Septic System Crisis

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Help! My husband and I just bought a home and it took everything we had and more to do it. We've been here for two months and have been trying to pay down some credit cards and now we just found out that we are going to have to install a new septic system. We have septic water all over the yard and we have to do something. I've been told that we can't work on it ourselves, and that there is a lot of red tape because of environmental hazards. The only thing we can think to do is to put a lien on the car for the money. Can anybody help? They say that the system we need will cost $4800. Help!

Who's Liable?

As new homeowners to a home with a septic tank, your purchase should have included a report regarding the condition of your septic system. Such as, when it was last drained, treated and inspected. This is a requirement by law. If you did not have this done, the real estate agent, company and previous owners could also be liable for this expense. At least that is the way it is handled in our state. Unless you have paperwork that says you refused this inspection/report, you may have legal grounds to get this paid for by others.

Secondly, your bank may have a signature loan you can take out that will afford you a lower interest rate than the lien on your car. I strongly recommend looking at all your financial options before you make your decisions.

Were the Sellers Aware of Problem?

An acquaintance of mine recently had this same situation when they purchased their home. Perhaps you can do as they did. They contacted their real estate agent and their attorney. This problem is something that the sellers were probably aware of and legally are supposed to disclose before the sell. In the end, the sellers had to pay to have the septic system fixed plus pay.

Get Recommendations

My dad used to install and repair septic systems for a living and had quite a network of friends that could do the same. These guys are usually quite willing to negotiate an acceptable payment plan or barter. Just explain your situation to the owner of the business as usually they have experienced similar hardships and generally like to help out where they can.

Also, if your county or city doesn't require a licensed contractor to do the job, just that the job be done right, you will get quite a discount on the installation cost from someone who doesn't have the license. Just to be safe, talk to the county or city inspector who will likely be approving the job and ask them who they would recommend. My dad was one who didn't have a contractor's license and found a market of clients by providing the same services he had trained for at school for less than what a contractor would charge. He often had clients sent his way by inspectors he had worked with through the county when they needed a job done well and cheap!

Septic Inspector's Advice

I can't offer much help for the cost of a new septic system, but as a health department septic inspector, I can recommend a few things. First, check for any leaks in the house. A dripping faucet or running toilet can flood a septic system in days. Repair these before installing a new system.

Second, make sure you never place grease into a septic system. It will clog the drain lines and is impossible to remove. The same is true for coffee grounds, dental floss, cotton swabs, etc.

It is important to try and spread your water usage out throughout the day and week as much as possible. For example, have some family members bathe at night and some in the morning. Try to do a load of laundry a day instead of seven loads in one day. Don't run the dishwasher and washing machine and shower at the same time.

Our state does not recommend any septic additives in the tank. They can cause settled solids to float into the drain lines and clog them.

Beware of Hidden Costs

We just went through the same thing. $4800 actually sounds inexpensive compared to what we've been through, which was almost twice that. Sorry, but when you get into the actual work, you may find there are hidden costs. Will you have to pay for permits and inspections? Does that include the cost of the fill soil and grass replacement? Will they have to dig through any of your driveway, or drive over it with any heavy equipment (possibly breaking it)? Will they be replacing your well, and did they consider they might have to dig deeper or try several spots? What about if they hit rock? You should be prepared for the price to go higher than the original quote.

To save money, you should see if you can find any friends in the construction business (particularly ones with backhoes). You may be allowed to have these friends do some of the digging, trenching, and filling. (Speak directly to the township or city about this, not to the septic company. And remember that you can shop around for different contractors who are more willing to work with you.) If so, you can work out whatever payment arrangements (trades for other types of work or goods) with these friends. If topsoil and grass was included in the price, ask them to leave that off. Find a construction site offering free fill and get that delivered as topsoil, then seed your own lawn. It may require you to pick out rocks, and it may not be as soft and smooth as topsoil, but it will be cheaper.

Do Your Research

My first suggestion is to get online and look up all that you can about how a septic system works. Learn all that you can. You can also find information at the library if they carry Reader's Digest books for homeowners. These are somewhat vague, but they do have pictures. Next, call around and get estimates and references on all contractors. Next check the references out. Find out how current and how reliable they are. Finally, see if you and your husband can do some of the physical work to reduce some of the cost.

Contact a Lawyer

The first thing I would do is contact a lawyer to find out what the law is for your state. In some states, you can go back on the previous owner for up to a year for major problems such as this. A problem such as this didn't happen in two months.
V in Mobile, AL

Advice from Down Under

I live in Western Australia where septic systems are very common and I have some experience with them as a householder, but I am no expert and this advice may not be applicable to your area. Septic systems are basically very simple. They are a large chamber where the solids settle out from the liquid and bacteria works on the contents, and there is a soak away channel for the treated liquid to gradually disperse.

Sometimes, especially if there was a large family in the house previously and/or they have been fanatical cleaners pouring disinfectants down the drains and killing off the bacteria in the septic system, the septic chamber can become full and overflow. If this happened here, it would be a simple matter of getting a contractor to come with a large hose and a tanker, access the septic chamber lid and pump out the contents. This would cost me about $A200-$A300. Sometimes the soak away channel gets obstructed with tree roots, which are naturally attracted to the water and shouldn't be planted near septic systems. This would entail pumping out the septic chamber and digging out the drain to re-establish drainage and would obviously cost more as more labour is involved.

You don't state who has quoted the $4,800 for a new system or why it is you need one. In your place, I would be getting more quotes from contractors who do septic maintenance. Here they advertise as "liquid waste removal" contractors. Initially, ask for quotes to pump out your septic and check the soak away drain. If replacing the system is advised, ask for the quotes in writing, stating the exact problem with the present system. Unless the septic chamber itself is damaged, why would it need replacing? If the lid is damaged, they can usually be replaced separately.

Even if you do require a new system, a pump out may allow you some breathing space to cut back on all but essentials and gather together the $5000 for a replacement system.

Disclosure Laws

First off, who did the home inspection? There are "disclosure laws" relating to selling real estate. Call up whomever your agent was and ask if the septic system is something that should have been "disclosed" or not. If the previous homeowner knew about the imminent failure, you could possible take him/her to small claims court to sue for the replacement of the septic system. I don't know all the ins and outs of every state law, but I do know you are supposed to disclose whatever you know is wrong with the house before selling it!

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