Septic Systems: Homebuyer’s Guide


What is a Septic System

One in every five homes feature a septic system, and if you are buying a home in a rural area there’s a good chance that home has a septic system. If the home is not connected to a local sewer system, then it will have a septic system. A septic system is one that manages a home’s plumbing waste. It does this by collecting the waste in a large tank underground. Natural bacteria break down the waste in the tank and the waste leaves the tank in the form of a liquid. This liquid waste flows to a drain field where the waste is filtered through gravel and is returned to the soil.

Septic systems are often overlooked by homeowners and buyers. The fact that the system is out of site makes it easy to forget it’s there (until there’s a problem). Septic systems should be inspected and cleaned every 3-5 years. Not properly maintaining the system can be costly as a new system often costs between $6,000 and $12,000 and can be as much as $25,000 in some cases.

What a Home Inspection Includes

If you are purchasing a home with a septic system, your home inspector should perform a visual inspection of the system. This will include running all plumbing in the home and checking for adequate drain flow and supply water pressure. The inspector should also check the area where the drain field is located. Standing water or very soft ground in this area indicates an issue with the system.

What a Full Inspection Includes

The home inspector’s assessment of the septic system is very limited, and it is recommended that a full inspection be performed. In Arkansas (and many other states), a license is required to perform these inspections as well as perform maintenance on the system. During a full inspection, the inspector will open the tank cover and run all of the plumbing. The inspector will check for proper flow into the tank. Dye is sometimes added to the plumbing system to aid the inspector. Backflow from the drain field into the septic tank will also be evaluated. A full septic system inspection is typically $300 to $600.

Making it Last

A septic system should last 25 years and often longer if it is well maintained. Care should be taken to not put things down a drain that will not break down easily such as tampons, paper towels, and baby wipes. All food waste should be run through a garbage disposal before entering the drain. Never put grease down the drain and avoid heavy use of bleach as this may kill the bacteria in the tank.

If you are on a septic system in Arkansas, the Arkansas Department of Health regulates all aspects of installing and maintaining the systems. Feel free to visit their site at


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