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Hal Owen & Associates, Inc.

Soil and Environmental Scientists

Article:† Buyer Beware

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Hal Owen & Associates, Inc.
Post Office Box 400
Lillington, NC 27546

Phone: 910-893-8743
Fax: 910-893-3594
Email: service@halowensoil.com

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Buying land can be like buying a used car: it could be everything you had hoped for or plagued with problems. With such a significant investment on the line, you donít want to find out after closing that the property you bought for your new home is better suited for a pasture. Thatís why itís important to find out the potential of the soils to support your desired use before you buy.

If a soil report from the health department is unavailable, you may wish to ask the property owner if they have one.  Some land owners may have had a soil investigation done to help establish the value of the property and may be willing to share this information with you.  View this report with caution, however, because the information being presented has been limited by specific parameters set by the land owner (intensity of investigation, purpose and use) that may not match your needs.  The land owner may also be able to provide you with valuable information about prior land use that could impact your plans.

County Regulations

Accomplishing Your Vision

subdivision layout

There are many ways to divide a parcel of land, from a simple Division of Heirs to a major multi-lot subdivision, and the county regulations governing subdivisions are as varied as the parcels being recorded. Some counties, such as Wake and others with large populations and significant residential growth in rural areas, have planning regulations that require a demonstration that a lot meets certain standards and will be adequate to support the needs of a residence (including septic systems) before it can be recorded and sold. These counties have taken measures to protect the buying public in these situations. However, many other counties have no such

requirements. The lots are not required to ďperkĒ or otherwise be adequate for building development. In these counties buying a lot in a subdivision is at your own risk and prospective buyers should beware that just because a lot is located in a subdivision does not mean it will support a residence.

To find out if a soil test was conducted on a property in which you are interested, contact the local health department to see if the lot was investigated prior to recordation or if an improvement permit has been issued. They may have conducted the soil investigation themselves or have a copy of a Licensed Soil Scientistís report. An improvement permit will give you a partial look at the septic suitability of the property. But use care in interpreting the permit information because it gives a specific answer to a specific question: Will this lot support this particular home? Check to make sure your number of bedrooms is equal to or less than the number shown on the permit. Does the size of your proposed home fit inside the footprint indicated on the permit? If you plan a larger home or more bedrooms, the improvement permit may be of little value to you.

If you have been unable to turn up a soil report or an improvement permit, then ABSOLUTELY take it upon yourself to have the land investigated before you buy.  In counties with weak subdivision regulations, some parcels have been chopped up and recorded without any type of on-ground survey or soil investigation.  This means recorded lots could be located entirely in swamps or unsuitable landscapes.  Also, donít take it for granted that a large tract will have at least one perk site on it.  Tracts larger than 10 acres arenít usually required to have a septic evaluation, but the soils could be unsuitable for septic disposal or require an expensive type of septic system.

An experienced soil scientist cannot determine if a property will support a septic system by looking only at the surfaceÖneither can you.  A subsurface soil investigation is necessary to determine the potential and type septic system that can be installed.

Related Links

SoilFacts: Investigate Before You Invest Published by the NC Cooperative Extension Service

North Carolina Association of Local Health Directors (NCALHD) A list of contact information for health departments by county.


Most people donít just buy property, they invest in a vision. Do you see a basic three-bedroom home with a two car garage or a five-bedroom home with a swimming pool and large storage building in back? Maybe you see a convenience mart with a little grill or a church poised to expand its membership and services in a few years.

In addition to the physical structures that will be erected, the property needs to have enough space to accommodate a septic system, septic repair area, and/or a well if sewer and water are unavailable. A septic system needs to be installed in a contiguous area of natural soil that is suitable for wastewater disposal and treatment. In North Carolina, you are also required to reserve an area of undisturbed soil to replace the septic system if it should fail. There are regulatory setbacks that must be considered and maintained between buildings, septic systems, wells, surface waters, and property lines which may limit where these things can be sited. A soil evaluation can tell you if it is reasonable to site the building where you want, the best location for septic systems and wells, and the type of septic systems that will likely be required.

Example 1

Often in subdivisions, the developer had a general idea about the style of homes that would be built. The land was divided into as many lots as possible that could accommodate that style of home given a certain house footprint and number of bedrooms (the number of bedrooms determines the daily flow of sewage effluent from a home). A Licensed Soil Scientist probably issued a report to the health department confirming that each lot had enough space to support that use. If your dream home has more bedrooms (therefore a higher daily flow) or the footprint is larger than the typical box used in the soil scientistís evaluation, then there is a good chance the lot is not large enough to accommodate your vision. Having a soil evaluation done before you buy lets you know if a more expensive septic system may be needed, if the location of the home must change, or if amenities such as a detached garage or pool are possible.

Example 2

Developers need to know if there is a reasonable chance they can realize a profit from development of the land.  Having the soil evaluated before you buy can alert you to potential roadblocks and challenges such as wetlands, unsuitable soils for septic systems, and flood hazard soils.  The soil scientist can make recommendations about lot sizes, the types of septic systems that will likely be needed, and even potential road formats.

Example 3

Septic system types can vary from a low cost gravity conventional system to a high-tech pretreatment system costing more than $20,000. A soil report may have been issued for a property saying that a viable septic disposal option does not appear to exist. This could mean the property is completely unsuitable, it could mean there was not a usable soil area where the client specified, or it could mean that only system types the client did not want would work. Vice versa, a soil report may say a property has a viable septic disposal option. Does this mean any type of septic system will work or only an expensive, high-tech solution? Having your own septic evaluation conducted before you invest means avoiding expensive surprises after you buy. Additionally, you may be able to use this information to negotiate a better price on the land.

Once you purchase the property, it is important that you realize the soils are a finite natural resource and that you take measures to protect them.