When are on-site system inspections required?

In general:

  • When properties are sold, divided or combined.
  • When there is a change in use or an expansion of a facility.
  • When MassDEP or the local Board of Health requires an inspection.
  • Title 5 requires inspections for large systems, shared systems, and condominiums on a periodic basis.
  • Systems located in cities and towns with MassDEP-approved inspection programs are required to comply with local inspection requirements.

There are exceptions and nuances to the general requirements listed here. For example, no inspection is required if the owner has signed an enforceable agreement with the Board of Health to upgrade the system, connect to a sanitary sewer, or connect to a shared system within two years. For detailed information on inspection requirements, see Septic System Inspections. Details on property transfers are contained in Buying or Selling a Property.

Who is responsible when the septic system fails and needs to be replaced, the buyer or the seller?

The owner or operator of the system is the legally responsible party required to upgrade a failing system. Prior to transfer of the property, this is typically the seller. Often, the buyer and seller work out the financial issues as part of the sale of the property. Title 5 does not require that a system be in passing condition prior to the sale, but most lenders will not issue a mortgage until the failing system is upgraded or funds to perform the upgrade are escrowed.

For how long is an inspection valid?

Inspections required in connection with a property transfer generally are good for two years. If a property is sold more than once in the two-year period, the single inspection is valid for all transfers.

When a system is pumped on an annual basis and the pumping records are available, an inspection is valid for three years.

How do I have my system inspected if I am selling the property in the middle of the winter?

If weather conditions prevent an inspection before a sale, Title 5 allows the inspection to be done up to six months afterwards, provided that the seller notifies the buyer in writing of the need to complete the inspection.

What is included in a system inspection?

  • General layout of the system components (location of the building sewer, septic tank or cesspool, distribution box and leaching field);
  • Type of use (e.g., house, school, retail space), Title 5 design flow, and whether the facility is presently occupied;
  • Analysis of the criteria specified in Title 5 that indicate system failure, and, for large systems, those which indicate threats to public health and the environment;
  • Water use records from the previous two years, if available;
  • A description of the septic tank, including its condition, approximate age, thickness of grease/scum layer, and other relevant information;
  • A characterization of the distribution box and dosing tanks with pumps, if any, such as condition and evidence of solids carryover or backup; and
  • The condition of the soil absorption system including, any signs of hydraulic failure.

Who arranges for the inspection?

The property owner or facility operator is generally responsible for arranging an inspection. However, prior to the time title is transferred, the seller and buyer may contractually assign responsibility for the inspection, provided that it occurs within the specified timeframes.

Where are inspection results sent?

The completed Inspection Form must be submitted within 30 days of the inspection, in most cases to the local Board of Health. Inspection Forms for state and federal facilities must be sent to MassDEP. Both MassDEP and the local Board of Health get copies of the Inspection Form for large systems and shared systems (310 CMR 15.301(10)). 

Does the buyer of the property receive a copy of the completed Inspection Form?

Yes, this is required by Title 5.

Where can I get MassDEP-approved Inspection Forms?

They are available on this website ( Title 5 Septic System Forms ) and from your Board of Health. MassDEP has also developed   Guidance for the Inspection of On-site Sewage Disposal Systems for use by system inspectors.

Do we always have to use the MassDEP Inspection Form?

Yes. This ensures consistent and thorough inspections. Inspection reports not using the MassDEP Inspection Form will not be considered valid by MassDEP or your Board of Health.

When would a system qualify for a conditional pass?

A system with specific components that need repair or replacement would qualify for a conditional pass. Examples of system components eligible for a conditional pass include a metal or cracked septic tank, a broken or obstructed pipe, or an uneven distribution box.

When the system component has been repaired or replaced, the Board of Health must issue a Certificate of Compliance confirming that the corrective work has been done.

I'm selling my home and the septic system has failed the Title 5 inspection. If I decide not to sell as a result, am I still obligated to repair the system?

Yes. Once an official inspection is performed on a system, the results must be submitted to the Board of Health within 30 days. Whether or not the homeowner decides to sell, a failed system typically must be upgraded within two years, unless the local Board of Health or MassDEP authorizes an alternative schedule.

For example, the Board of Health may require a shorter timeline in the case of an imminent health hazard, or under certain circumstances may allow use of the system for up to five years under an enforceable schedule for repair, replacement, or connection to a sewer or shared system.

On a recent inspection my septic system did not pass the inspection. In addition, I have a drain for my washing machine greywater that goes through 300 feet of crushed stone. The Inspector told me that I must tie this drain into my septic system. Is this necessary?

No. Title 5 does not specifically require the tie-in of the separate laundry discharge as long as that discharge is inspected and passes a Title 5 inspection. Contact your local Board of Health for more guidance.

Do systems have to be dug up to be inspected?

The location and condition of cesspools, septic tanks and distribution boxes must be determined. Often, this will not require extensive excavation. Generally, leaching areas are not required to be dug up.

What happens if all the system components cannot be inspected thoroughly?

At a minimum, the cesspool, septic tank, and distribution box (if present) must be located and inspected. The System Inspector must also make reasonable efforts to locate and identify other components and features. If any component cannot be located or inspected, or if any determination cannot be made, the Inspector must state on the Inspection Form the reasons and the steps taken to complete the inspection. Section 15.302 of Title 5 provides examples of "reasonable efforts."

Who is responsible if a system passes inspection before a property transfer, but fails soon after that?

The System Inspector is responsible for determining that the system meets or fails Title 5 standards as of the date of the inspection. The inspection is not a guarantee that the system will continue to function adequately and is not a guarantee that it will not fail at a later date. If a system fails shortly after a sale, the buyer may have legal recourse, but it may be very hard to prove that the system was in failure at the time of the inspection. If an improper inspection was done, MassDEP can take enforcement against an inspector, but property owners must pursue claims against the inspector in court.

If you have a complaint about the results of an inspection, contact your regional MassDEP office and speak to the staff responsible for Title 5. MassDEP will review your complaint and determine if further action is required. If you receive an inspection report that appears to have been altered or contains false or misleading information, call the Massachusetts Environmental Strike Force at 617-556-1000 or toll free at 1-888-VIOLATE (1-888-846-5283).

What is a voluntary inspection?

Even if an inspection is not required, a system owner may have a voluntary assessment of the condition and operability of the system performed. Results of voluntary inspections do not have to be submitted to the Board of Health or MassDEP.

Is an inspection required for new construction?

No. The Certificate of Compliance issued upon completion of a new system or system upgrade by the Board of Health, or MassDEP for state and federal facilities and large systems, excludes the system from inspection requirements for any transfer of title within the next two years.

What is required in connection with changes of use and increases in flow?

A system must be inspected upon any change of use or increase in design flow, BUT ONLY IF the change or expansion also requires a building permit or occupancy permit from the local building inspector. Examples include adding a bedroom to a house, adding seats to a restaurant, or changing the type of business operating at a commercial location. Check with the Building Department and/or Board of Health to find out if your situation requires a building or occupancy permit which will trigger a system inspection.

Any change in the footprint of a building also requires an inspection to determine the location of the system, to ensure that construction will not be located on top of any system components or on the reserve area. If official records are available to determine the location of the system components, this requirement may be waived. Check with your local Board of Health.

When do large and shared systems need to be inspected?

Shared systems must be inspected once every three years. Large systems, i.e., with a design flow of 10,000 to 15,000 gallons per day at full buildout, must be inspected once every five years on the basin schedule in Title 5.

Are there special inspection requirements for condominiums?

Yes. Condominiums with five or more units must be inspected once every three years. Those with four or fewer units must be inspected every three years, or within two years prior to the sale of one of the units.

The condominium association is responsible for the inspection, maintenance and upgrade of the system or systems serving the units, unless the governing documents of the association provide otherwise.

Are state and federal facilities inspected too?

Yes. Title 5 applies to state and federal facilities as well as homes and businesses. MassDEP is the approving authority for state and federal facilities, so the inspection forms are submitted to MassDEP (310 CMR 15.003). 

If a property is located in two states, with the house in one state but the septic system in another state, which state has jurisdiction over the system?

The state where the septic system is located has jurisdiction and the owner must follow the regulations for that state. For example, if the septic system is located in New York, but the house is in Massachusetts, you are subject to New York's laws and regulations.

I am transferring my property to a family member. Do I need an inspection?

See this guidance on property transfers: Buying or Selling Property with a Septic System