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Frank Gray


Septic rules solve, create problems

For about a year now, people selling homes in Allen County have been required to tell potential buyers if the home is on a septic system. The same disclosure form advises potential buyers to have the septic system examined by a certified inspector to determine whether the system is working – or whether it’s a time bomb.

It’s a good policy that has helped take some of the roulette out of buying homes in the countryside, and it should have been instituted a long time ago.

Allen County has at least 15,000 properties that use septic systems, and it’s unclear how many other systems exist that never had a permit.

Many homebuyers, though, never bothered to ponder the issues that can arise from septic systems, and some apparently weren’t even aware that homes they were buying were on septic systems.

One provision of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Department’s new policy, though, has caused some consternation among septic experts. If a qualified evaluator conducts a certified evaluation of a septic system, the inspector gives a copy of the evaluation to the potential buyer, but the inspector is also required to give a copy of the same evaluation to the health department.

If an evaluator were to determine that a system was failing, the consequences would be bad enough. It could dash a potential home sale, though the potential buyer would probably be very appreciative to know that the inspection helped the buyer avoid major headaches.

By turning the same report over to the health department, the evaluator would be notifying the health department of a septic system that might merit enforcement action, some evaluators say. Essentially, the owner of the house ran the risk of being ordered to take steps that could prove very expensive.

That turned septic evaluators into the ultimate bad guy, squirreling a real estate deal and making life miserable for the owner.

Health department spokesman John Silcox says the only purpose of disclosure is to provide homebuyers some protection from making ill-advised purchasing decisions. Meanwhile, the copy of any evaluation is just for the file the department has on the property, not for initiating enforcement actions against the property owner.

The fact is, there are a huge number of properties where enforcement actions could be justified.

For decades, there were essentially no regulations concerning septic systems. The result, one contractor said, was cholera outbreaks.

In the 1950s some regulations were introduced, but they were minimal.

The Clean Water Act changed all that in a hurry. Discharging liquid off a property from a septic system became illegal, which, one septic expert told me, made every system installed in the previous 40 years illegal.

Most of the systems have remained because the health department only responds to complaints, usually about sewage seeping to the surface or raw sewage being discharged into waterways.

One septic expert told me that whenever he gets a call to evaluate a septic system, he tells the caller that the system in question is probably illegal to begin with. If the caller cares to go forward, then he asks whether the caller wants a certified evaluation or a contractor’s evaluation. They are the same, but a certified evaluation has to be given to the health department. A contractor’s evaluation is just a transaction between two people.

It’s a way to protect potential buyers from unseen problems, but it avoids potentially causing huge problems for a property owner.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the problem, which has been around for decades and promises to linger for decades longer.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.