What You Need to Know About Buying a Home with a Septic System

septic systems
Jane Pinzhoffer

Jane Pinzhoffer

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Rural areas, whether a primary residence or seasonal cottage, often have a septic system, and with more people leaving the city and moving to the country, this topic is timely.

City dwellers may be intimidated by properties with a septic system or heard horror stories about maintenance and how expensive they are to replace.

Today, we’ll give you tips and advice about how septic systems work and what you need to do to maintain them.

Once you learn more about septic systems, you’ll realize there’s no reason to walk away from buying your dream home.

What is a Septic System?

A septic system is quite simple. It consists of a sewage pipe from the property to a septic tank, typically made of concrete, fibreglass, steel, or polyethylene. From the tank, there’s a distribution system that goes into what is referred to as a septic bed, drainage or leaching field.

A septic tank is essentially a biological ecosystem. It contains bacteria that eat your waste and separate liquids and solids from the wastewater. The liquid is discharged from the tank into pipes buried in the septic bed.

Should I Get a Septic System Inspected?

Inspecting a septic system is as advisable as completing a typical home inspection; it’s always a great idea. It’s essential to verify that it has no visible deficiencies and’s installed and functioning correctly.  However, keep in mind that if you’re in a competitive market, risk-adverse buyers may forgo the inspections to win the offer. If this is in consideration, know your risk tolerance, understand the potential costs, and lean on your real estate agent for advice.

The average home inspector isn’t qualified to inspect a septic system. You want a licensed technician who specializes in the field. A septic inspection should include the tank being pumped out so that the various components are more readily visible and the condition and approximate age can be determined. Some technicians will utilize cameras to get a better look inside too.

How to Find The Location of a Septic System

The location of a septic system isn’t always obvious.  Things to help locate it include following sewage drains in the basement to gauge the general direction that the pipes leave the house; this usually indicates the general direction you should be looking. Sewage tanks usually have two access lids, sometimes above grade, and sometimes harder to find and buried underground. The line these lids make will also typically point you toward the septic bed, which is usually a level grassy area not too far away.  These rules don’t always apply, though. It’s not uncommon for setback requirements to require a new septic bed to be located a good distance from the house, requiring additional pumps and long stretches of pipe.

The Importance of Knowing the Location and Size of a Septic System

Plans to build an addition to your house, install a swimming pool, or make other changes to the property make it crucial to know exactly where the various components of your septic system are located and that its capacity is sufficient for your plans.

If the system is near your driveway, be careful not to drive over it. Too much pressure on the tank or tank lids could cause them to crack. You also want to avoid compacting the soil above the septic bed. Heavy equipment compacts the ground, which impedes the system’s ability to filter correctly.

Other things to avoid include:

  • Digging around it
  • Building anything on top of it
  • Covering it with concrete
  • Diverting drainage pipes and downspouts toward it
  • Planting vegetation where roots can penetrate it
  • Planting a vegetable garden as the system can affect your crops

In Ontario, building code specifies setback requirements, including how far it must be installed from structures, property lines, bodies of water, and other elements such as those governed by conservation authorities. This is done to avoid contaminating drinking water or causing environmental damage, among other things.

Things You Don’t Want in Your Septic System

Everything that goes down your drains goes into your tank. It has to be natural liquid waste. For example, you can’t pour cooking oil or grease into the drain because the fat will solidify and damage the system.

Items that should never be flushed in a septic system because they can cause clogging include:

  • Cigarette butts
  • Feminine hygiene products.
  • Wet wipes
  • Paper towels
  • Diapers
  • Condoms
  • Dental floss
  • Cat litter
  • Expired medication
  • Antibacterial products
  • Cosmetics
  • Toxic chemicals

How to Keep Your Septic System in Good Condition

  • Keep drains clean
  • Never flush anything that isn’t biodegradable
  • Use low phosphorus liquid laundry detergent
  • Space out heavy water usage

How Long Does a Septic System Last?

Much like any household component, from your roof to your air conditioner, there are average life spans. However, we often find properties where these components far outlast the norm too. Proper maintenance is a significant component of this, and while the average septic system will last 20 to 30 years, we’ve found many far exceeding that, with no definite failure date in the near future.

How Much Does a New Septic System Cost?

The cost of a septic system varies considerably based on the size, existing grading, proximity to the property, geographical location, and more. Spending $20,000 to $40,000 is reasonable for an average house. If you intend to outlive your new tank and still own the house, budget around $100 monthly over the long for a replacement.

Signs There’s a Problem with a Septic System

  • Spongy ground around the septic bed
  • Standing water or damp areas
  • Either brown or very green grass
  • Strong odours
  • Toilets or sinks backing up
  • Slow drainage

Benefits of a Septic System

Maintenance costs are generally low. Routine upkeep includes getting the system pumped out every 4 to 8 years and should cost a few hundred dollars.

Septic systems come at a cost, but they also come with the added benefit of typically living on a larger lot with more privacy, being less dependent on municipal services, and more.

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