disclosure question: septic tank problem

deanie1November 9, 2009

You guys were so helpful here with my workshop issue, maybe you can help me again. The 8 yr. old house we bought a couple weeks ago has a very "odd" smell to it which I thought would go away. We're not moved in yet, the smell seems worse, and so I decided to have our septic tank inspected to see if that was contributing to the odd smell. (Yes, I know I should have done that before purchasing.) But when the guys got out there they discovered that the tank is buried under the front sidewalk and inaccessible. The seller built the house himself so I think he had to have known.

Should he have disclosed this? It's going to cost a bunch now to get them to and rip up that section of the sidewalk, move the tank, and put the sidewalk back. Do we have any recourse here?

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Is the pump out accessible? The tank may be inaccessible, but the pump out should be accessible.

I don't see why they should have disclosed the location if you didn't ask. I am surprised a septic inspection isn't mandatory. Sorry, but I think this in on you.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 7:41PM
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Yes, in my non-lawyer opinion, it should have been disclosed. You would have to get an opinion from a real estate attorney to find out if you have any recourse and the wisdom of persuing it.

It may violate code, so tread carefully. If the tank can't be pumped out and is a health hazard, in some jurisdictions, the house could lose its certificate of occupany until the situation is remedied.

You need to get a handle on this.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 8:55PM
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You should have shelled out the money for a septic inspection BEFORE you purchased your house. I too am a bit surprised your lender did not require it, but it depends upon the type of loan you have. In my state the seller needs to indicate the last time the septic was pumped and if it is working properly. That's all. If it had an odd smell before you bought it, again that's on you for not doing your homework.

Knowing how large a septic tank is I find it hard to believe that the entire tank is covered by a sidewalk. Did the septic guys run a dye test? Did they walk the field after a lot of water? If they did neither of those they can't really tell you it needs to be ripped out and removed.

My house will sometimes get a funky smell coming up from a never used bathtub. I run 1/2 a tub of water through and it's fine. If we're away for more than a week, the drains do start to dry out a bit I think. There will sometimes be a funky smell, but once we start showering, etc. all is back to normal. Given that the house is vacant right now, you might want to run water through all of the drains.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 9:03PM
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Easy to 2nd guess here,but..lol..When you found out the home had a septic system,why didn't you ask where the tank/leech field were located??? I also find it odd that an 8yr old home has a septic problem AND there isn't a removable cover over the tank...I'd hire a second person before i ripped out the tank and replaced the walk..seems very strange

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 9:03PM
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Based on this post and your last post, I'm really beginning to wonder what kind of realtor you had. It's been my experience that a good realtor will basically hold the hand of a newbie and walk them through everything. So although you as a new buyer may not have realized that you should have had a separate inspection of the septic system, your realtor should have alerted you.

In any event my opinion is that it was your failure to have an inspection of the septic system and it's on your shoulders. If the septic tank was to code I guess I don't know why it had to be disclosed. However, if it isn't to code then I think it should have been disclosed. Again, only my opinion.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 9:29PM
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I too think it should have been disclosed.

Here, septic systems have to be installed by a licensed company & maintained via contract with another company that makes sure the chlorine packs are dispensing properly.

If the homeowner/seller installed his own system, he may have violated code.

If he put a sidewalk over the tank, he may have violated code.

If he violated code...
then you are the proud owner of a septic system & a sidewalk that are in violation of code.


I'd get another company to look at the system, & then, depending on what I learned from that, I'd confer with an attorney.

I wish you the best.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 10:07PM
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Even if a dye test had been performed, that only tells you the system is working on that day...it can crash the next...so such a test is worthless.

The test that is most conclusive is that which involves scoping the laterals, digging up the D-Box, etc. Only a thorough VISUAL evalaution of all components by a professional septic inspection company will tell you if the septic is in good shape..or not.

That said, I know that here in NJ a septic test is not required for sale...although it should be required.

In addition, states such as NJ do not require the seller to disclose anything. In NYS you can buy your way out of disclosure for $500.00.

This is why it is crucial to have a well informed REA and a good attorney...both who make it job #1 to protect your interests.

I can't imagine any jurisdiction that would allow a tank to be covered by a sidewalk, as it makes it very difficult to repair if need be...and adds to the expense of replacement.
In addition...is the sidewalk your property? Generally sidewalks are on public property..if that is the case, I find it even more peculiar that your private system is located on public land.

IMO, there is a lot more that smells here other than your septic.

As for an 8 year old system failing...not all that common, but not all that unusual. A home the next town over had a failed septic that was only two years old. In another development a few miles down the road from that home had their septics start failing when the homes were about six years old. Both are high end developments. Apparently there was a new type of alternate septic system design used at the time that although approved by NJDEP, is no longer permitted due to the above mentioned problems.

Due to the overbuilding, it is becoming harder to find lots that perc properly for standard septic systems. Therefore, there are a number of alternate designs that have been developed to address that issue. Some are not proving to be sustainable for any great length of time.

You need to go to your town hall, and get all of the info that you can regrading this house and the septic...check with the town or county Board of Health on the septic.

There may be more that was not dislcosed...and the sooner you find out what those things may be, the better in terms of holding the seller accountable, if that is even possible.

Did you have an attorney representing your interests in this deal? Also, in which state do you live?

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 11:56PM
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I'm not understanding the situation. Why does the septic tank need moved? Does the sidewalk go over the lid to the pump out? It seems to me it would be a heck of a lot cheaper and easier (assuming the tank isn't compromised) to modify the sidewalk than move a septic tank. Did they even look for the lid to the pump-out? It's sometimes just covered over with soil from normal weather situations. When we had our tank pumped last, we had to hunt for the lid, but it wasn't that hard to find.

You can find out what the codes and requirements are by calling your health department or county engineer. I guess since I've lived a good deal of my adult life in a rural situation, one of the first things I enquire about when looking at a house is the safety of the water source, and the integrity of the septic system. In our state every county has its own criteria for water and waste water, and you don't/can't monkey with it without the proper permits and inspections.

You become, for all practical purposes your own water and waste plant, and it's a big responsibility. You learn very quickly that water isn't free, that you can't just call a water department and complain, because the buck stops with you. Ditto waste.

Even in a city situation, it's hard to imagine somebody detecting a bad aroma and figuring it would just go away by itself. Those are things common sense tell you to explore. I can't tell by what you've described if there was anything a previous owner needed to disclose, because we really don't know what the problem is.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 12:05AM
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Thanks for your responses everyone. Here's more info: state is TN. The odd smell I smelled when first looking at the house I assumed was just the people, their pets, and their stuff in general. I figured when they moved out I'd rip out the carpet and paint and the smell would be gone. Instead, it got worse.

The sidewalk is the sidewalk leading to our front door, right before you get to the porch. The guy said that the tank is 8' long and that the section with the pump-out lid, not the entire tank, is under the cement. He had a metal pole he kept sinking into to the ground to help him locate everything. He did not do any tests whatsoever, though he came prepared to do so. I said OMG we'll call you later because I don't want you ripping out sidewalk now. After reading your responses, I am calling another company to get a second opinion ASAP. Thank you!

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 5:41AM
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Septic systems in Tennessee are regulated by the state, not the county or city. The responsible agency is the Department of Environment & Conservation, Division of Ground Water Protection. They generally have a field office in each county. These GWP offices are often colocated with county offices, sometimes in the county courhouse.

Your local office should have a copy of the permit for your house. You can go to the GWP office and ask for a copy of the permit for your property. It's a good idea to get a copy, even if you aren't having problems. It will tell you where the septic tank and drain field are located (in theory, anyway) and the size of the tank. A lot of homes in this state have been built with too small a system for the number of occupants. The permit will help you find out if you have one of them.

In Tennessee, there is/was a requirement that the size of the tank be disclosed if it is not adequate for the number of bedrooms in the dwelling. There have been recent changes to the law governing the disclosure. Your REA should be fully aware of these developments.

If you go down to the GWP office, it is best to go first thing in the morning, as the staff tends to be in the field during the day. This is especially true in rural counties. Larger metropolitan counties will probably have someone in the office all day.

Out of curiousity, what county are you in?

Here is a link that might be useful: Ground Water Protection Division

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 6:41AM
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BTW, an eight year old house with a septic tank that can't be pumped out is very likely to have a full septic tank, which is another reason you need to deal with this right away.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 7:12AM
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Wasn't the tank pumped for the closing?

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 7:43AM
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deanie, I can understand how overwhelming this must sound to somebody who has never dealt with wells or septic before. So, please forgive us if we sound like we are coming on strongly. You've been a good sport about us cutting to the chase with the questions.

First off, I'd ask the realtor to contact the selling party, and ask them WHEN the tank had been pumped last. It's not that expensive to pump a tank, and that is something I'd do before I'd put a house up for sale. If I didn't, and it weren't required, I'd have at least left that information to the selling agent so the next occupants would know where they stood, as a good-will measure and also how to access the pump-out. A simple answer from the PO might clear everything up, reveal where the lid is located if it is not under the sidewalk, and give you hope it's just needing pumped and not a problem with the tank, baffles or leach bed.

You start with the easiest fix and then move on if that doesn't solve it to delve further. Moving a septic tank is the last resort to my way of thinking. It would be very expensive. If you don't get satisfaction from this, and find out it is inaccessible, then you proceed from there.

We were in a position where we had to install/update a septic system. We have acreage and thankfully plenty of room to lay out a new one, and our property passed all the perc tests to do so where we wanted to put it. It was still an expensive proposition but we considered ourselves lucky it was just a straightforward fix.

I'd still also find out what the coding is for your system. It may help you down the line, even if your system meets code at present.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 10:52AM
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far easier to move a sidewalk than move a septic tank!

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 12:17PM
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Your realtor should have known to call for a septic tank inspection. Talk to her/him first, then the lending institution should require a special form, if not, next step lawyer.
Sorry, septic tanks ARE not built under houses, they should be so many feet away attached to a good leach field.
As a new buyer, your agent should have been more informed.
We built our own place and had a septic tank and we had to have a certification on file, location and it had to be pumped and clean before they buyer took possession. It also had to be so many feet away the house, with so much rock on top with a big drain field. The opening to the tank had to be marked.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 1:38PM
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A permit is required to move the tank, if it has to be moved. I too would move the sidewalk first before I would consider moving the tank and all that entails.

If that access port really is under the sidewalk, it raises a whole lot of questions in my mind, starting with what was and was not permitted when the house was built. Eight years ago, more than a few Tennessee counties had no building code, and some did not even require building permits. The only required permits were septic and electric, both handled by the state. Wells require state notification of intent to drill by the driller, but a prior permit is not required. At least one county still does not require building permits for residential construction outside of city limits.

It hasn't been possible to get electric power without an electrical permit for a number of years, as the inspectors are stationed at the power utilities. Septic is another matter, as an owner builder could easily buy the materials and install his own without bothering to get a permit. There is/was no mechanism to cross check permits in some counties.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 1:51PM
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"Here, septic systems have to be installed by a licensed company & maintained via contract with another company that makes sure the chlorine packs are dispensing properly."

Aerobic septic systems are a relatively new item.
They require power for air, and sometimes to move effluent from tank to tank. They commonly have three tanks, a digester, a chlorinator, and a de-chlorinator.
The output water is suitable for surface discharge (no leach field is required).

Anaerobic systems have been in use for a very long time.
They do not require chlorine, and adding it would kill off the desired bacteria in the tank. In many places clothes washers were NOT run into a septic system to avoid overload, detergent, and bleach. They are a single tank without any air vent that digest the waste. A baffle in the tank prevents surface level material from simply flowing across the tank and into the leach field. Solids settle to the bottom of the tank. Bacteria digest much of the organic matter and the remainder simply collects in the tank a the bottom. The effluent that leaves the tank still has bacteria present, but no solids. The effluent drains into a leach field (AKA drain field) were it soaks into the earth. The waste that accumulates in the bottom of the tank needs to be periodically removed. It decreases the available volume of the tank, and if the solids escape in to the leach field the field can become plugged and no longer seep into the earth correctly.

Someone really fell down on the job if no inspection of the system was made before the sale was completed.

Removing a section or two of sidewalk is not very difficult, just saw it and break it up.

You could put down some paving stones to fill the gap in the sidewalk long term.

You do need to locate the leach field.
Vehicles and heavy equipment should not be allowed to drive over the field.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 1:54PM
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should have added more detail:

The health department has required erobic systems here for much longer than 8 years.

If a homeowner here had installed a leach-field type system after the date that the aerobic systems were required, he'd likely have to replace the system & pay a heavy fine.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 2:36PM
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The state of Iowa has recently enacted laws requiring many hoops for sellers of homes with septic systems.

My daughter bought a rural home several years ago. The septic was inspected and some work was done (which was Ok'd by the county inspector). After she moved in, a plumber gave her the opinion that the septic had some major problems and should never have received a permit. Long story short, she went to a good real estate attorney, he did the talking, and the septic was re-done completely. In her case it was probably the responsility of the septic company & inspector, but she did get a new system for the price of legal fees. So I would start with an attorney
Good luck

    Bookmark   November 10, 2009 at 4:22PM
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Thanks so much for your insightful and informative responses! I ended up yesterday calling my RE and having him contact the sellers to see when it was last pumped out/inspected. Answer: never. Then my 2nd opinion septic guy came and poked around and said he thinks one access port is under cement, but that there may be two or more access ports that he can get to. Since it was raining cats and dogs (county is rural-ish in East TN BTW) he's coming out next week and for $600 inspecting what he can see (said he won't be able to get a visual on all of it if it's double compartment type since one compartment is under cement), pumping it, and installing a level-with-the-ground port.

Talked to our county engineeer who said 8 years ago things were very loosey-goosey around here and that the permit was just sketched, not to scale, barely readable and obviously taken out before sidewalk was poured or it probably wouldn't have been permitted.

I really appreciate your help!!

    Bookmark   November 11, 2009 at 7:15AM
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county is rural-ish in East TN BTW

That pretty much describes our area. We may be neighbors.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2009 at 8:35AM
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"...when it was last pumped out/inspected. Answer: never."

I guess we know why they moved.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2009 at 8:32PM
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Let us know how it turns out, deanie. A simple pump-out might solve your problem, might not. The real danger in not having a septic pumped out occasionally is that the wastes overflow when the tank gets filled with it, and then move out into your leach bed. Once you get your leach bed fouled, it can't be 'cleaned'. You move your leach bed if you have anywhere to move it to.

A well maintained septic system can run forever. If you haven't already, Google care and use of septic systems for some good information on how to maintain a healthy septic system. This includes information on what chemicals and items should not go down your drains, how to maintain the bacteria necessary to keep your tank functioning properly. Even things like toilet papers with dyes in them are not recommended. Neither is a lot of bleach. Even lint from a washing machine can foul up leach beds and some systems are built with grey water diversions because of it. Synthetic material does not decompose, so the lint is like a diamond.....forever.

Good luck and hopefully you'll have a kind resolution to your problem.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2009 at 8:53PM
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I accidentally ran into the "partner" of my ex-realtor and told her about our septic issue. She told me that she has lived in her house 22 years and has never had her system pumped out or inspected and that it's really not necessary since when it backs up into your house that'll tell you it needs pumping out. Oh, and if that if it damages your floors or furniture insurance will pay for it so you can get a free remodel. Even I can smell something foul there!!

Ours is getting pumped/inspected next week.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2009 at 9:58PM
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Have you tried dumping a box of RidX down the toilet to see if perhaps the system needs some help in working? The use of too much bleach or other strong chemicals in the house can cause the septic system to stop working the way it should especially if the house has been vacant for any amount of time.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2009 at 2:54PM
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"I accidentally ran into the "partner" of my ex-realtor and told her about our septic issue. She told me that she has lived in her house 22 years and has never had her system pumped out or inspected and that it's really not necessary since when it backs up into your house that'll tell you it needs pumping out."

This method can easily lead to damaging the field.

Forcing fresh tank waste into the field is a recipe for having to replace the field.

Expensive at least, possibly impossible of you do not have enough land available.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2009 at 3:30PM
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RidX will do nothing for the septic system that nature itself will not do. However it is pretty good at lightening your wallet.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2009 at 3:53PM
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"I accidentally ran into the "partner" of my ex-realtor and told her about our septic issue. She told me that she has lived in her house 22 years and has never had her system pumped out or inspected and that it's really not necessary since when it backs up into your house that'll tell you it needs pumping out."

This method can easily lead to damaging the field.

And it's not the most pleasant alarm system.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2009 at 4:16PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

Also probably not a good idea if one is on a well, especially a well nearby. Ours is pumped every 3 years. Septic problems never happen at a convenient time.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2009 at 10:42PM
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I check the sludge and scum levels on mine a couple of times a year. Larger-than-required tank, with only three people living at home. And the tank has two compartments, and an outlet filter. So far I've seen very little sludge and scum, and practically none in the second compartment. Doesn't seem to be any reason to get it pumped.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2009 at 11:02PM
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Wish I'd read this one much earlier.

It is VERY UNLIKELY that you are smelling the septic. WAY more likely, tree roots have penetrated a drain pipe somewhere and you are smelling the rotting vegetation. If the smell is worse when you run water and if you pay attention it seems to be coming from the sink, tub, or other drain, that is the most likely culprit.

DH is a plumber. It is almost never a septic problem, almost always a root problem that causes the smell people call "sewage-ey."

If the water out of the tap smells, it is probably some hardness factor and you need a filter change or better filter.

When septics fail, you smell them OUTSIDE.

Call a plumber to diagnose your problem before you get a septic guy or anybody else digging up your yard.

As for the septic, 8 years not pumped may be no problem at all. We've gone far longer than that, nearly twice as long, had it pumped and inspected and it was found to be in great shape. It all depends on your set-up--some people need to pump every two years, some people really don't need to for going on 20.

Why not ask the former homeowner where the other accesses are instead of paying somebody hundreds of dollars to find it? If the homeowner doesn't remember, find out which company put it in. They must have a record of what they did.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2009 at 7:33PM
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Hm, this last post made me think. I had a nasty smell in my last house, turned out the seal under one toilet wasn't right. Pretty simple fix. All I remember was the smell came and went for whatever reason but when it came it was awful

    Bookmark   November 22, 2009 at 10:12AM
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The smell could be any one of a number of things, and that includes the tank. There could be plumbing inside the house not capped off properly, that happened to one of my kids when they bought a house on a septic system. Yes, indeed it could be a problem with a sewer drain pipe. That happened to us. It could be a stopped up system too. When there is no place for the effluent to go, you can smell them, but also tend to have the drains backing up. It could be anything.

It's still a very, very good idea to have your septic system checked before you buy a home dependent on them. And, you should find out what is checked and look at the report, and not depend on the PO to say they had it done. That could amount to a plumber asking them "have you had any problems?" seen that happen too, and the next owners had some very major issues. They can be cheap fixes or very expensive fixes. But you really need to understand how those systems work and stay on top of them. And do it routinely and in a timely manner.

I'm no plumber, but if you've lived in older houses on septic systems most of your life, it's your responsibility to be on top of them. You essentially own a sewage treatment plant and there are all sorts of ramifications involved.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2009 at 11:08AM
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It's a requirement here and an industry standard for the septic tank to have more than one top access....Have you confirmed both accesses are under the side walk?

    Bookmark   November 23, 2009 at 11:56AM
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