What You Need To Know About Wells, Septic Systems, and City Water For Your Home

All home buyers need and want water and sewer; which can only be delivered either by a well and septic system or by municipal water and sewer.
Working for more than 25 years as a full-time Realtor; half of which was in the Mount Snow ski area of Southern Vermont, I have considerable firsthand experience with both well and septic systems. Working with as many buyers as I do, I’ve realized that many often have ideas about these that are often somewhat muddled and/or short on details.
Many times I’ve had buyers tell me they want well and septic so as to avoid having water and sewer bills and while it’s easy to understand this thought process they don’t understand that while there won’t be monthly water and sewer bills, there are expenses they need to consider with a well and septic system. In conversation with my clients over the past twenty-five odd years I’ve realized that many would benefit from a simple guide about the differences both pro and con between the well and septic versus city water and sewer.
The Main Differences Between Wells & Septic Systems
If you’re buying a home that has a well it’s critical that you have it inspected by a qualified company as part of your due diligence process. Different areas of the country have different fee structures, but here in the Raleigh- Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina a typical well inspection will cost somewhere between $150 – $250.
The well will be opened up, to determine the static level of the water inside. Samples of the water will be taken and sent to a laboratory to be tested for a variety of heavy metals and coliform bacteria. The inspector should pull a copy of the original well permit which will indicate the GPM (Gallon per Minute) flow rate as well as the well depth. {Often there will be an aluminum band on the well casing with this information on it as well} It’s important to understand that the GPM of a well can change over time and could increase or decrease, so if this is important to you as a buyer then you may want to have your inspector pump the well dry and confirm the current GPM flow rate.
The inspector should also inspect your pressure tank which is located in or under the house. This is what creates water pressure inside your home. Water quality can vary dramatically and it’s possible that there may be one or more types of filters that will also need to be inspected including a water softener if you live in an area with hard water.
While there are no monthly water bills, homeowners need to be prepared to replace the well pump, the pressure tank and filters (if any) over time. In addition it’s possible for a well to go dry in which case homeowners will be faced with either having to have their well fracked to see if they can’t get it flowing again (This was the original fracking and while similar in concept is not the same fracking done for gas drilling) or they may need to have a new well drilled. These expenses could easily exceed several years of water bills.
Septic Systems
Septic systems also need to be inspected. There are several different types of standard septic systems, and I’m not going to cover the differences between them in this article. A septic inspection in our area of the country will cost approximately $500+/- which will include having the tank (or tanks) pumped. Having the tank pumped is important as there is no way an inspector can truly inspect the tank if it’s filled with gray water and solids. Both the tank and field should be inspected.
Again, when a home has a septic system there are no monthly sewer bills, however homeowners need to expect to have the tank pumped every few years (average cost $200- $300) and depending on the type of septic system they have there may be additional annual costs as some types of systems require a licensed inspector to verify that the system is working properly. Some systems have pumps and these pumps can burn out requiring replacement. It’s also possible with septic fields that if they weren’t properly maintained over the years that they can fail and replacing a failed system could cost a homeowner anywhere from $5000 – $20,000 depending on a variety of factors.
One last thing to consider is that septic systems are designed based the number of bedrooms in the home, so it’s important if you’re buying a home that has a septic system to ask your Buyer Broker to confirm that the septic system was designed for the number of bedrooms in the home, as I’ve often seen instances where a homeowner added additional bedrooms to their home without expanding the septic system which creates a legal issue.
Well and Septic versus City Water and Sewer
I’ve been asked many times which is better and my answer is that it’s not a matter of one being better than the other. In some instances there simply isn’t a choice; municipal water and sewer aren’t available. Well and Septic has been in use for much longer than I’ve been alive. Septic system are engineered systems and when properly installed and maintained can give many decades of trouble free use. I’ve had them in several homes I’ve lived in and have never had any problems with them.
That said, they aren’t truly free as there is regular maintenance that’s necessary and occasional larger capital expenditures to replace worn out parts. Wells are the same, and I know many people who prefer well water, but again there are expenses and the risk that you’re well could under certain conditions go dry. For myself I’m comfortable with city water and sewer and the monthly bills that come along with them, but I’m also fine with well and septic if I’m living in a more rural area and encourage my buyers who my be considering such a property for the first time not to be fearful.

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