Condominiums, like all residences, produce wastewater. Determining how that wastewater is handled at the association is an important part of your condo pre-purchase due diligence.
Video on a condo buyer’s wastewater due diligence
Here is a video on this less than scintillating, but nonetheless important, topic:
Public sewer vs. on-site sewage disposal systems
In Massachusetts, you’ll find condo associations on public sewer in cities and in most towns with higher population densities.
With public sewer systems, wastewater is sent off-site to a central sewage treatment plant owned by the municipality (or a regional authority to which several municipalities belong). The costs of wastewater treatment are covered by ratepayers, often via municipal water/sewer fees.
The general perception is that owning a condo unit in an association on public sewer is preferable to owning in an association using a septic system. (That’s because an association does not own the public sewage treatment plant, and is not directly responsible for its upkeep. On the other hand, maintenance and repairs of a septic system are the responsibility of the condo association, because the association owns the septic system as part of its common areas.)
However, as described in the above video, condo associations can encounter trouble and unforeseen expenses even with public sewer. There are no guarantees!
Septic systems in the outer suburbs and rural areas
Massachusetts condo associations in more rural, less densely populated areas will often be on septic systems. (Large associations away from urban areas may occasionally own their own “pocket” sewage treatment plants. But for the sake of simplicity, all private wastewater systems owned by condo associations will be referred to herein as “septic systems”.)
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has published quite a lot of information about septic systems, so follow the link at left or in the image above to access that comprehensive content.
Title 5 regulations in Massachusetts
The installation, operation, inspection, and repair/replacement of septic systems in Massachusetts are governed by the Commonwealth’s Title 5 regulations.
The Title 5 regulations require periodic inspections of shared septic systems (those that serve more than one residence). For shared systems serving five or more dwellings, these inspections must be conducted every three years. Inspection reports are required to be kept on file by the local municipal Health Department (sometimes called the Board of Health). This makes the Health Department a good resource for prospective buyers of a condo unit in an association on private septic.
Due diligence with condos on septic systems
With condo associations on septic systems, look at two factors:
1. The size of the association
Larger associations can distribute the cost of septic system repairs among a greater number of unit owners, reducing the exposure of any one owner. If you buy in a small association and the septic system needs expensive repair, your share of the cost might be considerable.
2. The age and repair history of the system
The municipal Health Department should have on file the triennial septic system inspection reports required by Title 5 (for shared septic systems serving five or more dwellings). Give the department a call. Ask about the age of the association’s septic system and if it has had problems or has needed repairs in the past.
Other possible considerations
Some large condo communities are comprised of two or more associations.
Each association in the condo community may have its own septic system. If that is the case with the unit you are considering, it is possible that one association’s septic system will be in good shape while another association’s system has problems. It pays to investigate!
Condo communities often have separate buildings or clusters of buildings. Sometimes each building or cluster has its own septic system.
In these instances, ask who is responsible for the upkeep of each system: all of the association or just the unit owners served by that system?
Wastewater is an easily overlooked aspect of the condo lifestyle. But knowing how an association handles wastewater is an important part of your condo purchase decision-making. Knowing before you make an offer is the best way to avoid mistakes and regrets!