Thursday, August 04, 2005

Rural Buyer Beware: Examine Your Private Well and Wastewater System

Many people dream of one day owning a place in the country. However this could turn into a nightmare if you know little or nothing about the private well and wastewater system in your purchase. Is the water adequate or of poor quality? How will you dispose of your wastewater safely? Unlike city dwellers, rural homeowners are usually responsible for their water and wastewater systems.

Prospective buyers must become aware about the terrain, the proximity of the house to other structures, and the condition of the existing well and septic system. Building foundations may become unstable from high ground water levels or from excess surface runoff. Therefore, it makes good sense to investigate all aspects of the property. Many rural counties may not have such building codes, so an existing dwelling may not meet standards or may never have been inspected during its construction.

I have heard a few horror stories from homeowners about their purchase of a country home. After moving to their new home, they find that their well and/or wastewater system needs to be replaced, costing them tens of thousands of dollars. One friend of mine bought a house where a sinkhole later appeared. After several years of problems, he was lucky to sell the property at a loss of many thousands of dollars. There have even been instances where the house was subdivided from a larger tract, and the well and wastewater system were not included.

A trend is emerging in today's rural real estate market. Buyers are beginning to assess environmental conditions, including both private drinking water and their wastewater systems as well as such problems as sinkholes or abandoned wells, before investing in property.

In response to consumers' concerns, numerous states are beginning to require various types of inspections for property transactions. Failure of a seller to disclose known problems can be grounds for legal action by the buyer. Both seller and realtor can become liable if they do not fully mention such problems. With that thought in mind, all statements and evaluations must be committed to paper, signed, and kept for future reference.

If you are a buyer, you must carefully examine what you are purchasing. An assessment protects your investment so that when you sell your property you have no rude surprises. In years to come such property transfer assessments will likely be the rule rather than the exception. It is critical you make an accurate evaluation before you buy.

Most people buying a house with private water supply and wastewater system have no clue about what to expect. This applies particularly to those who have always lived with municipal water and sewer services. Even though an assessment may have taken place and been completed, in the flurry of closing sometimes the report is not presented until the last minute, and buyers do not fully understand the ramifications of the report. If the buyer has a savvy real estate agent, familiar with rural properties, the agent should read the report and advise his client before closing. Without such counsel, the new owner may have to pay a lot of money for a new well or a septic system, or to properly plug an old well.

Researching the status of the property's water and wastewater system is in your best interest. Avoidance of liability by full disclosure, protection of property value and identifying environmental impacts are all reasons to inspect your systems. In the inspection process, homeowner education becomes essential so you understand not only what kinds of systems are in place, yet how they operate and must be maintain.

The need for inspections prompted by legal action as forced numerous states to adopt either training program for inspectors, specific certification and third party review. Plumbers, home inspectors, onsite designers and/or installers, engineers, and septic system pumpers are these third party inspectors. Because of liability concerns, twenty states provide inspectors working with local, state environmental and health agencies. However, there is no national uniform or consistent inspection process.

These are just a few examples of what some states are doing regarding inspections of water and wastewater systems during the transfer of property.

Caveat Emptor

As more and more people purchase rural property, the need to evaluate both the water supply and wastewater systems becomes more important. This is especially true as people invest their savings in property instead of the stock market.

More and more consumers are demanding increased accountability of what is being bought. Banks and lending institutions are becoming proactive in requiring property examination of private water and wastewater systems since it is in their best interest. If you, as a buyer, wish some comfort level with your purchase, investigate some sort of environmental property assessment or escrow account options. While they are no standards procedures for inspection of rural homes, more uniform approaches are warranted to identify the environmental and public health aspects of such property transfer. This may result as more consumers demand such environmental clarification.

"Caveat emptor" – you may be buying some future liabilities. Protect your assets when you purchase rural property by finding out exactly what you're paying for.

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