SEPTIC Stress and what to do when a seller isn't honest

By: Tiffany Leigh

Warning, this post is going to be text heavy  - mostly because I don't want to show you photos of my failed septic system and crying face, both are not pretty. 


Renovations can be stressful. You run into all of these problems you didn't really know about - but that's all part of a fixer upper and you can take it in stride. When you take measures to protect your purchase, however, and you find out that you've been lied to, it can be tough. I experienced more than a little stress when I realized that my new property had a  FAILED SEPTIC SYSTEM (cue the horror movie music - don don don). For those of you who are familiar with septic systems, you know that this is a big and expensive problem. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a septic system is comprised of a tank, where all bodily waste and used water from the house enters. Solid materials settle in the bottom of the tank, and are broken down by bacteria. Liquids are filtered and flow out of the tank, where they drain back into the earth through a leeching bed. A tank in good working order will need pumping every few years, depending on its size and how often the house's plumbing is used.

When I bought my house, the property was noted as 'septic' on the listing. Knowing that septic systems are extremely costly to replace, my agent and I were diligent about putting conditions relating to the septic into my offer, with a line stating that "to the best of the seller's knowledge, the septic tank and all related equipment are in good working order". The seller signed off on this, as well as provided a receipt to show that the tank was recently pumped and therefore empty for me, as well as a report from 2015 showing a system inspection that had passed. I was satisfied with this - even though it was an estate sale, the niece had lived in the house for several years and would know if the septic had any major issues, yet was signing off that everything was fine. I proceeded to close on the sale of the house.

The day that I got the keys, I began to clean out all of the left behind belongings (see last post!). I found a stack of paperwork (would you believe me if I told you I found it right next to a SHREDDER?!) which included six receipts showing the septic being pumped six seperate times last year, all with the seller's name on them. This couldn't be right - could it?! A septic should never have to be pumped this often. I called my realtor who advised me to call my real estate lawyer right away, and this is when I started to get worried.

On the advice of my lawyer, I got a septic inspection done, and it flat out FAILED. The tank was not draining at all, therefore filling at a rapid rate. Not only that, I was advised that I should stop use of all water in the house immediately because the tank was so full that it was in danger of backing up raw sewage into the house! Do you see what I mean about a 'crappy investment' now? The next step was to get a quote to replace the system, and to my dismay, the quote came back at an alarming $16,000. Luckily, my lawyer is a complete boss and took all of the evidence plus the quote to the seller, with an offer to settle for $14,500 (or we would have to take them to court for their deception on the sale). 

To my complete and utter disbelief (and major relief), the seller's agreed, and the money was in my account within 2 days. This whole process took about 3 weeks, and it was an extremely stressful 3 weeks! The replacement quote was dangerously close to my original entire reno budget - so you can imagine my panic! I've since gotten a second, much lower quote, and found out today that the building permit has been improved for the new, easier to install septic location. In the end, this actually brings me through with a little extra cash, which I can put towards to asbestos we found under the carpet, and the other mounting reno costs. The truth is that if the sellers hadn't left the receipts behind, I would have had no proof that they knew the septic was not working, and I would have been SOL. With a lot of luck and by keeping my eyes open to anything suspicious, everything worked out okay for me this time. 

Through this, I learned some very valuable lessons. My key take away points for my next venture are:
-Arm yourself with a good real estate team, both your agent and your lawyer. I really believe this is what saved me!
-Have an iron clad agreement, with careful wording to protect you from any deception! Again, I have my team to thank for this.
-If you are buying a property with a septic system, include this as part of your conditions during home inspection. In hindsight, I wish I had hired an inspector who also investigated and ran an independant septic inspection.
-Don't be afraid to stand up to yourself! Okay, I admit that I was a bit afraid. It's scary to risk mounting legal fees, a lawsuit, a stubborn seller, etc. I know I got off easy, but the truth is that you need to stand up for your rights and what was agreed upon during the sale. If you are being honest and careful, the law will be on your side!

Even though the house is a lot more work than I initally anticipated (wiring to replace, plumbing to replace, asbestos, bum septic), I know that it will all be worth it in the end!