relax without having to worry about one of the less pleasant, but vital, aspects of ownership.
Luke Cain is a solicitor in the Property department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors in Suffolk.