Ramseys: Bending the rules on water, sewer regs can result in unforeseen costs

HousingNovember 30, 2013 

Pushing the boundaries of rules, laws and municipal ordinances can be a lot like musical chairs -- eventually the music stops and the one left standing deals with the consequences.

We believe one of those consequences is nearing with wells and septic systems. For years, the city has required wells and septic systems have an accurate Certificate of On-site Systems Approval, or COSA. The COSA ordinance is designed to show that a property meets minimum well and septic system standards for the number of bedrooms in the home before title is transferred to a new owner. While the COSA does not guarantee the well and septic system will always work, the certificate does give a "moment in time" evaluation to the new homeowner that the well meets the minimums for amount and quality of water, and that the septic system is properly functioning.

Unfortunately, some sellers, buyers, lenders, title companies, appraisers and Realtors are bending the rules. They are ignoring the ordinance and transferring properties without an accurately updated COSA. As long as willing sellers and buyers -- unwitting or not -- exist, many lenders will provide loans and title companies will close without an accurate COSA for each transaction. Perhaps they believe enforcing Anchorage ordinances is not their job. In addition, appraisers and Realtors often determine bedroom count based on how rooms are currently being used by homeowners.

Here are three reasons why someone might misrepresent or forgo obtaining an accurate COSA:

1. The cost of the inspection, which is $1,800 or more;

2. A fear that the property's well and septic system might not pass, resulting in costly repairs or replacement at $10,000 or more, depending on the amount of work needed; or,

3. The number of bedrooms in the house doesn't match the size of the system. This is the most common reason and typically occurs when an owner adds bedrooms during remodeling or by completing an unfinished area.

Bedroom count is how the city estimates expected use, which determines how big the system must be to handle the graywater and effluent generated by the occupants. A bedroom is defined as a room with a door, large enough to hold a bed, and that has a closet and a safe way out in case of fire. However, a room is not considered a bedroom if it has another door opening into a furnace room. If the house has more bedrooms than the system size allows, one of the bedrooms might be set up or labeled for another use -- office or media room -- to hide the problem. Unfortunately, the unsuspecting buyer doesn't look closer.

Why the fuss around a bedroom? Primarily, one family's use is not the same as the next family. A buyer who chooses to knowingly accept the risks might get stuck with a financial liability later when trying to sell. The most expensive fix would be to increase the size of the septic system. The least expensive would be to remove one of the requirements that make the room a bedroom. However, having fewer bedrooms can affect the house's sale value and marketing, which costs money in a different way.

In the case of the well, bedrooms again come into play. Approval of the well for a COSA focuses on water quantity, quality and distance. The well must have enough water for the occupants to use and drink. The number of occupants is based on the number of bedrooms.

During water testing, the well mechanics are also checked to confirm that contaminants are not leaking into the drinking water. The city requires a basic water quality test that checks that three items are within acceptable limits: arsenic, coliform bacteria (feces contamination) and nitrate levels. High nitrate levels are dangerous to infants and pregnant women. High nitrates in infants can cause "blue baby" disease by preventing the baby's blood from properly carrying oxygen.

Finally, the distance from the well to any septic system must be 100 feet or more to help prevent water contamination. If you really want to know the quality of the water your family will be drinking, a more in-depth Private Individual Water Analysis tests for minerals and other substances is available. A PIWA also gives you a good base line in case your water quality changes.

As Anchorage continues to grow and private utility systems age, the importance of enforcing the COSA ordinance may grow higher on the city's list. Rumor has it that the music may be getting ready to end, and the city may begin to take a harder look at the problem. When that happens, homeowners will be left to fix potentially expensive problems they inherited when the time comes for them to sell.

Clair and Barbara Ramsey are local associate brokers specializing in residential real estate. Their column appears every fourth Sunday. Their email address is info@ramseyteam.com.

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