Of Cesspools and Septic Tanks


I stood at the edge of a circular stone pit, filled up to the iron pipe, the rank odor made worse with the head of the day. “It’s old,” said the inspector. “I’m not giving it much longer – a couple of years, maybe? See how the waste is right up to the iron pipe? Should be a couple of feet below it. Bad news…you’re gonna need a new system.”

I sighed. “And you say you can’t get them to come down in price?” I ask my real estate agent.

“They’ve already dropped it fifteen grand. Said that’d cover the cost of a new system. As it is, they’re taking a hit on what you offered,” she replied. “They bought at the top of the market and  they’re taking a big loss as it is. That offer’s staying put.”

Inside, I curse as I gaze at the murky pit, almost a metaphor for my life: shitty.

Online house listings are cheap entertainment. With each entry, you can imagine the life you’d experience in each one. Log house? Expect a rustic holiday retreat, filled with guests enjoying the faint woodsy aroma while you pretend not to worry about the mice chewing their way in along with the termites, or the logs catching fire from a random spark straying from the fireplace. Modern architectural gem? Try to maintain a sense of privacy while dressing in front of the large glass wall unable to support curtains. 1950s tract housing? Did anyone ever sleep in bedrooms that tiny or struggle to maintain a peaceful household in a place with only one pink-and-black tile bathroom?

My sister, gazing online, found this adorable gingerbready arts-and-crafts bungalow. Situated dead center in a scenic lake town, popular for its relative easy location from New York City, it seemed perfect in every way. Had everything I wanted in a house: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, eat-in-kitchen, dining room, cozy living room with fireplace, closed-in sunporch, ample storage in basement, with the ability to walk to all. All this in a thousand square feet. Sure, it has quirks, like the kitchen ceiling tiles are about to drop and the sewage is at the mercy of the cesspool’s fading abilities. But I saw this home as my place to start over, begin again, reemerge as a newly single person in an undefined future. It’d give me shelter and comfort. And company wouldn’t have to wait until I came out of the toilet in order to go.

Every shift I work at Phipp’s, I gaze at the shelves and decorate the place that isn’t quite mine yet. Those towels’d look great in the bathroom. That carpet will brighten the living room floor. That toaster’s just the right size for the kitchen counter. I even imagine the meals I’ll cook on the stove with new pots and serve guests meals on shiny new plates an the dining table.

Now though, I’m assessing the potential disaster that lurks below the ground in the backyard where I’m supposed to be enjoying my morning coffee or evening cocktails, should I decide to purchase the home.

“It’s not like you couldn’t live with this for a little while,” says the inspector. “But you’re going to need a new septic tank sooner rather than later. Cesspools are illegal now. But for this size house, you’re looking at either side of $10,000. The ground’s excellent, so a perk test’ll come out good. And if I can’t put in a septic in the back yard – the access to get back there’s kinda hard, since you haven’t any way to get in there, except maybe through the alleyway on the main street, and that’s if the guy’ll let me drive an excavator through it – you can stick it in the front yard.”

No, no, no! I think to myself. This is the cute house where I’m supposed to recuperate from the ravages of middle-age divorce! I’m going to meet a lot a new and interesting people and entertain them in my diminutive but charming dining room! Banter over cocktails near the fire! Read books on the heated sunporch while it’s snowing outside! There are no other houses like this! This is MY HOME! DON’T WRECK THE DREAM!

“So you say you can do it for ten?” I ask the inspector.

“Could be less, if we’re lucky, but no more than fifteen,” he says.

“You sure you want to do this?” says my real estate agent. “The house might turn into a money pit you can’t afford.”

A bit of peeling green paint from the cedar shakes flutters in the warm summer breeze. That’s going to cost me another several grand, I realize as the house desperately needs repainting.

“I’ll do you a favor,” says the inspector. “I’m a builder. Let me take a quick look inside. Have to anyway, to check out the pipes. I’ll give you my opinion on whether you should take this place or not.”

“Could you?” I say.

“I’m not a substitute for the real house inspector, but I’ll tell you if this place is worth it.”

So we go inside, through the back door, and climb the few steps into the kitchen. He makes note of the lowering ceiling tiles, a relic from its early days. The cabinets are good, though, and so’s the floor. Into the living room, he looks up and remarks at the magnificent decorative wood beams styled into a geometric pattern, complemented by the wood detail on the built-ins flanking the fireplace, or the wood floors with inlay patterns. The sunporch, though tiny, is wood paneled and bright. The bedrooms also have decorative beams on the ceiling, and the bathrooms are new. Downstairs, in the basement, the inspector makes note that the foundation is poured cement, solid and nary a crack. Water never got in here, nor ever will. The furnace, about twenty years old, looks new. There’s a new water tank and electrical panel, too.

We return upstairs and await his assessment. “I’m no housing inspector,” he says, “but I know what to look for in a house. Minus the cesspool, this is a very good house. I wouldn’t pay for what you’re offering, but besides that, it’s a great place.”

“What do you want to do?” asks the real estate agent.

My brain’s flustered but my heart provides the answer. “See if you can get them down at least another two grand,” I say. “And maybe then, I’ll take it.

This satisfies the real estate agent as she sends off a text to the listing agent. I wander around a few of the rooms, noticing details that please me. You could live here, it seems to be saying to me, although I believe it’s my imagination looking for reasons to justify this huge purchase. Still, I can’t ignore I really, really, really love this place. I sense this place provided happiness to whomever built it and spent part of their lives here. It’s not big, but it’s genuine, and it knows it’s a bit worn at the edges. But with a bit of work, patience and understanding, it’ll be everything I want it to be, provide me with an excellent place to settle down and start over with no apologies.

As we lock up and leave, I give it one last glance, listening to the advice my heart offers.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: