Pre-purchase: Septic Fixed, Yard is Gone
July 24, 2019 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the process of buying a home in Vermont. Because the septic failed inspection, I could not close until the septic was repaired, and the job was finished yesterday (seller is paying). Unfortunately, fixing the septic meant destroying the yard, which is no longer usable. I don't know what to do and I close in 2 days.

Unfortunately, where there was a yard, there is now a dangerous hole where the new tank lives and a 20x10 raised bed.

In short, what was a big green area is now unusable. You can't park cars, you can't play, grill, sit, I can no longer build a garage. The new system was designed by a VT state contractor and while the crew who did it worked hard and created an amazing system, they were super unhappy how this new design completely destroyed any ability to actually USE the yard. I've spoken to the engineer who said there's nothing to be done except maybe put a fence around the septic tank (it can't be covered).

My question: what, if anything, can I do here? A big reason I bought the house was because of this awesome yard, which is now gone. Can I ask for a price reduction? What's reasonable? I am going to go through on this purchase but I am really unhappy that this new yard is not what I had agreed to.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes to Law & Government (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I’m so confused and not sure what I’m looking at in the photos. Why isn’t your septic tank buried? Aren’t they all? Can you clarify?
posted by amro at 2:08 PM on July 24, 2019

The pictures show the yard before anything was done to get a sense of the large amount of space now unusable. It's all new legislated design--tanks now must be open on top and remain uncovered, and the gigantic raised bed is the leach field. Can't throw soil on anything it or cover the gravel on top in any way.

This is apparently how septic systems are now designed. It has to be designed by a Vermont state engineer who oversees the whole thing.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:13 PM on July 24, 2019

Have you got a lawyer representing you at the closing? If so, I'd talk to them. But I'd say that you made a deal for a house with a working septic and a yard, inspection revealed that there wasn't a working septic so the seller fixed that, but now there isn't a yard (I don't quite understand from the pictures, but I believe you when you say it's unusable for what you want to use it for). That seems like enough for the deal to be off, either completely off or negotiating a new price.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:16 PM on July 24, 2019 [16 favorites]

The septic tank has to be open on top? That sounds horrifying.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:17 PM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

A new design with open tanks hasn't made it to the Vermont DEC website. Are you completely sure the work done is normal/in compliance with all the regulations? Not that I know what I'm talking about, but what you're describing sounds super, super weird.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:21 PM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

A big reason I bought the house was because...

It sounds like you haven't bought the house, you're under contract to buy the house. Do you have a realtor or real estate attorney? Because either should be able to advise you about what your options are, and a realtor should be able to advise you how much of a price reduction is worth asking for.

Some of that ends up coming down to your own judgment. My wife and I bought a piece of property where we learned something was not as-advertised. We pushed back on it and asked for a concession, the seller told us to take it or leave it, and we took it. But it was a relatively small issue and it was, as they say, "just money."

Here, I'd probably make an argument that what they're selling has changed in a significant way, and so should the price.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:22 PM on July 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

Are you completely sure the work done is normal/in compliance with all the regulations?

I am. Where I live, you can only get septic work designed by a state-designated engineer. No cowboys. There are only a few certified engineers in my area. Three of them were given the yard and septic concerns. All three came up with the same plan.

Please, for the sake of the question, assume that qualified engineers wrote this plan (as weird as it seems), it can't be changed, and that's not my concern. I want to simply know what are my options regarding the purchase and negotiating.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:31 PM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd back out of the deal.

The yard is, as you say, close to unusable. The hold where the septic tank is right now is a hazard. You'll have to put a fence around it or something. I don't understand why the leach field is higher than the level of the tank, but that hardly matters in the broad scheme of things.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:32 PM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have never seen or heard of an 'uncovered' septic tank. I assume that is a new state requirement. I'd find out if that is true.

I'd put a strong, short fence around the septic tank as I'd worry about driving into that area.

If you still want the house I'd sure ask for a large price reduction or be prepared to walk away from it.

Sorry that is the way it worked out for you. Good luck.
posted by JayRwv at 2:36 PM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe read this:
posted by JayRwv at 2:42 PM on July 24, 2019

Just in case you find it difficult to say no, and you may not at all, here's an obligatory pep talk.

As you navigate this issue, you will come across people (bureaucrats, professionals, representatives, etc.) who will try to tell you "that's just the way it is" so as to get you out of their hair. They have their reasons, and they might let you take a $10,000 hit so that the save themselves an hour, or make themselves $1,000. It's very hard to make someone treat your problem like their problem.

For something this big, it's ok to say no. It's ok to say this is unacceptable, I'm not ok with this. This is not a normal situation. There is no normal answer. Don't worry about appearing unreasonable. At the end of the day, nobody is going to pay your mortgage for you.

Repeat as needed: no offense, I like you as a person, this is business.
posted by dum spiro spero at 3:20 PM on July 24, 2019 [44 favorites]

The hole looks as if it would be dangerous to any visiting children, especially if they're uninvited explorers. If you really want the house, you need a fence as effective as a swimming-pool fence. Once such a fence was in place, it would be a problem the next time the septic tank needed to be pumped out. I'd back out, unless the hole can be filled in around the tank -- even then, I wouldn't be happy.
posted by SereneStorm at 3:21 PM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

What in the nine hells... in all my life, I have never heard of an open-air (that is to say, thoroughly aerobic) septic system. It's like an open-air sewer. The mind boggles at the idea of them writ large--no neighborhood association would ever allow one, and no self-respecting homeowner would sign themselves up for an open sewage pit in their front yard.

Your lawyer may be able to fix this, but not in the next 48 hours. You will not lose your deposit if you back out of this deal tomorrow. You should certainly not promise to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgage before you and your lawyer are satisfied that this ungainly thing will be gone from your yard.
posted by Mayor West at 3:24 PM on July 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

You do not have to buy this house. It is not the house you agreed to buy. This sucks a lot for the seller, and having dealt with septic issues, they get sympathy, but you will get your deposit back.

I'm in Maine and have not heard of this. It sounds like a new law that doesn't take embedded systems into account. Laws like that do tend to get changed, but maybe not quickly. Can a false top be constructed for the tank at grade level? The leach bed can get bushes. There may be landscaping solutions, but they will cost, and not yet your problem.

This is a massive headache for you, but it would be a bigger headache if it happened after you closed. Cold comfort, I know.
posted by theora55 at 3:44 PM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just to be clear for people not sure what they are looking at. If I am understanding correctly, the TANK is closed, but the space above where the tank is occupying is open and needs to remain so (I don't know the legislation but that is what the OP is expainining was told had to be the case)

And yeah, I think I'd be talking to my lawyer and seeing what is an option. Closing dates can be shifted, deals an be changed. The sellers are out a bunch of money on this job and that would, I think, make them more willing to negotiate with you than to try to pitch this to all new buyers. I know it's stressful and hard to hold multiple ideas at once. For you, I think I'd basically decide

1. yes I want this and will try to make it work
2. No, I don't want this and will try to get out of it

And move forward from that position.
posted by jessamyn at 3:47 PM on July 24, 2019 [20 favorites]

Agree with Jessamyn’s take about the tank but I can’t fathom why that tank cover would have to be down in a hollow like that. You have every reason to walk.
posted by beagle at 4:08 PM on July 24, 2019

Not the house you offered to buy, I would walk.
posted by w0mbat at 4:25 PM on July 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

You absolutely can walk away, you'll just forfeit all fees you've paid until this point. The contract you signed with the real estate agent or attorney should have the details on what you need to pay for breaking contract. Nothing has legally changed hands until the closing.

One thing to keep in mind here is that this is work they would have had to do to sell this house to ANYONE, as it would have failed inspection for whoever was going to buy. So you have no moral responsibility for the money they put into it to fix it. If I were you I would probably be anxious about "screwing over" the sellers, but there's literally nothing else you could have done to avoid this.

You absolutely can ask for a lower price or you will walk, but the problem is that they're getting a pretty good fee from you if you walk so they don't really have any incentive to negotiate here, unless they're desperate to sell quickly. But it also sounds like you're pretty unhappy with the current situation, so there's not really much harm in trying to negotiate. But, you only have 2 days so it can't be a long negotiation.

If I were you, I would go back to them and say "this renovation has significantly lowered the value of the house to me, if we don't reduce the sale price by x dollars I will walk away. You have one day to decide". You need to send this message ASAP, as they will need time to think about it and respond. If you'd actually be okay with walking away, pick a value for x that matches what you really feel. If you're not really willing to walk away, pick a smaller value. Expect the seller to be pissed. This is a rough situation for everyone, but you need to make the decision that will make you happy 10 years from now.
posted by JZig at 4:47 PM on July 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

Are you going to feel angry and helpless every single time you look out at this land?
posted by amtho at 4:49 PM on July 24, 2019 [15 favorites]

What's reasonable?

I'm so sorry. I would definitely call your real estate attorney as soon as possible. If I were you, I'd go out and stand on this land and ask myself, if this were the first time I was seeing this house, would I still buy it?

If the answer is no, do what you can to get out of the contract.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:18 PM on July 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

is it possible to build some sort of raised deck that would sit a few feet above the septic bed? if so, maybe you can delay the closing until the sellers put that in? If you buy the house without some sort of solution for this it is going to upset you every time you look out at that space. Save yourself all that anguish and get this addressed before you buy this house. good luck, this must be so stressful!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:12 PM on July 24, 2019

The property has fundamentally changed since you entered the sale and any attorney worth their salt would remove you from this without a loss of your deposit (technically earnest money in escrow, different than a "deposit") and do enerything to convince you to walk away from this. You do have a lawyer, correct?

If a sinkhole of the same size as this ridiculous engineering opened up in the same place at the same time in this process you would not be obligated to move forward with it.

Once the closing happens you have NO MORE RECOURSE, it becomes legally your eyesore, you responsibility and YOUR LIABILITY.

I am reminded of the advice of a mentor before bought my first property.

1) Never buy real estate without your own lawyer representing only your side/interests.

2) Don't fall in love with anything that cant love you back.

Immediately run from this sale.
posted by sandra_s at 6:42 PM on July 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Odds are your attorney can get you out of the contract while retaining your escrow. I’ve had three people back out on real estate sales for less cause (one because he finally read the HOA and realized he couldn’t AirBNB the condo, fer chrissakes) and I’ve never successfully held back their escrow without having to actually file suit.

Contact your attorney (and agent) ASAP.
posted by aramaic at 6:49 PM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

What I think is the first step, is to take the time pressure off of you and put it back on the seller or on no one. Have your lawyer postpone (not cancel) the closing. Obviously, you need to talk to your mortgage provider to see if they will still honor the mortgage commitment at the later closing date.

To me, the decision is binary with the closing in 48 hours. Either go or no go. If you can delay the closing both you and the seller can discover solutions and then negotiate what is the best solution and who is covering it from a cost standpoint.

Only you can decide how much you need or want this property. Information I would want to know before I made my decision of go or no go, would be what is meant by cannot be covered. Cannot be covered by soil? Cannot be covered by any material? What if you built a fake storage shed or child's playhouse that had no floor but covered it and was somewhat aesthetically pleasing? What if you built some sort of platform that was engineered to hold tons of weight without putting weight on the tank itself?

What have other homeowners done in similar situations? While I believe there is a (new) law that requires the septic to be designed this way, I cannot believe that VT would pass a law that creates a material hazard as it appears to be in the photo. It appears to me that the seller is doing the least amount possible with them wanting to stick you with the steps after the basic tank and leach field is in.

I would discuss with my lawyer, with an engineer, with a real estate professional and with other homeowners who have had to build a septic system under the new law. I am pretty sure there are solutions that would make this close to the way it was previously, but the seller is not willing to do the work above making it compliant with the law. (I also think a state inspection will not allow the hazard of a large hole in the yard.)

What does you insurance company say about the hole? What about the mortgage company? Will/has the appraisal changed on the property?

To me, there are too many unanswered questions that all seem to shift the risk onto you as soon as you close. Now it is the seller's risk. I would want to buy time to learn more about possible solutions be they monetary or actual physical work that can be done on the property to mitigate the affect this crazy new law has created.
posted by AugustWest at 12:22 AM on July 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

Buy yourself more time - defer settlement. Unless the septic is a one-piece tank (and it still needs an inspection hatch of some sort), septics were NEVER meant to be covered - ground water should not be able to access the inside of the tank, and excess water should be visible if it needs to escape between the top of the tank and the lid (Hey! Your septic needs attention!!). So no surprise (for me) there.

I presume the timber structure surrounds an AWWTS? That is, the aeration/filtration/chlorination of the waste water before it is pumped out to the absorption field? All you can do with that is screen it with greenery. You should be able to cover sections that are not required for inspection/servicing.

You/someone is going to have to do a lot of work on that septic tank - it will need a retaining wall to hold back the high ground, it will need drainage to ensure all ground water can escape without entering the tank. You can (well, I do) place potplants, decorative items on the lid, even use it for whatever purposes you like, as long as all the inspection ports/hatches are readily accessible. I presume this system will require regular inspections (at your cost), mine are quarterly.

Note, a lot of what I describe is prohibited here, but as long as the system is working to spec, and the serviceman can access it easily enough, no one gives a rats. YMMV.
posted by GeeEmm at 12:52 AM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing it's a gravity fed system-- so needs to be lower then the rest of the property, hence being in a deep hole. And the 'leave it open' is a result of 'that way nothing heavy will ever go on it, possibly breaking/cracking it'. I don't understand why it's not further out and the leech field isn't rotated 90degrees-- but lets assume it's the best option, rather then the most cost efficient option taken.

When you say cannot be covered, do they just mean it can't be back-filled? I can't see why you couldn't create a deck/pergola area above the tank, which would both make it safe and into a usable space for your grilling-- then talking to a landscaper to see what can be done about hiding the leech field.

I would absolutely renegotiate on price. They would have had to do the septic work either way. Push the completion date back, get your property agent out to do a new valuation on the property with the works now complete, and negotiate based on their opinion of the loss of usable space.
posted by Static Vagabond at 6:26 AM on July 25, 2019

I hope you'll update the question.
posted by theora55 at 6:36 AM on July 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

What utter horseshit from the owners. They have done the absolute bare minimum and are now playing brinkmanship with closing. Seriously. Don't buy this house. At least not tomorrow. You won't lose a dime. Your lawyer or agent will absolutely get your earnest money back.

Then here's what will happen. The idiot home owners will fix the yard up nice to sell it. Guaranteed. They are jerking you around. Makes me wonder what else they have glossed over or lied about.

Good luck, you got this. The advice above about not falling in love with something that can't love you back is really good. So is the advice about repeating ad nauseum I pay the mortgage I make the decisions.... I wish I had gotten both of those bits when I was younger.
posted by chasles at 6:46 AM on July 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

I would join in with everyone saying that at least put things off to get time to think about it in cold blood, rather than under time pressure. While I'm certain that you're right about what the engineers have said has to be done from an engineering point of view, it seems possible that there's something productive to be done from a landscaping point of view -- people have said a bunch of things in the thread that might work, I don't know, but I can't believe that everyone who puts in a septic tank from here on out is going to have a big open hazardous pit in their yards. There's going to be something that can be done to ameliorate the mess, and that should be the seller's problem.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:16 AM on July 25, 2019

Your lawyer, whom you are paying directly, is the conduit for all of this. Less so the agent, who may not have great incentives here. Sit down with your lawyer ASAP and have them walk through your options given the law in your area and the specific contract you've signed. The rest of us are offering educated guesses. Your lawyer will know exactly. Keep asking questions of them until you feel confident about making some decisions based on their advice. It's fine to bring a trusted friend who is not a party to this to function as a sounding board.

AugustWest has a lot of good questions that you'll need to answer here. You probably have more options than what they've left you with, but you will have to keep asking questions to lots of different people to get some good answers. Persistence is key. The best question to finish any conversation is, "Who else might know something about this?"

The seller knows the value of the property has been harmed. It's their house. They probably liked the yard too! So it won't be a surprise to them that you'll come back to them asking for a price reduction or to bail.

Prepare yourself for conversations that are going to disappoint others. (The seller, your agent, etc.) This is a big decision, and more than anyone else, you have to deal with the consequences. When things feel like they're speeding up, slow down. Take notes. Write down your goals in all of this.
posted by thenormshow at 7:30 AM on July 25, 2019

If I had to deal with that in a place I already owned, my first thought would be to apply some kind of grate over it that allows for air and water to get in but no small animals or people. There must be a solution like that for people who have to adhere to this law but still own the land. Perhaps a raised deck can go in over the grating to make it actually usable. If you are successful in delaying, applying a solution like that could be the requirement you impose on the owners before you will go forward.
posted by soelo at 7:30 AM on July 25, 2019

Do not buy this house. This is not the house you wanted to buy. Get out and don't look back.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:30 AM on July 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

As a Vermont resident who put a septic in in 2008 this somewhat surprises me; however, if the results of the perc test showed the ground would not absorb enough liquid it stands that the engineers would need to design with that in mind. If the house is on ledge -- mine is -- then it may be impossible to dig low enough to bury the septic system. It may have been the only style of septic they could do.

You may need to walk away if you are unhappy, and the sellers will be out some money, but they may have an easier time selling the house in the future with a new septic in place.

The people from whom we bought our house had been under contract with another couple before we purchased. That couple had insisted that a radon abatement system be put in place, and the sellers did, and the buyers still backed out. But I am glad because we LOVE our house.

BTW, did you get the house tested for radon? If it is on ledge you should IF you decide to proceed. If you decide not too, be sure to test for radon in any future homes.

Good luck. Hope you get settled soon and we can have a long-overdue Vermont meetup. Maybe at our place.
posted by terrapin at 9:19 AM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

And it's solved. I asked for $5k for regrading and landscaping, the broker had an engineer and landscaper come over, and they mapped out a plan for $4k. The owner agreed and I'll close tomorrow!
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:58 PM on July 25, 2019 [19 favorites]

So stoked for you!
posted by jessamyn at 1:07 PM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

congrats! I hope you update this post with pictures of the finished landscaping once it's done!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:34 PM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is great news, neighbor!
posted by terrapin at 10:43 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the update and congratulations!
posted by theora55 at 12:55 PM on July 26, 2019

Is that the correct link? It looks like the same album.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:53 AM on July 30, 2019

the fix was added to the original album--it's hard to see with all the hay that's covering the dirt--i'll have better pix in a few months--but it's been leveled and terraced.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

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