House hunting, and then moving into a new home, are busy and stressful experiences. It's easy to miss a few details. Perhaps you were so busy thinking about paint colors and new carpet that you didn't pay attention when your realtor was discussing how your new home handles waste. Are you connected to a public sewer, or do you have a septic system? If you've been too afraid to ask this question because you feel like you should know the answer, here's how to figure it out for yourself and avoid looking silly in front of your realtor or a plumber.
Keep in mind, septic systems are not just found in rural areas. There are some urban areas in which public sewers have not been constructed, and thus septic systems are the predominant means of disposing of waste water.
Step #1: Look at original building drawings of your home.
If you have an original deed for your home that includes a plan drawing, a septic system should be included in this drawing if it exists. If you don't have a septic system, you'll likely see a label for "sewage discharge," the pipe that leads from your home to the main sewer system, somewhere on the drawing.
Step #2: Head down to the basement, and take a gander at the pipes.
Many plumbers and builders label main pipes when they install them. Perhaps all it will take to determine whether you have a septic tank or sewer connection is a trip to the basement. Do you see a big pipe labeled "sewer" or "septic?" Look closely -- sometimes these words may be worn if they were written years ago.
Step #3: Examine your water or tax bill for sewer charges.
Some municipalities charge for sewer service on water bills, and others include this charge in property taxes. If you have these documents handy, look them over. If neither includes a sewer fee, you probably have a septic tank. You may also see a billing item that states "Sewer fee: $0.00" or the like. This is also a good indication that you're not connected to a public sewer. You could also try logging on to your municipality's water department website and searching it for sewer information. If you find mention of a sewage system in your town, chances are good that your home is connected to it.
Step #4: Venture into the backyard.
If you have been unable to determine whether you have a septic tank or a sewer connection after trying all three of the above steps, it's time to venture outdoors and do a little more detective work. Look for a manhole cover. Generally, if you find one of these in a backyard, it leads to a septic tank.
In some cases, the cover may be covered in soil, and you'll need to look more carefully. Is there an area where the grass looks more lush? This is likely the drainfield into which the septic system discharges. Use a metal shovel to poke around in the drainfield and find that manhole cover. It's likely located slightly uphill from the drainfield. If you find it, you know for sure that you have a septic tank. If not, you are probably connected to a public sewer. You can confirm this conclusion when your first sewer bill arrives in the mail.