Bad septic system raises stinky problems for buyer

DEAR MR. MYERS: We purchased a home in a rural area and had the property inspected before the sale closed. The inspector gave the property high marks, but we started having problems with the septic tank shortly after we moved in. Now a specialist says the tank must be replaced at a cost of $6,000, but the inspector says he is not liable for the bill because septic systems are not covered by a basic report. What can we do now?

ANSWER: In most parts of the country, septic systems are not covered by a basic inspection because the systems are a lot more difficult to evaluate than you might think. A thorough inspection would require that the entire tank and its underground leach system be dug up and examined, inch by inch. Most general inspectors aren’t qualified to make such assessments. The few who are won’t do it for their basic inspection fee of a few hundred dollars.

Double-check the paperwork the appraiser gave you. If there’s an area in the report that calls for an inspection of the septic system, you might have grounds to sue if he indicated that the system was OK or if he skipped the section altogether. But if the report specifically excludes the system, your chance of forcing him to pay for the repairs is slim.

Anyone who buys a home that includes a septic system should make the offer contingent on having the system pass an inspection by a specialist. If it’s any consolation, many buyers who have never purchased property in a rural area before – whether it’s for their primary residence or a vacation home – make the same mistake that you did. Your letter will hopefully prevent others from running into similar trouble.

DEAR MR. MYERS: We have been visiting several neighborhoods in our area, looking for our first house. It is now clear that we can afford either a small house or a fixer-upper in a fairly good neighborhood, or a home that would be much bigger in a marginal neighborhood. Which would be the better investment?

ANSWER: A small house or a fixer-upper in a good neighborhood would be your wisest choice. Even the worst house can be restored to good-as-new condition. Conversely, it’s impossible for you to personally “fix up” an entire neighborhood that’s going downhill. A golden rule of home buying is that you should always choose a neighborhood first, and then look for the best home you can afford in the area you have targeted.

DEAR MR. MYERS: My father had a stroke last year and can no longer work. His mortgage is paid off, but he barely has enough money to pay for his utilities and medication, not to mention a property-tax bill that is over $4,500 annually. Does his disability entitle him to any type of special property-tax relief?

ANSWER: I cannot answer your question directly, because you did not tell me where your father lives. However, people with disabilities are allowed special tax relief in nearly every state. Most states require that the disability is permanent, but a few also offer relief to those who are eventually expected to recover.

The best way to find out if your father is eligible for such a program is to call the tax assessor in the county where he lives. The phone number should be on his tax bill, or you can find it by searching online.

David W. Myers’ column is distributed by Cowles Syndicate Inc.