You May Not Please Everyone With a Real Estate Inspection

Mystery systems and homebuyers and sellers with a financial stake in the outcome can create significant challenges for the septic evaluator.

Jim Anderson
Jim Anderson

The past couple of months must be the time for questions about time-of-sale real estate inspections. I have always said these can be the most difficult inspections, depending on your customer. If your client is the current owner, they and their real estate agent hope to hear that the system is good and nothing needs to be done before the new owner takes possession. The buyer, on the other hand, wants you to find everything that may be wrong or may need replacement.

Having a set of standards or a standard procedure you always follow, and communicating those standards to all parties involved before the inspection starts, is one of the most important aspects of the inspection. With the standards stated and understood, it is up to you as the inspector to evaluate each component of the system, determine if it is operating as it was designed and communicate those results.

In addition, if there are areas of concern — even if the system component is operating — you should explain to the client why they could be problems now or in the future. Clients will also ask what can be done to solve the problem and, of course the big question, what does it cost? For some of these answers, you may need to refer them to other professionals for another opinion or additional information. If you are uncertain or do not know the answer, referrals are a legitimate part of the report.


One question I hear frequently is: “What do I do if I cannot find the component or I do not have access to the component?” My answer there is: If you can’t see it, you can’t evaluate it, and without additional time and effort, you cannot comment on its condition. That is what the report should say along with a cost for you or someone to put the effort into evaluating that specific component.

In a recent case, a service provider found limited access to the septic tank. When water was run in the house, they could hear water running into the tank. There appeared to be a clean-out for the sewer pipe heading to the tank just outside the building. When they attempted to open the clean-out, the whole pipe started to pull out of the ground so they stopped trying to open it for fear of damaging the piping.

While the house sewer appears to be operating as it should since water moves from the house into the tank, hopefully everyone agrees there are two problems. First, in order to really evaluate the flow coming from the house, there needs to be access to the tank. Further, to evaluate the tank properly requires more access than the 4-inch-diameter inspection port in the tank. To properly inspect this system requires access to the tank. While it appears to be operating, the inspector cannot confirm until access is provided.

Second, if the pipe outside the building is in fact a clean-out and provided for access to the pipe, it needs to be fixed or replaced to provide a place to clean out the pipe in the event of blockages or, in my part of the world, to steam or jet the line open in the event of freezing.

A short note on clean-outs: A major reason to have a clean-out in the sewer line outside the house is to be able to clean the line without having to go inside the house. This keeps all the mess outside. If you are installing a clean-out in this location; it should be installed so it can be cleaned both directions. Make the clean-out accessible within a protective enclosure at the surface and with a proper screw cap.

At this site, once tank access was provided, the inspector discovered the lid on the 1,000-gallon septic tank was cracked with roots growing into the tank. Since the tank was at least 30 years old, the recommendation was to replace it. I would agree with this recommendation, although a second opinion was to replace only the lid. If the lid is not structurally sound, the chances are pretty good other parts of the tank are not as sound as they should be. Roots can exert on lot of pressure on concrete, reducing overall strength.

I have seen situations where concrete has been poured over the top of the tank lid rather than replacing the lid or the tank. This can be a double whammy for the tank; it may not be strong enough to support the weight of the additional concrete and, as the original lid deteriorates, the pieces fall into the tank, creating problems with pumping the tank and the potential to deliver solids to the drainfield.


The final component of this system was a drainfield consisting of a series of trenches and a seepage bed. The inspector located a bull run valve directing flow to the seepage bed. Rock in the trenches was totally dry, although there was evidence of soil being present in part of trench distribution pipe. It appears this system was set up to switch between the two drainfields, but that had not been occurring. The recommendation would be to switch flow to the new trenches after jetting and pumping the distribution piping.

Even though wastewater moved through this system as intended, the system would not be acceptable as is. The septic tank was not sound, and there were additional concerns about the clean-out and the condition of the distribution pipe in the new trenches.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.