Dear Monty: Do homebuyers have a septic tank problem?
Reader Question: We moved into our house 2 days ago. Yesterday, we came in from the yard to discover the toilet in the half bath overflowed and flooded the bathroom, laundry room and part of the kitchen. We searched the rest of the house and saw that the other two toilets had overflowed and flooded the other two bathrooms and all 3 of our bedrooms. Then we realized that the old septic tank is still connected to the house. We were told the seller had installed a new septic system. We’ve come to understand that the homeowners were acutely aware of this issue, and not only failed to disclose it, but took measures to hide the problem (i.e. installing a new tank, rerouting the washing machine drain pipes, and turning off the water to all the toilets). We called our agent who suggested we contact the title company. What are our options here?
Monty’s Answer: Contact a reputable licensed plumber immediately. The conditions you describe mean your home may not be suitable for occupancy. It seems out of the ordinary that a seller who was intent on taking advantage of a buyer would first invest in a new septic tank. The steps the seller took that you believe show they were hiding the problem seems consistent with installing some types of septic systems. A plumber should be able to correctly diagnose what is causing all the toilets to back up. What if one of the plumbers opens a valve during their inspection, and discovers the system is working? If your suspicions are correct, you may want to seek two or three different opinions as there may be options for fixing the problem. Even if they all came up with the same solution, they would all have different pricing.
How to prepare for discussions
There are many questions here. Monty assumes you had the home inspected by a certified home inspector. What did the home inspection reveal? Was the water shut off noted in the inspection report? Most inspectors would be on high alert if the water were turned off. Did the inspector inspect the new septic system? Was a permit for the new septic issued? Did the seller furnish a “seller condition report” disclosing any material defects? Did the seller occupy the home until the closing or was the home vacant when you first viewed it?
Create a one-page overview of the events on a timeline leading up to the discovery, including answers to the questions directly above. Gather up all the paperwork, so you have all documents related to the purchase in your file. Property data sheet, ads, photos, contracts, the inspection report, and any notes you took to include with the overview. You are looking for the words “new septic system” in writing. Create a PDF file so you can email it to interested parties. Remember to include the bid furnished by your plumber of choice. Also include proposals if carpeting, moldings or walls were damaged. Call your insurance agent to learn if a hotel stay is covered, and also ask about coverage you may have on the water damage.
It is unclear in your question, whether or not you have some responsibility here. If there is a seller condition report and it states the septic was not working, you may be in a weak position. The same may be true if you signed a waiver of the inspection report. If the seller stated in the condition report that the septic is new, or that there are no defects, and the inspection report made no mention of the water being shut off, you are in a much stronger position. If the repairs are $10,000 and not $500, it demonstrates a material defect, rather than an overlooked repair. Your next step is to ask an attorney to review your file for their opinion as to the strength of your argument.
With the information you have gathered to this point, you or your attorney should approach the broker/owner of the real estate company with your facts. If the broker is uncooperative, it may be helpful to mention that your next stop is the state department of regulation and licensing. The department has different names in different states. Going to the state is the most efficient method of gaining a broker’s cooperation. The state will decide whether or not to pursue the broker based on the merits of the complaint.
-- Richard Montgomery gives no nonsense real estate advice to readers most pressing questions. He is a real estate industry veteran who has championed industry reform for over a quarter century. Send him questions at DearMonty.com.