The Virginia Department of Health does not require activities in conjunction with the buying or selling of property with septic systems. However, during real estate transactions involving properties with septic systems, questions often arise from buyers, sellers, and lenders.
The first step for those involved is to understand how septic systems work and what the property owner’s responsibilities are regarding septic systems. You can learn more about how systems work HERE. You can learn more about owner responsibilities HERE.
Once you understand how septic systems work in general, you’ll want to know exactly what type of septic system serves the property you’re interested in. Septic system records are available to you at your Local Health Department upon request. Here’s a breakdown of what you will learn:
The permit for the septic system will provide you with a detailed description of the system components (e.g. size of septic tank, pump chamber specification, drainfield size) and the design capacity of the system. The design capacity is given in gallons per day, and is an important factor to note when purchasing a property. For instance, if the system is design for a three-bedroom home at 450 gallons per day and your plan is renovate the home to make it a four-bedroom at 600 gallons per day, then you will know up front that the system will need to be modified or a new system installed to handle the increase capacity. (Residential systems are designed based on a peak design flow of 150 gallons per day per bedroom. Use of the system above the peak design flow may result in premature system failure.)
Receiving copies of the permits on file will also show you whether the system has previously been repaired or upgraded, the proposed location of system components as design, and the design waste strength. Waste strength is an especially important factor to consider when purchasing commercial properties, as the waste strength for the proposed use may be higher or lower than the waste strength the system was designed to handle. In that case, the system may need to be modified or a new system installed to handle the proposed sewage flow.
Inspection reports show that the system was inspected by VDH or a private sector designer following installation. The inspector will note any changes made to the original design, note the types of specific construction materials used (e.g. Sch 40 PVC for the conveyance line), and note any deficiencies found and how those deficiencies were corrected.
|The operation permit is the document provided by VDH following inspection of the system and submission of all required paperwork which gives the owner authority to begin using the septic system. The operation permit will note the permitted capacity of the system (e.g 450 gallons per day for a three bedroom home), and will include any ongoing operational requirements (e.g. annual operator inspections for alternative onsite sewage systems).
The as-built drawing shows the location of important system components as they were installed. This document is important in the event that a system component needs to be uncovered, such as uncovering the septic tank for a pump out. The as-built will allow you to quickly and easily locate the component. Depending on the age of the permit, an as-built drawing may, or may not, be available.
OPERATION AND MAINTENANCE MANUAL & REPORTS
Think of buying a car. You want to get the operators manual when you purchase the car so you know when the manufacture recommends maintenance to be performed on major components. Likewise, property owners receive operator manual for alternative onsite sewage systems. You’ll want to receive and review a copy of the system you’ll be owning to know when and what type of maintenance the manufacture recommends.
When buying a used car it’s great to know the last time maintenance was performed on the engine or transmission, so you can anticipate when maintenance will likely need to be performed again. The same goes for septic systems. VDH recommends that conventional onsite sewage systems be pumped out every three to five years, depending on system use. Pump outs are actually required for conventional onsite sewage systems located within the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area. VDH has ongoing operation and maintenance requirements for all alternative onsite sewage systems and alternative discharging sewage systems, so you’ll want to make sure those have been followed. You can learn more about those requirements here. The property owner and licensed operator will also have copies of the operators manual and maintenance reports.
ENFORCEMENT ACTION RECORDS
You’ll also want to check to make sure there are no outstanding enforcement actions regarding the septic system, such as a Notice of Violation requiring the property owner to repair a failing system.
In addition to requesting records from the local health department, you’ll also want to look for important documents regarding the septic system when conducting a deed search for the property. Important records include: conditional permits, waivers, easements, and notice of recordation for alternative onsite sewage systems. While these records should also be include in the local health departments files for the property, it is important to double check with a deed search.
Conditional construction permits authorize the installation of systems that do not fully conform to certain parts of the Sewage Handling and Disposal Regulations, provided conditions are place on the permit to ensure the system will function without danger to public health. Conditional permits can be issued for: reduced water flow based on permanent water saving devices; limitations on the number of people occupying the dwelling; and intermittent or seasonal use. It is important to understand these conditions and limitations before purchasing a property to ensure that they meet your intended use of the property. For example, if you have a family of five, and your looking to purchase a three-bedroom home with a condition permit limiting occupancy to four people, then the system will need to be modified or a new system installed to meet your intended use.
Va. Code Section 32.1-164.1:1 allows owners that repair their failing system to request a waiver from requirements for treatment beyond the level provided by the existing system, or requirements for pressure dosing, provided the existing failing system serves real property consisting of not less than one nor more than four dwelling units, and the existing failing system was legally installed. Waivers granted under Va. Code Section 32.1-164.1:1 to repair a failing system are not transferable (with some exceptions) and are null and void upon transfer or sale of the property. The new owner is required to install a new system that fully complies with the regulations.
In 2011, the General Assembly of Virginia approved legislation which amended Va. Code Section 32.1-164.1:1 and added Va. Code Section 32.1-164.1:3 to allow for the voluntary upgrade of onsite sewage systems and alternative discharging sewage systems. As amended, Va. Code Section 32.1-164.1:1 allows owners that voluntarily upgrade their system to request a waiver from requirements for treatment beyond the level provided by the existing system, or requirements for pressure dosing, similar to waivers granted to repair failing systems. However, unlike waivers granted to repair failing systems, waivers granted for voluntary upgrades do not become null and void upon sale of the property. If the property you are seeking to purchase has a waiver recorded on the deed, it is important to know whether the waiver is for a repair or a voluntary upgrade since the repair waiver will not transfer to a new owner.
Section 700.E.2 of the Sewage Handling and Disposal Regulations requires an easement in perpetuity to be recorded where all or part of an onsite sewage system is proposed to be installed on property other than the owners. However, this does not mean that all onsite sewage systems installed on other properties have a recorded easement. The system may predate the requirement for recordation, or the property owner may have owned both properties in which case an easement is not required. If records or a system inspection shows the system is located across the property boundary, check to see whether an easement was recorded.
Notice of Recordation
Prior to issuance an operation permit for an alternative onsite sewage system, the owner is required to record a letter with the deed of the property notifying future owners that the property is served by an alternative system. If your deed search shows a notice of recordation for an alternative onsite sewage system, contact the local health department for more information about the system and your responsibilities as the system owner.
REAL ESTATE INSPECTIONS
| Purpose of Inspection
VDH does not require onsite sewage systems to be inspected prior to property transfer. Lenders may require an inspection, in which case they will outline what is required. Even if an inspection is not required, VDH recommends that you have the system inspected by a licensed professional to determine whether the system is in good working order.
Timing of Inspection
VDH recommends that system inspections be conducted as soon as possible when purchasing a property, preferably several weeks prior to closing. If the inspection finds there are major deficiencies with the system, the owner may need to: hire a private sector consultant to design a system repair; obtain a construction permit from VDH to repair the system; have a licensed service provider install the repairs; have the system inspected by the designer; and provided necessary paperwork to VDH to receive a new operations permit. This process can take weeks to complete, which could delay closing when the inspection is performed late in the transfer process.
What to inspect?
The type of inspection performed is based on a number of factors: age of the system; type of system; etc. For conventional onsite sewage systems an inspection may include a visual inspection of the septic tank(s) and distribution box(es) as these components provide a good view of whether a system is functioning properly. Your service provide may also conduct loading test by placing a set volume of water into the system to look for evidence of a blockage of failure. This type of test is especially important for systems where the home is currently unoccupied. For alternative systems, the owner must have the system visited at least annually by a license operator. A follow up operation and maintenance visit may be conducted prior to a property sale.
What to do if system fails inspection?
A properly licensed service provider can make simple improvements to the system, provided those improvements fit into VDH’s definition of maintenance. However, for more significant improvements, the owner will need to have a repair designed by a licensed designer and obtain a construction permit from your local health department prior to completing the repair.