Got water? Time of sale septic inspections can protect water quality: Part 2

Counties, townships can protect surface and groundwater by adopting time of sale septic inspection ordinances.

The first part of this two-part article addresses the motivations for protecting water quality in Michigan and introduces time of sale septic inspection ordinances as one tool for local governments to consider for protecting surface and groundwater. Part 2 explains more about time of sale septic inspection ordinances, the experiences of several Michigan counties, and the pros and cons of such a program.

The cost of a septic system evaluation can range from $200 to $700, depending on whether septic tanks will be pumped/hauled and whether inspection of the water supply well is included. The cost to repair or replace failing systems can be as little as a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the system deficiencies and the site.

Barry and Eaton Counties have a Time of Sale or Transfer Program administered by the Barry-Eaton District Health Department that began in November of 2007. In the first three years of the program, there were 2,297 sites where septic systems were evaluated with 602 showing signs of failure (or 26 percent of evaluated sites). Of these sites, 136 were illicit connections or there was no absorption system at all. Health officials estimate that, in the first three years, the program stopped the illegal discharge of approximately 26.7 million gallons of sewage by correcting the 136 illicit discharge/no system sites alone.

Statewide, the Michigan Association for Local Public Health estimates that local jurisdictions with time of sale programs find on average 17 - 25 percent of systems evaluated in need of repair. Depending on the average age of septic systems in a given community or watershed, the actual number of inadequate systems will vary, but the consequences of not having a time of sale ordinance in place are likely to grow more severe as existing systems age. Typical septic system failures include leaking or damaged septic tanks, damaged or blocked connections to drain fields, inadequate distance from drain field to water table, inadequate system size for size of home, and insufficient distance from drain field to drinking water wells, lakes, or streams.

All groundwater travels towards surface water – lakes and streams. Groundwater passing by septic fields and tanks on waterfront lots may take less than a year to reach surface water depending on the location of the system and the surrounding soil type. Groundwater moves through sandy soils much faster than clay-rich soils. Soils consisting of more than 60 percent rock fragments, gravel, pebbles are excessively permeable and allow waste water to pass through with insufficient filtering of contaminants and nutrients. Communities with high-quality lakes, rivers, and streams will want to consider a time of sale inspection ordinance as a means to protect their water assets, maintain property values, and retain their sense of place, see the Michigan State University Extension article Placemaking is a rural responsibility too.

While the ultimate goal is to protect the surface and groundwater resource and public health through identification of deficient sewage treatment systems and water supply wells, there are additional benefits to time of sale ordinances. Since most programs require registered, third-party evaluators, other than the local government or health department, local businesses benefit from inspection work and possible follow-up septic system and water supply upgrades. This can be good for contractors in the community. Also, such programs help protect consumers. Home buyers benefit from knowing the condition of a property’s septic system and well and can make a more informed decision about their purchase. Further, the process of securing a mortgage can be a good time to address deficiencies in septic and water supply infrastructure as funding can be arranged to make needed corrections. Once a mortgage is closed, home buyers may be hard-pressed to come up with the extra cash to make corrections to issues discovered after the fact.

Time of Sale Septic Inspection Ordinance



Public health and environmental protection by eliminating failing septic systems and identifying and correcting improperly constructed water supply wells.

Need for collaboration between government jurisdiction, realtors, register of deeds, and third party evaluators and a system for entering, tracking, and transferring information.

Consumer protection by exposing substandard construction issues prior to the signing of purchase agreements.

Requirement of additional government jurisdiction staff time to administer program (and possibly information technology expenses).

Elimination of unplanned expense by purchasers resulting from the need to replace sewage and water systems after loans have closed.

Increase length and complication of real estate transactions.

Additional work for local well and septic system related businesses.

Requirement for certification protocols for third-party evaluators.

Creation of new business opportunities for registered evaluators from the private sector.


Improved confidence of lending institutions based upon direct knowledge of status of sewage and water supply systems.


*Adapted with permission from the Marquette County Health Department

Most time of sale septic inspection ordinances in Michigan are adopted at the county level and administered by the county or regional health department. County government has such authority under the County Board of Commissioners Act (PA 156 of 1851, as amended) granting the power to pass ordinances that relate to county affairs. Townships also have such authority to adopt a police power ordinance to protect public health, safety, and welfare under the Township Ordinances Act (PA 246 of 1945, as amended) or the Charter Township Act (PA 359 of 1947, as amended). Interested communities should review the specifics of existing programs in other Michigan communities, including:

Michigan State University Extension offers several educational programs covering best practices for how homeowners and local governments can protect water quality. Contact your MSU Extension county office for more information.

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