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Realtor’s® Guide to Well & Septic Part One

Sep 16, 2016

Real Estate Laws

Realtor’s® Guide to Well & Septic: Part One

By Mike Lynn

Recent changes in Virginia Law and subsequent regulations for alternative septic systems have brought septic issues for buyers and sellers to the forefront of the real estate sale. The results of a well and septic system inspection are likely to be as important as the home inspection. However, unlike roofs, appliances, HVAC systems and other building components, the most important components of a septic system are buried underground and can require excavation to inspect. Even then, there are unknowns, and the opinion of an experienced professional is the key to making informed decisions. 

The majority of the septic systems in Northern Virginia can be traced back to Fairfax County building booms in the ‘70s to ‘90s. This means that many of the systems serving these houses are 20 to 40 years old. The expected life of a conventional septic system during these periods was 25 years. They were intended to serve the homes until they were connected to public sewer. In most cases, public sewer isn'’t coming to these neighborhoods.

Inspection Straight Talk
Agents representing sellers hope that nothing is found, and may try to bargain on behalf of their clients for a less invasive inspection or walkover. Agents who represent purchasers know that more information is better, and a more thorough inspection is in the seller’s best interest. 
No one wants to find problems that kill a transaction, add unnecessary expense to either side or draw regulatory attention to a property where no problems were known to the owner. It’s a delicate balance, and one that most inspectors and agents appreciate.

Top 10 Virginia Well and Septic Facts 
1. There is no Virginia law or regulation that requires septic systems or wells to be inspected at the time real property is bought or sold.
2. Virginia law requires a seller to disclose if the house is served by a septic system, and to inform purchasers that it is the seller's responsibility to determine the details about the system and its maintenance requirements. 
3. If any person in Virginia claims to be a certified inspector, then that person must be an NSF-certified or other nationally recognized certified inspector. If the inspector doesn’t claim to be certified, then he or she could be a TV repair person inspecting and reporting on a septic system. 
4. Alternative septic systems are required to be inspected annually, and reports are filed electronically into a state database. Some counties have local databases accessible to the public to view service history, capacities and component types. 
5. Septic tanks are required to be pumped out every five years in most counties, but this pump-out does not require an inspection of the septic tank or any other septic components.
6. The state health department does not have an adopted standard for inspection of septic systems for real estate sales and does not perform them. Some local health departments perform these inspections as a service to the community, but most do not. 
7. There are no standards for existing wells in terms of yield or quality. New wells are required to produce at least one gallon per minute, and some localities require a quality analysis. Absence of coliform bacteria is the only state requirement for private wells. 
8. No permits are required in order to inspect a septic system, including uncovering components, cleaning a septic tank or performing inspections or routine maintenance on alternative systems. 
9. There are now DPOR-licensed onsite soil evaluators, operators (which include pumpers) and installers. Each of these DPOR licenses has a conventional class and an alternative class. Conventional licensees can only work with conventional septic systems and alternative licensees can work on either type of system. 
10. The real estate contract, lender requirements and loan guidelines should all be considered before ordering a well and septic inspection.

Real estate contracts vary from locality to locality and some private sellers and attorneys use their own contracts. Most contracts and lenders require a well and septic inspection and report, but the details of the inspections and which party will bear the cost usually must be agreed to by the buyer and seller. Agents should discuss the options of a walkover or visual inspection, which may be adequate for new or frequently maintained system serving an occupied house. A vacant property leaves the seller, the buyer and the inspector in a precarious position as the system can’t be evaluated under a normal load. A more comprehensive investigation may be warranted for older systems or when the house has been vacant.

What Is NSF International?
Founded in 1944, NSF International is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides standards development, product certification, auditing, education and risk management for public health and the environment.

Mike Lynn is president of The SES Companies in Warrenton, Virginia, offering soil and environmental services.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on Well & Septic. Click here for part two in the July/August issue.
  • Real Estate Laws