Title 5 Inspections: What Are They, And When Are They Necessary?

There are all sorts of inspections and forms that home buyers and sellers have to deal with.

There are obvious ones. They include home inspections conducted during the contingency period, and the termite inspection that mortgage lenders require before writing a home loan.

There are ones that realtors usually handle for their clients. For example, there are seller’s disclosure forms that itemize potential property hazards like asbestos or lead paint, and natural hazard disclosures that spell out whether a house is on an earthquake fault line or in a flood zone.

There are ones that only some municipalities require, such as a “certificate of occupancy” that guarantees a house has been built and maintained according to building codes.

And then there are inspections that seem to come out of left field.

One of them is known as a “Title 5” inspection. It’s only required in Massachusetts, so naturally, most home sellers have never heard of it. And it’s only required for some houses sold in the state, which makes it even more obscure.

But if you own a home in Massachusetts with a septic system, failure to obtain a Title 5 inspection could derail the sale of your house without warning.

Exactly what is a Title 5 inspection? And for the city dwellers in the crowd, exactly what is a septic system?

Let’s get down and (literally) dirty on those subjects.

What In The World Is a Septic System?

Image of Septic Tank Tubes

If you live in a city or big town, you may not realize that some houses aren’t connected to a sewer system. In truth, many communities don’t even have a sewer system. And some homeowners who have access to city sewer lines choose not to use them in order to avoid the monthly fees.

These houses have an underground septic system – which takes the waste from the home, and collects and processes it on-site.

If that sounds disgusting, it really isn’t – unless you work for a company that pumps out the tanks, or something goes terribly wrong with the system.

It may seem primitive to pump waste into the ground behind or next to your house. But a septic system is smartly designed to handle the nasty stuff and make it environmentally-friendly.

  1. Waste from the home is pumped into a water-tight underground septic tank, where it sits for a while. That allows water to separate from the solids, and bacteria to break down much of the waste; septic tanks are designed to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria for that task. Scum (oil and grease) floats to the very top, where it stays.
  2. The solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank, where the bacteria cause it to partially decompose. The waste water (called effluent) flows out of the tank through a filter, which ensures that all solid waste stays in the tank.
  3. The effluent flows (usually with the help of gravity) out of the tank, through a series of perforated pipes in a leaching field. That’s a large area with a gravel bed, which has been excavated next to the septic tank. As the effluent percolates through the leaching field, the soil and gravel further purify it. Eventually, the water is clean; and some of it drains into the ground while the rest evaporates.
  4. Every year or two, a septic company must be hired to pump out the residual solids from the septic tank. Otherwise, the system would clog up and waste would contaminate the leaching field, requiring its replacement.

That’s the simple explanation. For some homes, pumps must be installed for the septic system to work properly. Others may require trucking in the right type of soil. Most homeowners don’t have to worry about those issues, though. All they have to worry about is scheduling their septic service regularly, and keeping the grass over the leaching field mowed.

We know what you’re thinking: “That must smell awful!” Actually, it doesn’t, except when the tank is being pumped out every year or two, or if something in the system fails (which is extremely rare). This is a tried-and-true system that has worked for generations, and septic systems usually last for at least 25 years before they have to be replaced (at a cost of at least $10,000, sometimes much more).

It still sounds crazy? What if we told you that more than 20 million homes in America have septic systems? They’re most common in the Deep South and New England, where many residents live their entire lives without ever having had sewer service. And they’re extremely common in Massachusetts, where about one-third of the homes have septic systems.

That brings us to the subject of Title 5 inspections.

Bottom Line: Millions of homes in America, most of them in the south or in New England, aren’t connected to sewer systems. Instead, they have individual septic systems installed underground on the property. Waste is pumped into a septic tank and processed with the help of bacteria; the waste stays in the tank to be pumped out once every year or two. The water is filtered and sent into a leaching field, where it’s cleaned further before evaporating or dripping into the ground. The system is safe, effective – and doesn’t smell at all.

The Massachusetts Title 5 Inspection

Regular septic system inspections are required in many states where the systems are common. That’s not the case in Massachusetts; periodic inspections are only mandatory for septic systems handling large buildings or multiple homes, or when changes are made to a property’s usage or footprint.

The one other time that an inspection must be conducted, though, is when a home with a septic system is sold. The state law describing the procedure is part of the Massachusetts Environmental Code, but is usually simply referred to as “Title 5.”

The Inspection

A Title 5 inspection isn’t a simple five-minute procedure. First, a licensed inspector interviews the homeowner to learn when the system was installed, what problems (if any) it’s had, and how many people live in the household. He runs the water, flushes the toilets and even stays while the washing machine runs through a complete cycle, to make sure the system is working properly.

Next, he checks the septic tank to ensure it’s the right size for the home’s water use, that there are no cracks or leaks, that the filters work, and that it doesn’t need to be pumped out. He digs holes into the leaching field to be sure the water is draining properly and that the ground isn’t contaminated. If there are pumps or other mechanical components of the system, he checks those as well.

After the inspection, the system will pass, conditionally pass, or fail. A “conditional pass” means that a component of the system (like a cracked pipe or septic tank) must be repaired and the repair must be approved by the local Board of Health. A failed system usually has to be replaced, at huge expense – and until the system passes the inspection, the house can’t be sold. So a Title 5 inspection is a very big deal.

Can You Avoid a Title 5 Inspection?

There’s no way around a Title 5 inspection if you’re selling your home to an unrelated third party. The inspection report will be required at closing.

There are certain limited exceptions to be aware of, though.

  • If bad weather prevents an inspection from taking place before a home sale, it can be done within six months after the sale. However, the seller has to notify the buyer, in writing, that the inspection must be done within that time frame. What happens if the septic system fails inspection after the buyer has taken possession and moved in? If there hasn’t been prior agreement that the seller will reimburse the buyer, it’s negotiation or lawsuit time.
  • An inspection is valid for two years after it’s been conducted (or three years, if the tank is pumped every year and the work has been documented). That means, for example, if a buyer has their septic system inspected in anticipation of a sale, but then doesn’t sell the house for 18 months, another inspection isn’t necessary. And if someone buys a home and then sells it within two years of the inspection, a new one isn’t required.
  • An inspection isn’t required if a homeowner transfers ownership to a spouse, child, parent, sister or brother, or if the property is held in a trust. It’s also not required when a property is refinanced.

However, if a house is inherited by anyone except a spouse, or if it changes hands due to a foreclosure or bankruptcy sale, a Title 5 inspection is required. And as we’ve mentioned, if there’s a change in the property’s usage or footprint, an inspection must be performed even if there’s no change in ownership.

Bottom Line: A house with a septic system must pass a rigorous inspection, conducted by a licensed inspector, before it can be sold to someone other than a relative. If the system fails, it must be replaced at great expense; a “conditional” pass means that just minor repairs have to be made. A successful inspection is good for two years, or three years if the septic tank is pumped out annually.

How to Pass a Title 5 Inspection

Unfortunately, there’s no golden ticket that guarantees your septic system will pass inspection. Pumping sewage into the ground may seem like a simple process, but a septic system is actually quite complicated, and there are a number of components that could fail without attracting immediate notice.

But if you use your system properly, chances are slim that you’ll get a dreaded failing grade from the inspector. Here are important tips for anyone whose home has a septic system:

  • Only use the amount of water you really need to use. Fix leaks right away, and install low-flow toilets and showerheads. Don’t leave faucets running unnecessarily.
  • Don’t flush anything down the toilet other than waste and toilet paper, and use “septic safe” (biodegradable) toilet paper.
  • Don’t pour fat, grease, chemicals or garbage into the sink. Only install a garbage disposal if you know your septic system is designed for disposal use.
  • Leave the surface of the leaching field clear. Don’t drive over it or plant anything on top of it.
  • Have the septic tank pumped every two years. If more than five people live in the house, do it once a year.
  • If there are any signs of septic system problems, like clogged or gurgling drains, unusual smells, or – believe it or not – grass that’s too green above the leaching field (a sign that waste isn’t being filtered properly), call a septic company immediately.

Take care of your septic system, and it will take care of you – with a passing inspection grade when you’re ready to sell.

Bottom Line: Septic systems work extremely well, as long as they’re used and maintained properly. Limit unnecessary water use, don’t put things down drains that don’t belong there, and pump the tank out on schedule, and you should have no trouble passing a Title 5 inspection.

Title 5 Inspections FAQ

Q: When should I have my septic system inspected?
A: It’s best not to wait until you put your home on the market; the last thing you need is an inspector poking around when your house is being shown to prospective buyers. Actually, that’s not quite true. It would be even worse to have your septic system fail inspection after you’ve already accepted an offer. Have the inspector come at least a few months before you’re going to list the home; earlier is even better, since a failed inspection means installing a new septic system and that can take many months. Remember, the inspection is good for two years after it’s been performed, so there’s no penalty for having it done a year ahead of time.

Q: Who pays for the septic inspection?
A: The seller.

Q: Can’t I just have a septic inspection done when they do the home inspection?
A: Nope. They’re done by completely different inspectors. The buyer hires the home inspector after their offer has been accepted by the seller. The seller must hire a septic inspector who’s been certified to do the work by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. There’s a list of approved septic inspectors available on the mass.gov website.

Q: Is a cesspool the same thing as a septic system?
A: They’re different in a very important way. A cesspool is just an underground tank with holes in it. Waste falls to the bottom, while the water flows into the surrounding ground without being filtered or transported to a leaching field. As you might guess, cesspools have to be pumped out much more often than septic tanks, and when the ground gets saturated, the cesspool must be moved. Massachusetts allows the sale of homes with cesspools as long as they pass inspection, but they can’t be repaired if they fail inspection – they must be replaced with a more modern septic system.

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