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What Every Realtor Should Know about Septic Systems

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What Every Realtor Should Know about

Septic Systems



If you are a real estate agent representing a buyer or seller of a property with a private septic system, also known as an Onsite Sewage Disposal System, (OSDS), you may have questions about how you can best inform your client about a septic inspection for a property transfer.


 Knowledge is Power


An educated buyer/seller that understands the importance of a properly functioning septic system is better able to make an informed decision about a property that relies on a septic system for waste disposal.


There are 4 types of OSDS used in Maryland – Traditional systems, Alternative and Innovative Systems, Best Available Technology for Nitrogen Removal (BAT) systems and Sand Mound Systems.  The majority of systems in Maryland are the traditional systems so the focus of this information is on the traditional type system.


Information about septic systems is available from many sources.  The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) regulates septic inspectors and the procedures used for septic inspections.  The MDE recommended procedure is outlined on the attached document.  County health departments in Maryland are responsible for issuing permits for septic system construction.  Do Your Part – Be Septic Smart – A Homeowners Guide to Septic Systems is available online at http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/septic/upload/SepticSmart_LongHomeownerGuide_English508.pdf.


Avoid Delays


Allowing sufficient time to schedule and conduct a septic inspection for a property can help to avoid delays at settlement.  If any problems are discovered during the inspection they can be corrected prior to settlement.  Conducting the file search, homeowner/occupant interview and the onsite pumping and inspection and preparation of the final report can take up to 2 weeks.  If a problem is found corrective action must be taken and can require additional time.


What inspection should be conducted?


A dye test alone is not considered acceptable by MDE.  In 1999 the State of Maryland passed a law (9-217.1) that states  “After July 1, 1999; every person engaged in the business of inspecting an on-site sewage disposal system for a transfer of property must certify to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) that the person has completed a course of instruction, approved by the Department, in the proper inspection of on-site sewage disposal systems”.  The procedure mandated by MDE is a four step process outlined below.  Failure to abide by this law by utilizing a dye test not only deprives the buyer of valuable knowledge to which he is entitled but also subjects the seller and the real-estate agent to potentially costly litigation.

The standardized procedure that has been developed by MDE for properly inspecting a septic system is a four step process: 1) file search, 2) homeowner/occupant interview, 3) site investigation and 4) final report.



 The purpose of the file search is to determine what, if any, archival information is available about the septic system on the property. This information is often obtained at the county health department for the county in which the property is located. A waiting period may be required for research to be completed.  Archival information may not be available for all systems.  Useful information that can be taken from the file search may include age, type and location.  Other information that may be in the file would be historical info, soils or percolation test data, outstanding complaints or violations associated with the property.  This is a very important step, aiding the inspector in locating components of the system in the field, and showing where evidence of a system malfunction might be expected to be seen.



The homeowner or occupant may have information pertaining to the septic system’s current or past performance that may only be revealed by interviewing them or by having them complete a questionnaire.  Key information to gather is the current and past usage of the house.  It is very important to note how many occupants of the house there are, if the property is vacant, or if there is, or has been, a commercial use of the property that may influence wastewater strength.  It should also be noted if a system is under-utilized or is only seasonally used.  The performance of a system can only be assessed based on the existing occupancy of the property.  A system that is functioning adequately for two individuals may be inadequate for a fully occupied house consisting of multiple bedrooms.  Use of the property owner questionnaire conveys responsibility for revealing important information to the property owner.



To accomplish this inspection water must be introduced into the system from the house and the tank opened at the large access lid.  The size of the tank, the depth of material in the tank and the scum and sludge levels must be determined.  The tank must be pumped in order to facilitate this examination and to determine if the drain field is accepting the effluent.


The septic tank must be structurally sound and operational with required inlet and outlet baffles/tees and or necessary components.  Tanks and access riser connections should be watertight and not leak untreated sewage or allow infiltration of surface or groundwater.  Liquid levels in the tanks should reflect that the system is functioning according to design.  Toilets or drains on the lowest level of the house must flush or drain adequately.  There should be no discharge of effluent to the ground surface or to surface waters.  If there is ponding of water or effluent on the ground’s surface, or if there are discharge pipes on the property, it may be necessary to dye test the system.  However, dye tests used by themselves do not constitute an adequate septic inspection as at best they can only support a conclusion that a system is not functioning.  For questionable systems or underutilized properties, it may be necessary to charge the system with a hydraulic load to evaluate its performance.  Tanks should never be pumped before an inspection.  They should usually be pumped only after careful observation of the liquid levels in the tank(s).  Observations should be made of the tank during the pump out to see if effluent or groundwater flows back into the tank as it is evacuated.  Once emptied, certain components such as baffles and tees can be clearly observed and only then can the structural integrity of the tank properly evaluated.  Some excavation is usually necessary to perform a proper septic inspection as all components of a system may not have ready access.



The final report for a septic inspection should include the following minimum information:


The address of the property and date of the site inspection

The type, size, structural integrity and number of system components

Information from current/recent occupants of the house/facility about the system operation and usage

Information obtained from the local health department (or permitting agency) concerning the septic system.  It should be noted if no information was available or if the information was requested but not received as of the date of the final report.

A sketch of the septic system layout showing the location of all system components relative to the house and/or other prominent site features (eg., sheds, pools, etc)

A conclusion/comments section that specifies what was observed.  At times, it will be necessary to characterize the condition of the system.  Suggested terminology could include: system is acceptable, system is acceptable with concerns, further evaluation is needed, or system condition or performance is unacceptable.


Contact Fredericktowne Labs for information about other potential contaminants or specific concerns.


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