Warnings raised over little-known rural property law that can be very expensive to comply with

Whether driven by a desire for more space, the strong house price growth seen in rural areas over the past few years, or even the new series of ‘Clarkson’s Farm’, rural homes are currently highly sought after. In fact, according to the most recent data, in the last three months alone, searches for ‘Farms for Sale’ have seen a 22% rise and searches ‘Rural Homes for Sale’ are up by 900%.

Related topics:  Property,  Law,  Rural,  Countryside
Property | Reporter
23rd March 2023
Septic Tank 356
"This is a growing issue, and something that we believe more rural homeowners and house-hunters need to be made aware of"

In light of this rapid rise in the interest in rural living, those looking to make a move to the countryside or put their home or farm on the market are being warned that they could be caught unaware by a little-known law that largely affects properties in agricultural areas.

In January 2015, a new government regulation came into force that relates to septic tanks; the way they discharge waste, their state of repair and the suitability of their size.

In the UK there are estimated to be over half a million homes with septic tanks, the majority of which are part of rural properties including farms.

Devon, North Yorkshire, Cornwall, Somerset, Shropshire and Cumbria are all understood to be potential hotspots for homes with septic tanks, due to their high number of registered farm holdings.

Applicable homeowners were given until January 2020 to upgrade their tanks to ensure compliance with the new rules, but experts believe that many tanks are yet to be updated, simply because owners aren’t aware they are required to do so.

Solicitors who are managing the sale of a property are expected to notify the buyer that the property has a septic tank and tell them about the new regulations. It’s then up to the buyer to check if the septic tank meets regulations and either replace/upgrade it, or ensure the owner is aware this needs to happen, as a condition of sale.

However, many conveyancers aren’t aware of the regulations themselves, leaving buyers and sellers at risk of unexpected upgrade costs, a reduction in their property value, or even a potential £100k fine from the Environment Agency. In some cases, where a septic tank does not comply with new regulations, homeowners could even face up to three months in prison when convicted in a magistrates’ court.

A solicitor failing to notify the buyer is considered an act of conveyancing negligence, and the owner affected by this mistake may wish to claim for compensation.

Been Let Down is experiencing a growing number of cases relating to septic tank conveyancing negligence. In fact, they have seen a 112% increase (MoM - Jan 23 - Feb 23) in Septic Tank Negligence claim enquiries, and estimated damages range from between £10,000-£50,000 per case (but around £18,000 on average).

Compensation is determined by the financial loss experienced by the claimant, such as costs to update the septic tank in line with regulations, or an impact on the value of their house after the issue is highlighted to a prospective buyer.  

This issue typically impacts:

People who bought their property with a septic tank after January 2020 and were not notified of the new regulation by their solicitor, and are now only aware of the issue when they come to sell

People who bought their property with a septic tank after January 2020 and were not notified of the new regulation by their solicitor and have recently discovered they need to upgrade their tank to make it compliant

People who are in the process of buying a property with a septic tank may want to negotiate on the property value if the tank is not yet compliant

Tony Hill, Head of Professional Negligence at Been Let Down, explains: “This is a growing issue, and something that we believe more rural homeowners and house-hunters need to be made aware of.

"In this instance, negligence occurs when the conveyancer (the solicitor handling the purchase) doesn’t tell the buyer about the new regulations. Letting a buyer know about the regulations could be as simple as a standardised sentence in terms and conditions or a checklist, so any complications relating to the issue really are easily avoidable.

"We’re finding that a lot of solicitors don’t know about the law change though, and some are therefore being unintentionally negligent as a consequence. For those affected, typically a claim must be made within six years of the purchase of the property with a defective tank.

"In many cases, we deal with, our client hasn’t actually paid any money yet or had the upgrade work done. It is most common for clients to discover that their tank doesn’t meet the regulation when they come to sell, and then they must make the claim to be able to afford to have the work done, (which can often cost in excess of £10,000), so their property value is not impacted.”

Tony adds: "This issue also has a bigger environmental impact. Not only do non-compliant septic tanks pose individual financial risks to homeowners, but they could also have a wider spread impact on the health of our waters, including rivers and lakes.

"In some areas, the deteriorating quality of surface water has the potential for long-term social impacts and could well affect the likes of tourism and property prices in those areas.

"The environmental impact of waste and sewage has sparked discussion in recent years, following reports of water companies disposing of untreated sewage into rivers and seas. In fact, The University of Manchester recently reported that only 14% of rivers in England have “good” ecological status and this figure could fall to just 6% by 2027.

Tony concludes: "Of course, there are a multitude of factors contributing to this, but it gives homeowners more reason to do their bit by ensuring that their septic tank is working in line with the rules - this is much easier to action with a full awareness of up-to-date septic tank regulations, which should be raised by a conveyancer in the process of the property purchase. Having this initial awareness at the point of sale also avoids unexpected costs to the buyer later down the line."

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