Q: We are in the process of purchasing a home and during the inspection received a copy of the latest septic system inspection report. The home has passed the Title V inspection because it was previously compliant under older zoning setback laws and clearance from the well to septic. But the report states that “When the current septic system is eventually replaced, it will have to comply with Title V, including the required setbacks…There would be significant cost for the owner to comply with current standards.” See attached diagram.
If the septic needs to be replaced, I believe it will it will need to be moved to comply with new setback regulations. Is there a minimum lot size for a new septic system? What if I don’t own enough land or moving it would require blasting? Should I not buy this house?? Help! — Steven K.
A: Most local building codes require that new work, whether it’s the septic system, plumbing, or electrical, be brought up to current code. But it is not always 100% possible to do so, so allowances are made.
The septic system code in Mass. is called Title V, but most states and towns have similar laws. A full septic system inspection is required in Mass. when selling a home or doing major remodels. If the system fails the inspection, it must be brought up to current code, before the property can be sold or issued a building permit.
Many homes and lots that pre-date the Title V law, passed in 1995, were grandfathered in because it was not possible to meet the stringent requirements of Title V. The requirement that your septic system must be at least 100 ft. away from any wells (your own or your neighbors) was particularly difficult to meet on small lots. Property setbacks were also difficult to meet with drain fields. So zoning variances were often granted to allow for reduced clearances.
Most modern septic system designs include both a primary drain field and a designated area for the replacement field, to be used if and when first drain field fails. Since septic systems do not last forever, the day will come when you will need a new drain field and it will need to comply with current regulations. So your concerns are valid.
I’ve worked a lot in Mass. and have never seen anyone thrown off their land because it did not meet Title V. What I have seen is people forced to spend a lot of money to bring their aging septic systems (or cell pools) up to modern code, or as close as possible to code, when selling or remodeling.
I don’t know what the solution might be in your case. Title V is a big, complex law, enforced at the municipal level, with variations in how it is interpreted and enforced. Towns are allowed to be more stringent than Title V, but not less. The same principle applies to most state and national building codes.
Sometimes, the town lets you put the “replacement” field in the exact same location as the current drain field. This is messy and more expensive than using new undisturbed soil, but it may be an option. Also, the property line setbacks and 100 ft. clearance between wells and septic systems may be impossible to meet on your lot. It’s up to town to determine, with the input of a licensed septic system designer, what adjustments are allowed. It’s possible that a costly alternative septic system will be required.
If you have an official Title V Passing Certificate in hand, I wouldn’t be overly concerned for the near term. You should not need to replace up update your system until it fails or you plan to sell or do major remodel. The current certificate should be valid for 2-3 years.
However, septic systems do not last forever, so it is smart to look ahead. Replacing the system could require a zoning variance and there is never a guarantee that a variance will be granted. So there is some risk involved.
To limit your risk, I strongly recommend meeting with the local health department, or whoever regulates septic systems in your town, to discuss your concerns. If at all possible, get an official to put their opinion in writing, since it may be years before you need to upgrade your system. By then, personnel change and memories fade. – Steve Bliss, BuildingAdvisor.com
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