Buying a House with a Septic Tank: Tips, Tricks, & Red Flags to Watch Out For

Article Summary

A septic tank is a wastewater storage and treatment system attached to homes or properties but not connected to the overall sewage system. As an “off-the-grid” option, septic tanks can actually save you money, and some septic systems are even considered environmentally friendly. Septic tanks do require maintenance, however, and there are certain factors you should consider before you decide to buy a house with a septic tank.

Outhouses used to be so important that during the Great Depression, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt spearheaded a program to replace outhouses across America under FDR’s Work Projects Administration. These days, outhouses are more or less a relic of the past, but their lineage remains. A septic tank system is today’s version of an outhouse for a property that is not connected to the sewer system. And although we don’t have Eleanor Roosevelt leading the charge to make people aware of septic tanks, you might encounter a septic tank on your home search. If you do, here is what you need to know about septic systems.

What is a septic tank?

A septic tank system is a system for wastewater treatment and management for homes that are not connected to a sewer system. Sometimes a septic tank system is referred to as an onsite sewage facility or OSSF. In the majority of cases, these are found in off-the-grid locations such as ranches in Colorado and swamp houses in Florida. However, there are many new homes being built with septic systems. According to the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, up to 20% of the new homes in Texas come with a septic tank system or OSSF.

These houses need somewhere for their toilet water and dishwater to go. When you flush your toilet or do your dishes in a home, the waste goes directly into the sewer treatment system underneath. With a septic tank, the waste goes into the septic tank system, and although it collects and treats the waste, it acts independently of any sewer or wastewater system underground.

How a septic tank system works

You decide to flush a toilet in a house with a septic tank. Then what happens? Take a look at the picture below.

Septic tank system

There are four main elements to a septic tank:

  •  conveyance line (wastewater pipe)
  •  septic tank (with a manhole on top)
  • distribution box and pipes
  • drain field

The conveyance line is how the septic system is accessed. Usually, this is the wastewater pipe that is connected to your kitchen or bathroom. Once that waste is “flushed,” it travels down its conveyance line to the septic tank.

The septic tank then reroutes the waste and water through the distribution box and pipes. The outlet pipes drain lines of water and waste sludge into the allocated area. This allows it to be spread out and dispersed. The waste is then spread out in drain fields as the final step.

Pro Tip

Sometimes, with septic tanks, the waste is not distributed and drained via drain fields. In some cases, a professional collects the septic tank waste and takes it to a waste treatment facility. They can also take this “septage,” especially if it’s more solid waste, and dump it in approved landfills. This can be an additional hassle for upkeep and maintenance.

Septic tank maintenance

Here are some common maintenance requirements for septic tanks.

Septic tank permitting and septic inspection

In most cases, you will encounter a septic tank in a house that already has one. The septic system should have already been approved and come out in a title search. If you want to build an off-the-grid “tiny house” with a septic tank, however, you will need to get approval from the local housing authority. Furthermore, you might be required to have your septic tank inspected every once in a while to ensure that you comply with any current and/or new regulations.

Septic tank cleaning

The Environmental Protection Agency says that most septic tanks should be cleaned every three to five years. In the U.S., state laws might dictate how often your septic tank should be cleaned. Even if the system drains into the ground via drain fields, it still needs to be cleaned. The cleaning company should be approved by your state, county, or municipality.

Septic tank collection

As mentioned above, septic tanks that do not drain into designated locations need to have a professional collect the septage. This person is commonly referred to as the “sludge transporter.” Governments will be strict about who collects and transports this waste. In fact, in the state of Texas, you need to fill out an official document online called a sludge transporter query.

Lack of maintenance can cause problems

Septic tank maintenance is important for any home that has a septic system. You certainly don’t want to have sewage-related problems while you’re in the house or when you go to sell. Candice Krasovec, a Realtor with 15+ years of experience, has seen septic tank maintenance or a lack thereof cause issues with home sales. The most common issue is a system that does not function properly. “The costs to repair would be too significant for the buyer to assume or negotiate out of the sale,” she says.

Krasovec says that other sewer-related issues could include a home that is set to switch to a public sewer system in the future, which could cost the buyer $17,000 or more down the road. Or the buyer might want to expand or add on to their house in the future, which would require a costly expansion of the sewer system.

“Most homes, when they are sold with a septic tank, it is the sellers’ responsibility to get it inspected and cleared for the new homeowner to prevent any issues,” she says.

Why buy a septic tank?

Lower costs and savings

You can pick up a basic plastic septic tank for $1,200. This isn’t to say that you should buy the cheapest septic tank available, but you have many options. If you plan it correctly, your septic tank can save you money over the long term. As you don’t have to pay fees for sewage, septic tanks can be a real value-add over time. However, certain septic tank systems can cost quite a bit, so be aware of what you buy and the maintenance required.

Environmentally friendly

Septic tanks can be environmentally friendly, particularly some of the newer models. For example, NextGen Septics uses an innovative technology called “passive treatment” that utilizes natural bacteria to treat wastewater. The tank then sends the treated water back into the environment.

It’s truly “off-grid”

If being completely off-the-grid is important to you, then a septic tank that drains naturally is a must-have. This is particularly popular for those that live in a city but have a tiny house in a remote location. You want to get away from it all, and there is no better way to live off-grid than with a septic tank that suits your wastewater needs.

Need to upgrade your septic system? It might be time to look into a home equity line of credit.

Tips for septic tanks

So should you buy a house with a septic tank? If you’re not sure, here are some tips to help you make a decision.

A bad flush can cost you money, so be careful what you put in there!

Make sure that you put only waste and water into your toilet and drains and nothing too out of the ordinary. If you flush the wrong thing down your septic tank, it can literally ruin the entire system. Make sure you double-check that bowl before you flush.

Know your system in and out

Every septic tank system is different. Some are made to drain into empty spaces, and some require sewage collection. Either way, you should know exactly how your system works. This is important as sometimes there will be certain levers you can pull or pipes you can fix that will help you avoid crazy maintenance fees.

If you buy a house, know the history and status of the septic system

It’s imperative that you know the history and current status of the septic system before you buy. This is particularly true if you buy foreclosed homes or distressed assets where there will not be a lot of due diligence and protections. Just ask Joe Hafner of Hafner Real Estate.

“I had been buying foreclosure homes for several years at the time, thought I had done thorough research on the property, and it appeared I was getting this particular property at a great price,” he remembers. “Unfortunately for me, I had not pulled the septic records for the house and the field lines of the septic system had failed. Back when the home had been built, the county had only required one soil site for septic field lines in order for the building permit to be issued. If that site failed, the homeowner was potentially stuck with a piece of property with a non-working septic system and little hope for the repair of it. Eventually, regulations changed and building sites are now required to have two viable soil sites, one to install the planned septic system and one to remain in reserve as a backup in case the primary site fails.”

Be careful with a garbage disposal

It can be tempting to just put all of the remnants of last night’s chicken Milanesa down the garbage disposal. However, this can be problematic with septic systems, as clogged pipes and conveyor lines can cause a septic system failure. Make sure that you only put approved items down the garbage disposal, and avoid lazily putting large food scraps inside.

Pipes freeze; just sayin’

Just like any other pipe, septic tank pipes can freeze. The underground sewage system the government provides is usually adapted to cold-weather climates. Sometimes, though, septic systems imported to cold-weather locations will freeze easier than the underground sewer pipes in the closest city. Make sure you are aware of this if you consider a septic tank system in a cold-weather location.

Septic tanks as part of a valuation

When a lender loans money for a home, they want to make sure every fundamental portion of that home works properly. With septic tanks, it’s imperative that the lender know that there are not any issues with wastewater and waste treatment.

In most cases, lenders won’t look too much into it if a registered professional collects the septage and the septic tank works properly when obtaining the loan. However, if the septic tank is draining into the system, this causes another set of issues. You will need to do the following:

Make sure the system discharges correctly

The lender will want to know how the septic tank discharges into a watercourse and needs to know this is compliant with current standards. If it’s not, you may need to hire someone to bring the septic tank drainage system up to those standards.

Make sure you comply with local environmental laws

Environmental laws are constantly changing, and the lender wants to see you comply with them. You need to check the local regulations in regard to wastewater disposal and make sure that you aren’t violating the laws and regulations.


Is a septic tank a deal breaker?

In most cases, no. A septic tank system can save you money, as well as be an environmentally friendly wastewater option. As long as the system serves your needs and has been well-maintained, it’s definitely not a deal breaker.

What are the disadvantages of a septic tank?

Obtaining the planning permission for a septic tank, the maintenance and septic tank inspection, and subsequent costs for maintenance are some disadvantages of having a septic tank. A failing septic system could be a nightmare to deal with, so you should spend the money to maintain it.

What is the life expectancy of a septic system?

The maximum life expectancy for a septic system is about 40 years. That being said, lifespans can be anywhere from 15-40 years, depending on the system and how it’s used.

Does shower water go into a septic tank?

Yes, shower water eventually goes into any conventional septic system. All wastewater and waste should also end up in the septic system.

How much does it cost to have a septic tank emptied?

Expect to pay $250-$700 depending on where you live and what type of system you have. This doesn’t include separate fees associated with septic system inspection and septic system maintenance.

How often do you need to empty a septic tank?

If you have a septic system that needs emptying, you will need your septic tank pumped every three to five years.

Key takeaways

  • A septic tank is a wastewater storage and treatment system attached to homes or properties but not connected to a public sewage system.
  • Septic tanks work by running wastewater through a system in which it is treated and dispersed into the ground, or someone comes and collects the “septage.”
  • Septic tanks require regular maintenance and could cause issues during a home sale if they are not maintained or will require future upgrades.
  • Septic tanks can be a great addition to an isolated or off-the-grid property and can even help you save money over the long term.
View Article Sources
  1. Septic Systems – Environmental Protection Agency
  2. Septic Tanks – General Information – South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control
  3. How Much Does It Cost To Add a Bathroom in 2023? – SuperMoney
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  6. How to Finance a Fixer-Upper – SuperMoney
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