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Hamptons Life

Aug 21, 2017 10:30 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

When Buying a House, Consider What's Underground

Aug 21, 2017 11:03 AM

Welcome to “Eye of a Builder,” the column written by a real estate professional skilled in Hamptons zoning, environmental regulation and construction, to better inform Hamptons real estate buyers.

Not only is it important to understand above-ground structural issues when buying a house—you also have to worry about what might be hidden below the ground! Read about three major considerations that live beneath the grass.

I, Take You, My Septic …

It’s extremely important to understand your septic obligations before buying a house—especially one on which you intend on doing work. Codes vary between towns and are revamped and strengthened often. Septic codes have changed a lot over the years—what used to pass for “code” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Codes in the Hamptons are changing to require potentially costly septic upgrades in order to get permission to renovate or build.

The reason why septic in the Hamptons is a hot issue right now is due to contaminants of waste leaching into our local bays, harbors and aquifers. What many people don’t realize when buying a home is that septic (or the wastewater from the house) is often sent to a system that is located on their own property, rather than an off-site treatment plant. This means that waste from a septic system leeches directly into the soil untreated.

Even though these on-site systems have been vastly improved over the years, if you decide to do any upgrades or new construction to your home, these older septic systems may still have to be brought up to newer codes. Southampton and East Hampton just passed new laws, which change the way future septic systems will have to be built, and that may add extra costs to construction.

I had one client who bought a 2-acre parcel on a canal. When she went to get permits for an extension, the town told her that she would need to install a $50,000 above-ground septic system—in her front yard! Because water setbacks stopped her from building an even bigger septic system, she was also not allowed to have her intended five bedrooms in the home—only four. And even though this project was approved in 2015, under the new code this $50,000 septic would not meet today’s standards.

Make sure to do your septic homework before buying any property. There may be grants or rebates available to help with additional costs, so check with your town to understand the requirements to receive them.

Well, Wells!

What we have to keep in mind is that in the Hamptons, homes were built before the infrastructure to support them was in place. As such, many of the homes get their domestic water from a private well rather than from a utility, like Suffolk County Water Authority, or SCWA. This means water literally comes from drilling a hole on your property, down 100 feet or more, for your water supply. An electric pump extracts water from the well and supplies it to your faucet.

The water, since it is coming directly out of the earth, usually contains many more minerals than SCWA-supplied water—which is also well water but is treated and filtered, and closely monitored. Whereas extra minerals are a negative for some, others prefer to stick with well water because it does not have the chlorine the public water supply does. Another consideration regarding well water is that it may have traces of iron or copper in it, which can turn light colored hair orange or green, respectively, if not filtered. I had one client whose blond hair turned a shade green. Her kids were very amused but she was not. Also, although you don’t need to pay for water when you have your own well, you will pay for electricity for the pump. And if you have no power, and no reliable generator—you have no water.

There are pros and cons to both well and city water so be sure you’re comfortable with your choice—if you have a choice! There are many streets in the Hamptons that do not have SCWA pipes that run to them, which means you have no choice but well water. One way you can usually tell if the street has SCWA water is fire hydrants, which will indicate a buried water pipe. Be sure to check with your surveyor or call SCWA to confirm if it has public water.

A Fool For Fuel

Pay attention to what fuel a house uses—what runs your heating system, your stove—even your barbecue grill. Your fuel could be natural gas, propane or oil. Back in the day, oil was the standard due to the fact that it was easy to place a tank in the ground and have it delivered cheaply. However, the tanks used were steel, which in time rusts, potentially allowing oil to seep into the ground, which creates an environmental hazard.

This is a major concern when buying a older house. If the old oil tank has leaked and the soil beneath it is contaminated, you will need to have the tank and the contaminated soil removed. This can be very costly. As a buyer, make sure you have somebody check for buried oil tanks before you go to contract. As a seller, if your property has a old buried oil tank it would be wise to have it removed before you have a willing buyer, which could slow down a deal—or kill it.

There are certified companies that will remove oil tanks or fill them with sand and give you a certificate of abandonment stating there is no contamination, or it has been rectified. To avoid risks, many homeowners remove dated tanks and opt for above ground, new and improved oil tanks. Other options include refitting the home to adapt to more efficient and cleaner fuels such as natural gas or propane. Propane is kept in a buried tank similar to oil while natural gas is delivered via an underground pipe near the street. Be sure to understand how a house is fueled, and always ensure there has been no history of contamination.

Ed Mulderrig is a seasoned real estate agent as well as an experienced builder and zoning specialist. Email ed.mulderrig@sothebyshomes.com or call 631-374-1197.

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