Onsite Wastewater Systems In Real Estate Transactions

This webpage is intended for real estate professionals, property lending professionals and concerned homeowners looking to buy or sell a home in Alaska. Information regarding best practices of managing wastewater systems in real estate transactions is reviewed here. It is not regulatory in nature. It does not cover all situations. If you have any questions, please contact your local ADEC office. For homeowner information when looking to buy a home click here.


Types of wastewater system documentation

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (department) documents on-site wastewater systems in two manners:

1. The department currently documents on-site wastewater systems using a Documentation of Construction form completed, signed and submitted to the department by an engineer, Certified Installer or Approved Homeowner. Once a Documentation of Construction is recorded by the department the Documentation of Construction will appear on the department's Septic Tracking System (SEPTS).*

2. On-site wastewater systems designed by an engineer and submitted to the department are reviewed by the department and approved with an Approval to Operate.

*This is the current method of documenting on-site wastewater systems. The department has implemented various documentation forms and methods in the past. If the department issued a document for an on-site wastewater system, a copy of the document that was issued at the time it was submitted will be in SEPTS.

How do I check if a system is properly recorded with the department?

All on-site wastewater system records in the Engineering Support and Plan Review (ESPR) Section are filed by the property's legal description provided on the application. The majority of the time, the legal description is the subdivision, lot and block. For other properties, it may be a survey and tract, others may be described in Township and Range, otherwise known as the Public Land Survey System (Click HERE). A search cannot be completed by mailing addresses.

Using the legal description, you can search for the property documentation in the SEPTS online database. Below is an example of how to search SEPTS.

Search using subdivided property information:

1. Click the link that says "Search by Installer/Facility Name/Legal Description".

2. To limit your results, it is best to choose your area office, but it is not mandatory.

3. Input the least amount of information in the "Legal Desc" search box. Do not press "Enter" after you type anything in this search box. Pressing "Enter" will likely return a "No Results Found" result.

4. Click Search.

NOTE: The Municipality of Anchorage and Valdez maintain their own on-site wastewater system records for single family and duplex homes. SEPTS does not duplicate the records listed in these databases.

Update** Effective October 22, 2016 a Document of Construction retrieval fee of $25 will be charged if you contact the Department to search and retrieve septic information on a subject property. Please see the FAQ's for more information.

What if I cannot find documentation?

If SEPTS returns no documentation, you have additional options. One common issue is that the legal property description may have changed since the system was originally filed with the department. In this case, you should follow the platting history of the property to search other potential legal descriptions the property. The Department of Natural Resources Recorder's Office search tool may be helpful with this search (Click HERE). You can see past plats and any recorded changes made to the property so you can search past legal descriptions. Search the SEPTS database with previous legal descriptions.

It is also possible that the property was not entered into the SEPTS database, but a paper file exists at the regional department office. Contact your local department office and request a paper document search. If a property has a long history of being subdivided, you should provide your local office with a list of possible past legal descriptions based on your research.

Update** Effective October 22, 2016 a Document of Construction retrieval fee of $25 will be charged if you contact the Department to search and retrieve septic information on a subject property. Please see the FAQ's for more information.

How does ESPR search for a property record?

ESPR searches electronically and physically for every legal description you provide. If the search produces no results, ESPR will inform you that no record exists for the legal description provided. You may also elect to come to any area office and conduct a physical search as well, especially if you have multiple legal descriptions. Depending on office workload, replies for requested information can take 5-10 working days. ESPR staff often can help with simple searches much faster, but complex searches take additional time to complete and are prioritized based on competing workloads.

Update** Effective October 22, 2016 a Document of Construction retrieval fee of $25 will be charged if you contact the Department to search and retrieve septic information on a subject property. Please see the FAQ's for more information.

What if no document exists for a property with an installed on-site wastewater system?

If the sale of the property depends on documentation from the department of the on-site wastewater system (typically this is a lender requirement) and the department cannot locate documentation, advise your client to retain the services of an engineer. The department does not recommend engineers for hire, so typical search techniques like the internet, telephone books and word of mouth work well to find an engineer. The state maintains a database of professional licensed engineers as well, but not all of the engineers conduct work for on-site systems (Click HERE).

The engineer will inspect the on-site wastewater system and compile a report to submit to ESPR. The engineer is required to professionally assert that the system is functioning in a way that is protective of public health and the environment and provide ESPR with sufficient detail to properly document the system. ESPR will process the submittal and upload the document into SEPTS or provide a written response to the submitting engineer.

The engineer may identify problems with the current installation and recommend repairs or perhaps replacement of the system. In some cases an engineering plan will be required.

ESPR's review time for a complete engineering plan is 30 days. If the plan is incomplete or requires additional information from the engineer, the review time may be longer due to an iterative process with the submitting engineer.

Update** Effective October 22, 2016 a Document of Construction registration fee of $115 will be charged upon the submittal of an engineering report documenting a conventional onsite system. This fee is not applicable in the scenario that an engineering plan is required.

Does my client have to use an engineer if there is no documentation of a system?

If your client wants to try to document the system that is installed, then a report from an engineer is required to be submitted to ESPR for documentation. If your client choses to completely replace the existing system with a new system, then a Certified Installer (Click HERE) may be hired to install the system if a conventional on-site system can be installed. Not all areas are suitable for the installation of a conventional on-site wastewater system. An engineer or Certified Installer can evaluate if a location is suitable for installation of a conventional on-site wastewater system. Retention of an engineer is necessary if the proposed site is not suitable for a conventional on-site wastewater system and an engineered on-site wastewater system is necessary.

What if the authorization or approval has an old legal description on it?

With on-site wastewater systems, the land is part of the system. If lot lines move, even just a little, parts of the on-site wastewater system located underground and out of sight could now be on another parcel. ESPR does not have the resources to inspect or survey properties to determine if platting actions have impacted the subsurface components of an installed on-site wastewater system.

In cases where legal descriptions have changed, the current method the department utilizes to modify the older approval is for the current owner to have an engineer submit a report to the department for processing. Since on-site wastewater systems utilize the land for treatment and/or disposal of wastewater, a professional assertion is the most direct way to document the platting changes have not impacted the on-site wastewater system. Examples of platting changes that could impact the system include: subdivided lots where private water systems or on-site wastewater systems were installed near the original on-site wastewater system, moved lot lines resulting in parts of the on-site wastewater system being located off the owner's property, or added easements or features (like a driveway) that are over or near the on-site wastewater system. Numerous potential scenarios exist where the re-arrangement of the lot can adversely impact the operation and maintenance of an installed on-site wastewater system, which is why an engineer's assertion is necessary.

Effective April 1, 2016, the department will streamline the process for land owners to modify the legal description for a property's on-site wastewater system. Click HERE for the form that the current legal owner of the property can sign and submit requesting a modification of the legal description on an existing on-site wastewater system document. The form will require the current legal owner to assert that the change has not impacted the on-site wastewater system. The department will not modify the original onsite wastewater document, but will append the owner's request and the department's receipt of the request to the original on-site wastewater document. In this case, the department will not evaluate the accuracy of the owner's assertions regarding the platting modifications as land use designations are outside the purview of ESPR.

What if the document or approval was for a different property condition?

The most common condition that changes at a property is the number of bedrooms. For a residential onsite wastewater system, it is customary to design or size the on-site wastewater system based on the number of bedrooms. Often times, an owner who has an on-site wastewater system document for a specific number of bedrooms will modify the home, and change the number of bedrooms. The conflict normally materializes when the owner wants to sell the home with a higher number of bedrooms than the on-site wastewater system was documented for, and the lender or buyer notices the mismatch.

In this case, ESPR cannot change the number of bedrooms on the document as this would be changing the basis for the system's design without the designer's consent. One option is for the owner to contact the onsite wastewater system's original designer and see if they would be willing to certify to ESPR that the system is designed to support a different number of bedrooms. A second option is for the owner to hire a new engineer to assess the on-site wastewater system and assert if the design can support the new number of bedrooms by submitting an engineering plan to ESPR for review.

In other cases, such as addition of slopes (cut banks) or well installation, contact your local ESPR office for assistance.

Update** Effective October 22, 2016 a Document of Construction registration fee of $115 will be charged upon the submittal of updated information to the Department regarding a change in property conditions. This fee is not applicable in the scenario that an engineering plan is required.

How should I advise my clients?

The best advice we can offer is to begin early to determine the status of an on-site wastewater system. If the property will be financed through a lender, and the property has an on-site wastewater system, there is a very good chance the lender is going to want information on the on-site wastewater system. Search for onsite wastewater system documents as a part of preparing the property for listing. Don't wait until a contract is signed to find out you may need 30 days or more to complete an engineering plan review.

Next, advise your client that just because the system works, doesn't mean that the department has documentation of it. This is a common issue we hear about when owners have added bedrooms to a home, or tied in a garage or cabin without reviewing or modifying the wastewater system. Many sellers in this position will adamantly claim the system has been working fine for years and simply wants the department to "OK"; the modification. In this case, the owner would need to hire an engineer to evaluate if the system can, in fact, accommodate the modifications or additions the owners made. Evidence that the toilets flush is not evidence the on-site wastewater system is operating properly.

To complicate matters, the modifications or additions may have been made prior to the current owner. Often, the modifications or additions were not noticed when the current owner bought the house because lenders are now requiring additional information concerning on-site wastewater systems prior to financing homes. We see many cases where the modifications or additions were made sometimes decades before the current owner bought the house, but now the current owner has to correct the mismatch between the house's modifications or additions and the original design of the on-site wastewater system to meet the lender's requirements.

Top Ten Seller Tips Top 10 Buyer Tips
  1. Start Early! Get your on-site wastewater system documents in hand early in the process
  2. Make sure the on-site wastewater system documents agree with the number of bedrooms for the house you're listing.
  3. Make sure the on-site wastewater system documents have the current legal property description.
  4. Gather any maintenance records like pumping receipts or repair work.
  5. Schedule an inspection of the on-site wastewater system early, if needed.
  6. Plan for at least 30 days for ESPR to review complete engineering plans, if plans need to be submitted.
  7. Keep on-site wastewater system documents with all other important real estate papers like the deed, survey, etc.
  8. Make sure on-site wastewater system plans match any modifications or additions completed on the home.
  9. Don't lull yourself into thinking that everything is fine as long as the toilets flush.
  10. START EARLY! Don't wait for a signed contract to begin looking for on-site wastewater system documents.
  1. Start Early! As soon as possible, determine if the house has an on-site wastewater system.
  2. Verify on-site wastewater system documents exist on SEPTS.
  3. Ensure the on-site wastewater system documents match the legal description, number of bedrooms, etc.
  4. Ask the owner for maintenance records, pumping records, and how the system performs.
  5. Ask the owner to point out the system in the yard. Walk the area and note any odors or wet areas.
  6. Consider an inspection of the on-site wastewater system by a wastewater professional if you suspect problems.
  7. Consider inspecting steel septic tanks installed over 15 years ago for corrosion.
  8. Verify the lot site conditions are the same as indicated on the wastewater documents.
  9. Ensure all components of the on-site wastewater system comply with land use agreements of the plat.
  10. START EARLY! Don't wait for your lender to request on-site wastewater system documents to begin searching for the on-site wastewater system documents.


Additional items:

For information from the real estate professional meeting February, 2016 use the links below.

Additional questions, comments, or concerns? Please contact your local DEC office.