Woohoo! You've located
that perfect piece of property outside of town to build your next home on.
Or you've found some
great hunting land and would like to build a weekend getaway cabin?
Maybe you're ready to
invest in a prime development property and subdivide it for a profit in a few
It's time to make an
offer before the opportunity slips away and BOOM! Your offer is accepted and
you're under contract. Time to focus on performing your due diligence.
So what's first? Well,
you could say it's #1 and #2... making sure the soils are suitable for a septic
What makes a septic tank
appealing is that it can be installed in a location further away from cities
and towns and doesn't come with a monthly payment like city sewer. As long as
you don't pour that bacon grease from breakfast down the drain, a septic tank
requires some minimal maintenance every few years and is a cost-effective
option for managing your wastewater treatment.
But before you can even
think of installing one, you have to test the soil on the property to determine
if the wastewater the septic tank produces can be accepted, treated, and
dispersed into a drain field area. Otherwise, you'll have a nasty mess of
untreated effluent (i.e. sewage) pooling up near your home.
Here in Coastal North
Carolina, we are fortunate to have plenty of deep sand ridges and not many
steep slopes which means conventional septic tanks can be utilized. The
trade-off is that some properties have a high water table which requires more
advanced septic systems, using technology like anaerobic drip to make up for
the lack of deep sand. That means your costs go up significantly and your
system will require an operator to maintain it. Not ideal by any means.
That brings me into how
you can begin your soils analysis by starting with a review of the county GIS
map for the property you're considering buying.
Typically, the GIS
website (or tax map website as some call it) will have overlays or layers that
can show what kind of soils are on the property. Some counties will be much
more helpful than others by actually describing the soil in detail instead of
just providing an abbreviated name.
For example, you pull up
the property and see that most of the soils are Murville Mucky Fine Sand -
which sounds as bad as it actually is. You can usually type in whatever the
soil type is in a google search and see if it's a "poorly drained soil
located in floodplains". Now that doesn't sound like a good place to put a
septic tank or a home does it?
While looking at the GIS
soils reports can be helpful, don't fully trust them either. I've been very
excited after finding a tract with tons of Baymeade, a fine sand that drains
very well and usually is a slam dunk for septic tanks. But when I visited the
property and dug some holes myself, I was heartbroken when I hit the water
table less than a foot below the Baymeade in several locations.
That's why visiting the
property and digging some holes is the next important step. I have a hand auger
which allows me to twist the sharp edges into the ground and pull up
"plugs" of soil about 6 inches deep at a time. Each time I pull a
plug up, I rotate the end to face me so I can take a good look at the dirt and
rub it between my fingers to feel the texture.
You're looking for
coarse, dry grains of light sand and maybe some gravel mixed in - not dark
sticky stuff that is wet like clay. The sand can be slightly damp and form
clumps but should easily break apart in your fingers. A lot of times if I dig
two or three times and I hear a suction sound or the end of the auger sticks, I
stop right there. As my Dad likes to say when we hear that lovely sound,
"I've seen enough". We know septic tanks will not work and it's time
to head out.
If the dirt is looking
good, I carefully shake out the soil after inspecting it a couple times and try
to create a fan-like pattern on the ground to paint a picture of what the
layers look like. A general rule of thumb is you want anywhere between 24"
to 48" of a sand layer but it really depends on whether you're after one
system for your home/cabin out in the woods or a large drain field area to
support a subdivision.
If the dirt is looking good, I carefully shake out the soil after inspecting it a couple times and try to create a fan-like pattern on the ground to paint a picture of what the layers look like. A general rule of thumb is you want anywhere between 24" to 48" of a sand layer but it really depends on whether you're after one system for your home/cabin out in the woods or a large drain field area to support a subdivision.
Something else that is
helpful is to pay attention to the vegetation around. If you notice that there
are mostly mature trees spaced out with open ground cover and not much
"scrub" brush, that can be indicative of good soil. Anytime you're
faced with dense brush that's not very tall and packed together it's probably a
sign of a high water table aka wet soils. The lay of the land can have some sloping
contours but numerous depressions or low pockets scattered about mean the dirt
will experience ponding and not allow water to escape quickly.
With all this being
said, I'd like to make a disclaimer that
I'm not a licensed soils scientist and you should certainly consult one before
purchasing a property as each piece of land is unique and conditions vary
considerably. These tips are a product of my own investigations and the
privilege of working for my father who has graciously shared decades of
experience with me from working in the development and timberland industries.
It's my hope that as
your agent you can feel confident with my preliminary assessment of either the
property you're considering purchasing or would like to sell before spending
your hard earned coin on professional services. Thank you for taking the time
to read this article and please reach out to me when you're ready to
participate in the real estate market!