Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

Seller and Agent Fail to Disclose Defects

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our home, the agent was selling it for his mother, and they told us that it was a maintenance-free home, in perfect condition. That was five years ago, and now the undisclosed problems have surfaced. First, we began to have septic problems, but no one could find the access to the septic tank. According to our neighbors, the garage was built over the tank. Another problem was lack of access to the crawlspace beneath the house. The seller had installed a forced air heating system, and the new air ducts blocked the access opening on the side of the building. Our home inspector pointed this out before we bought the property, but nothing was done about it at the time. Well last week, we made a new access hole and got a very unpleasant surprise. The crawlspace is filled with black, smelly, stagnant water from the laundry drain, and mold is growing on the underside of the floor. The seller simply ran a drain hose under the building and never told anyone. After this many years, do we have any recourse?  Leslie

Dear Leslie: If the agent was representing you, as well as his mother, that was not a good arrangement. You should have had your own agent to represent your interests. A good agent, working on your behalf, would have negotiated to have the seller provide a septic inspection report. The septic inspector would have found the septic access or would have discovered that the system was not accessible. In that case, an access would have been created to enable inspection and servicing of the system. If other septic repairs had been needed, that could have been negotiated before you bought the property.

If access to the crawlspace was obstructed, your home inspector should have recommended that access be provided before the close of escrow. If that had been done, the faulty laundry drain, the excessive moisture condition, and possibly the mold would have been discovered.

If these problems had come to light sooner, you might have held the seller, the agent, and the home inspector liable for faulty disclosure. After five years, you may no longer have recourse. However, you should check with a real estate attorney for clarification on that point.

Avoiding Needless Septic Maintenance

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We received a letter from the company that pumped our septic tank when we bought our home last year. They recommended that a household of two people should pump the septic tank every 1 ½ to 2 years. They also recommended a septic additive that they sell for $30 per gallon. It’s supposed to break up the solids in the tank, and they claim it’s better than the kind you buy at the hardware store. According to my neighbor, the tank should be pumped every five years. What’s the best advice for maintaining our septic system? Larry

Dear Larry: The septic company’s maintenance advice is better for them than for you. It improves their bank balance and does nothing to benefit your septic system.

On average, septic tanks should be pumped every 3 to 5 years, depending on the size of the tank, the number of family members contributing waste to the system, and the kinds of solids that go down the drain. Most solids that enter the system are decomposed by the bacteria in the tank. Eventually, non-organic junk, such as sand and bits of plastic, accumulate on the bottom of the tank, while a layer of floating grease and scum accumulates on top. These solids reduce the efficiency of the system and make pumping necessary.

Larger septic tanks need pumping less frequently than smaller ones because they have a larger capacity for junk and scum. Likewise, the fewer people who use a system, the less often pumping will be needed. For example, a 1,500-gallon system being used by a family of four might need pumping every five years, while a smaller tank would require pumping twice as often. After the kids have grown and flown, a 1,500-gallon used by empty-nest parents might only need pumping every 10 years.

Garbage disposals can also affect the frequency of septic pumping because they increase the volume of solids in the system. And undigested solids, such as those from a garbage disposal, take longer to decompose.

Additives to septic systems are widely recommended, but their benefits are doubtful. Controlled studies have not shown them to improve the performance of septic systems in any significant way. Added enzymes and bacteria cannot break down non-organic sediment. And added bacteria must compete with the bacteria already in the tank. In most cases, the established bacteria simply eat the added ones.

So don’t let contractors sell you on needless septic maintenance. Their advice will simply add wasted money to the solid waste already in your system.

Should Home Inspectors Inspect Septic Systems?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased our home 10 months ago and had it professionally inspected. The septic system was included in the home inspection, but our inspector missed some major problems. During the inspection, he was unable to find the D-box where the septic pipes are connected or the seepage pit where the wastewater drains into the ground. All he found was the holding tank, and he said that it looked fine. Now that we’re selling the property, the buyers hired a septic specialist, in addition to a home inspector, and the septic guy found major problems. The buyers are now demanding that the system be replaced, and the bid for replacement is nearly $25,000. How could our home inspector have failed to see these problems? Susan

Dear Susan: My answer to your question will arouse indignation among those home inspectors who offer septic inspections as part of their services. The truth, however, is glaring: Home inspectors are not equipped to inspect septic systems and should not mislead homebuyers in the belief that they are able to do so. There, I said it. Now the flood of irate email from those home inspectors can begin.

The reason for my firm position on this issue is simple: A home inspection, by definition, is a visual inspection only. Home inspectors report conditions they can see and nothing more. This eliminates septic systems from the scope of a home inspection because septic systems are not visible or accessible to home inspectors. In order to inspect a septic system, it is necessary to locate the tank, to excavate the top of it, to remove the lid, and then to pump out all of the wastewater and sludge. Once the tank is empty, the true inspection begins. The walls and baffles can be inspected for damage or deterioration, the capacity can be considered relative to the wastewater output from the home, and the rate of flow into the seepage system can be tested.

The reason that home inspectors cannot inspect a septic system is because they do not have the equipment necessary to expose the components that need to be inspected. Only someone in the business of installing and servicing septic systems is likely to have the tank truck and pump equipment that is needed to expose the bowels of the system. Anything less than this, as a means of inspection, is totally inadequate and reveals nothing about the true condition of the system. Home inspectors who purport to inspect septic systems, but do not pump the tanks, need to face this reality and to refer septic inspections to qualified specialists.

Getting to the Root of Sewer Line Problems

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: For the past several years, we’ve had ongoing problems with our old clay sewer main. The line has to be rooted every few months, and the cost to install a new line would be about $15,000. Why is this problem so persistent, and what, if anything, can be done to solve it without spending a fortune? Gayle

Dear Gayle: Tree roots typically invade older types of sewer mains, where cracks and loose fittings allow roots to enter. Old clay sewer mains are highly susceptible to root intrusion because the mortar that was used to seal the fittings has deteriorated with age and because old clay pipes often have cracks. As roots enter these openings, they grow thicker, causing increasing damage to the pipes and enabling further root invasion. Root growth into sewer pipes may increase during dry weather because seepage from the pipes may be the only available ground moisture. But regardless of wet or dry conditions, roots are attracted to sewer pipes because the effluent contains organic nutrients as well as water, and this provides an enticing meal for hungry trees and shrubs.

Clearing a clogged sewer line with a rooter machine provides a temporary respite at best because rooting merely prunes the root ends that have entered the pipe. Once the plumber’s machine is withdrawn, the roots begin to grow again, and six months later the plumber is back. Chemical products can be flushed down the drain to kill these roots, but such products are not nearly as effective as portrayed in advertisements

The most common long-term solution is to replace the old sewer lines — obviously a very expensive answer to the problem. A less costly solution, offered by some plumbing companies, is the installation of a special synthetic lining in the old sewer main. With this method, the cost of excavation is eliminated and the seepage that attracts tree roots is terminated.

Dear Barry: I’m preparing to remodel my bathroom and am wondering if I should take a permit for the work. Basically, I have two questions: If the bathroom changes are not structural, do I need a permit? And when the city inspector comes to inspect the bathroom work – does he have the right to inspect other portions of my property where work may have been done without a permit? Dave

Dear Dave: If the bathroom remodel involves changes to the plumbing or electrical systems, a permit is definitely required. Alterations do not have to be structural for the building department to have authority over the project.

The building inspector has the right to cite any noncomplying conditions that are observed on the property. However, when the permit involves a limited area, most building inspectors are not this far-reaching in their approach. In most cases, they consider only the work that is currently in progress. But don’t take refuge in that assurance. The inspector has the power to be proactive regarding conditions of noncompliance on your property. In other words, don’t expect the worst, but be prepared for it.

How Often do you Pump Septic Tank

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’m not sure how often to have my septic tank pumped, but I’ve heard two opinions on the subject. Some say I should pump the system every 1-2 years. Others say, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Just leave it alone unless there’s a problem. Some even say that needless pumping can cause loosened solids to clog the leach lines. It’s been twelve years since my septic system has been pumped. What do you recommend? Ken

Dear Ken: The septic opinions you’ve heard are incorrect in opposite extremes. Pumping the tank every 1-2 years is needlessly excessive. As long as the bacterial environment in the tank is good, the solids should continue to decompose, and as long as the leach field was property installed and is not too old, the liquids should continue to be absorbed into the earth through the leach lines.

Maintaining the bacterial balance in the tank can be done simply and inexpensively. There are common products for this purpose, available in hardware stores. All that is needed is to flush the contents down the toilet once or twice a year. And care should be taken not to drain strong laundry detergents or other chemicals into the system.

To ensure that the system is performing adequately, the tank should probably be pumped every five years. The idea that pumping will clog the leach field is unfounded: pumping removes the solids from the system before they can flow downstream to the leach lines.

If you’ve gone 12 years without the system being pumped and inspected, you’re long overdue and should have this done soon.