Originally published over twelve years ago, one of my earliest blog articles and one that I like to mention to clients if they have concerns about septic. And of course, over the past 12 years, many streets have since connected to public sewer.

Many parts of Alamo and Danville are still on septic.  This is a fact that often surprises people who associate septic tanks with living in the boonies.  Septic tanks are nothing to fear, but it is important to understand the implications if you are buying or selling a home with a septic tank.

The first thing you’ll notice in the world of septic tanks, is that they are fascinating subjects for men.  I don’t mean to be sexist, but seriously….if you are a man in Alamo attending a cocktail party, and you are knowledgeable about septic tanks, you can expect to be a hit at the party.  Women are more practical: we don’t really care how it works, just be clear: we really can’t use bleach?

If you are a man reading this, you may want a brief explanation about how the septic tank works, so you can prepare for your next cocktail party.  I am a woman, therefore not really qualified to give you the low-down, but if I may quote my husband, “It’s a tank buried in the yard, stuff flows into the tank at one end and leaves the tank at the other via the leach lines”.  He suggests www.howthingswork.com for a more detailed explanation.

But even though I am a woman with the traditional “I really don’t care how it works, just as long as I don’t have to smell it” attitude toward my own septic tank, as a realtor, I need to be able to advise my clients.  Truly, I lived happily without giving my septic tank a single thought (except the obvious things about being careful what you flush, and not using bleach); until it became an issue for my buyers and sellers.

There are new rules and regulations that affect the repair and replacement of septic tanks.  If you live within 300 feet of the sewer line, you live under different rules than if you live 301 feet or more away.   

A very typical scenario in Alamo today: a small house on a big lot sells, the new owners want to add on.  If there is a septic tank, there will be restrictions.  It may surprise you to learn that there is no limit to how many bathrooms they can add.  However, they will be limited to how many bedrooms they can add.  Twice I’ve seen the work-around solution of a big big bedroom with two doorways, that becomes two bedrooms after the final inspection. 

The most important thing to understand about septic tanks is that they, like us, have a lifespan.  And if the septic tank needs to be replaced, it will cost in the neighborhood of $10,000.  More (much more) if the leach lines need work or replaced.  However, you won’t even get a chance to spend all this money if you are within 300 feet of a sewer line: you will be required to connect.

As a buyer you should have a septic inspection if there is any doubt of the condition of the tank, but keep in mind that it is a very intrusive inspection involving digging up some of the yard.  The old redwood tanks have a lifespan of about 50 or 60 years.  If a house sits empty, this is very bad for the septic tank: they stay in good shape when they stay active.

As a seller, you must be aware of the condition of your septic tank, and be prepared to answer questions about it.  Before going to market, pump the tank and ensure that it has some good life left in it.  Otherwise, you have handed your buyers a major negotiation tool, particularly if you are within the 300 feet mark.

As long as you’re aware of the potential pitfalls and you can gracefully avoid them, being a septic tank owner is not a problem.  And there’s no question that the grass is greener over the septic tank, so plant a beautiful garden and watch it grow!

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