If you've lived in the city or suburbs your whole life, you've probably always been in homes connected to the public sewer system. If you're now considering buying a home more on the outskirts of town or out in a rural area, you're probably coming across a lot of homes for sale with septic systems, rather than sewer connections. Don't let the septic system turn you off -- it's standard practice in more rural areas. What you should do, however, is ask these questions before you buy.
How old is the tank?
Septic tanks don't last forever. A concrete septic tank will last about 40 years, and steel tanks last between 15 and 20 years. Ask how old the tank is; if it is approaching the end of its expected life, you will likely need to replace it soon. If this is not a task you want to tackle, you can walk away from the home -- there are sure to be others with much newer septic tanks. On the other hand, you could always just offer the seller less for the home and set aside the extra cash to pay for a new septic tank when it becomes needed.
Does the old owner have any inspection reports?
Septic tanks need to be pumped every few years in order to remove solid waste that does not break down naturally. When the tank is pumped, the septic professional usually creates an inspection report. They may note any rust that's beginning to form in the tank, corners that are crumbling, and so forth. If you notice any problems noted on recent inspection reports, you may want to consider having a septic professional come re-examine the tank and give you more details on the problem. They can tell you if it will need to be repaired, and if it does, how much the repair will cost.
Are there precautions the owner must take with the tank?
See if you can talk to the current homeowner about their daily use of the plumbing system in their home. Do they have to be careful about how much water they use at once? Must they avoid the use of their garbage disposal so they don't cause the tank to overflow? If there are precautions they take, make sure you're also okay with these restrictions being placed on your lifestyle. Keep in mind that if a tank is frequently overflowing, this could just be a sign that it needs to be pumped. Ask when the homeowner last had this done -- and consider having it done again as soon as you move in.