Domestic Waste. Really!


By Diane Saatchi

It’s the holidays, so I hope you’re feeling generous enough to forgive me for bringing up a topic I’ve been avoiding for many months: domestic waste management.

Unless you’ve been especially unlucky, you probably never thought about this. But, if you are thinking of selling, buying or creating more rooms in your Hamptons home, it time to take stock of what’s underground.

With new legislation taking effect January 1, it’s important to bring this up now. Before the end of the year, my colleagues will tell you about the market, new developments and possible effects of the pending tax reform bill — and I am going to spread the news about “domestic waste.”


Photo by Morgan Anderson

Here’s how it works

If you are new to the Hamptons, you might not know there isn’t a municipal sewer system for domestic waste. Instead, homes have on-site, underground septic systems. For practical health reasons there are many regulations about size and placement of the systems’ parts — and this year, we found many of the homes listed for sale didn’t meet size regulations.

Before we can build anything, the Suffolk County Department of Health (DOH) reviews house plans and determines the size of septic systems based on the number of bedrooms — not bathrooms, as many people think. And according to the health department, a bedroom is a room in which you could conceivably have a bed. While the town or municipality might require legal egress (a way other than the door to escape the room safely in case of a fire) and while you might require a closet to consider it a bedroom, the health department says that any closed-off room other than a kitchen, a living room, a dining room, and one other gathering room counts as a bedroom. Anything beyond that — your study, office, library media room, exercise room — is considered a bedroom.

Long after homes are built and certificates of occupancy (CO) issued, a homeowner may have added rooms: a bedroom or two, or perhaps other rooms they don’t use as bedrooms but are nonetheless considered bedrooms in the eyes of the Health Deparatment. If such work was done without a permit, it is likely the septic system was not upgraded to account for the added “bedrooms.”

Imagine buying a house marketed as having six bedrooms that turns out to really only have four. Or, imagine being the seller with a pending deal that unravels because the buyers thought they were buying said six-bedroom home. It’s a lose-lose situation. The remedy is typically an upgraded septic system, which, given the cost of most homes, is not insurmountable … but it is neither a quick nor simple fix.

Things are about to get more complicated.

Beginning January 1, 2018, Suffolk County will require a new kind of system for both new construction and substantial upgrades. The new low-nitrogen systems are more expensive. It’s not all bad, though: The legislation is really good for the environment.

Most residential septic systems were not designed to remove nitrogen. Nitrogen runoff from the thousands of existing systems has been identified as the largest single cause of degraded water quality. As population and development reached a critical mass, something had to give. Use of the low nitrogen systems going forward is one step; the other is replacement of those old polluting systems. The county and local municipalities have rebate and low interest loan programs in place to help homeowners to comply.

That means if you’re thinking of selling, you’ll need more time than ever to get things in order and make sure your listed number of bedrooms matches the permitted number. The surveyors, engineers, contractors and the folks in the Building and Health Departments will be on work overload as the new legislation takes effect.

Ultimately, with the new low nitrogen systems, the local government has made a smart choice that will benefit all of us in the long run.

So while you might not want to discuss waste management systems at the table during your holiday, at least it’s good news.

Here’s to our beautiful beaches, healthy marine life, potable drinking water and a very happy new year.

© 2017 Diane Saatchi