What is a septic system and how different is it to having city sewer: It really not all that much different as a matter of course. All your plumbing still exits your house and there not much thought difference about it on a day to day basis. However, having a septic system does come with some maintenance and care that you don’t have to think about with city sewers systems. Septic systems are made up of a tank with 2 chambers. The first chamber is for solids to settle into. The second is for the liquids to flow into. From the second chamber the liquids flow out to leach lines buried roughly 3 feet in the ground where they drip out and perc (percolation) through the soils back into the ground water below. The size of the system is measured by how many feet of leach lines that are connected. That in turn is equated to the number of bedrooms the system can support. The rationale is that a bedroom is a person and a person creates a measurable amount of waste that will go to the septic system. So the more bedrooms a house has the more people it will have and the larger the septic system will need to be to support the increase in waste it is designed to process. That all sounds like no big deal. But the issue is that the soils the leach lines are buried in have to be of a type that perc’s well. If a property doesn’t have perc’able soils you won’t be able to have a septic system and hence you have an un-buildable parcel. Or, you may only have enough suitable soils for a small 1 bedroom system. I’ve seen 5,000 square foot homes with 5 baths but only 1 bedroom for this very reason. You can’t create perc’able soil either, at least not to county code. It has to be natural undisturbed soil. Soils engineers measure the rate at which it percolates and the size of the soils area conducive to having leach fields in order to establish the type septic system is conducive to the particular soils at that particular site and the maximum number of bedrooms the area would support. There are engineered septic system designs as well that cost more but can accommodate more bedrooms in a smaller footprint of suitable soils. One last thing to note about septic systems is that they are designed to break down the solids in the tank to join with the liquids and leach out back to the groundwater. It important not to put things like egg shells or coffee grounds into your sink, as they don’t biodegrade and will fill your tank much quicker. Even without those being added, you should have your septic tank pumped once every 3 to 5 years at a cost of around $400.00. It’s extremely important to have the septic system for any property you are thinking to buy thoroughly inspected to establish it’s age, how well it’s performing, the capacity it can handle, how well it conforms to current code standards and if there is expansion area in the event that it fails and you need to install a new system.
How is it different having a well rather than city water? Well, that’s a deep subject (kidding). Having a well means you get free water except for the cost for the electricity to pump it out. However, well water is untreated and has minerals in it. It can also contain bacteria such as coliform or Ecoli. So, I always advise my clients to have water samples taken and tested for either a domestic use panel or an agricultural use panel depending on the client’s application to see what’s in the water. We also test for bacteria at the same time. The good news is you can filter for just about anything. What’s in the water will dictate what type of filtering system you should have. Filtering systems range from little to no money for very clean water up to $100,000 or more for a hi-tech water filtering system. Typically a domestic filtering system would cost between $10,000 to $15,000. So, testing the water also helps validate the properties existing filtering system against its water. The other important aspect of having a well is its production capacity. Not all wells are equal in that respect. A wells production rate is measured by gallons per minute. Sonoma County will allow you to build a house of any size so long as you can prove 1.5 gallons per minute over an 8 – 12 hour test. That’s very marginal. I personally like to see at least 5 gallons per minute. But some area’s of the county have more water than others. So I’m really happy with a 1.5 gallon per minute well if I’m in Occidental where there’s very little ground water. But if in Healdsburg that same well would be scoffed at. You can also leverage your water supply by installing storage tanks. Most tanks hold 5,000 to 10,000 gallons. But there are larger and smaller ones as well. Having tanks allows you to fill them at night when no water is being used so that you always have a larger supply on demand. Most families use 20,000 to 25,000 gallons per month. So, having a 10,000 gallon storage tanks gives them roughly a 2 week supply of water. It’s best to have the tank gravity feed to the house so that if you lose power you still will have water. The average gallons per minute a well is isn’t necessarily what you think it is on the surface. Initially a well will pump at whatever rate the pump can handle. A 1 HP pump will pump at a rate up to 15 GPM or so. A 5 HP pump will be much higher of course. But what’s important is the re-charge rate of the well, how fast water flows back into it as water is pumped out. A well is like a straw full of water. When we test a well we pump all the water out and try to establish where it levels off with water coming back into it from the groundwater supply. That establishes the wells true capacity measured in gallons per minute (GPM). Artesian wells are wells that actually flow water out of them without having a pump at all. Adversely, I’ve seen very deep wells that after the water is pumped out of them take days to refill and therefore have very low production rates and aren’t much good to anyone. Obviously having a domestic well is far different from having an Ag well used for farming. The difference is like comparing a small truck to a big rig semi-truck. There is no comparison other than the basic design. Just as soils dictates the number of bedrooms a septic system can be designed for, the production of a well dictates what you can do with your land in the way of agricultural purposes. And the quality of the water, filtering systems and storage all need to be taken into consideration.
Is there high speed internet available in the country? Often DSL or cable high speed internet connections are not available for a large percentage of country properties in Sonoma County and the Wine Country. There are alternatives though. There’s a company named CDS wireless in Santa Rosa that has an infrared microwave line of sight connection to their towers. So, if you can see their tower from your property you can connect high speed with them. They have one at the top of Mt. St. Helena which can be seen from a large part of the county. They’ll be able to tell you on a phone call if it looks likely to be OK or if they need to physically come to your sight to test the signal strength. Other people have done similar high speed networks that you can connect to in areas like Dry Creek Valley that are regional and specific to that area. There’s also satellite based systems like Hughesnet and Verizon to choose from. Their service has improved substantially over time to be bearable now. I’ve had multi-million dollar purchases hinge on getting a high speed internet connection. It’s become very important especially to the luxury property buyer.
What about Solar vs. PG&E? Traditional electricity service provided by PG&E here in Sonoma County has increased in cost year over year to the point now where the cost to supplement it, or go completely off the grid, with solar energy technology makes sense for many people whether they’re looking to live in the country or in the city. City properties of course don’t go completely off the grid. They just sell their excess power back to PG&E to keep their annualized electricity bill down and to keep from being billed at expensive higher tier peak electricity charges. Many country properties do the same. But there are also many country properties who have opted to go completely solar having a battery supply to store their electricity with no connection to PG&E at all even where one is available. I’m seeing this trend increasing with people buying land and building new for themselves. Going green is a trend and improvements with technology have helped make that trend a cost effective direction to go especially if you have a longer term perspective in mind both for cost comparisons and the environment.
How do lenders treat Wine Country properties? Institutional lenders do not understand country properties in the way they do cookie cutter residential subdivision home, that’s for certain. They have criteria like parcel size and location that can make it difficult to get a loan. As an example, Bank of America doesn’t like properties that have more than 10 acres. Wells Fargo draws the line at 20 acres. If there are vines planted on the property you have a problem. Vines represent farming and therefore classify the property as income producing. If you’re looking to buy a vineyard property, even if it’s just a hobby vineyard with the vast majority of value on the home itself, you will likely have to contact a portfolio lender rather than an institutional lender who re-sell their loans to secondary markets. Portfolio lenders are relationship lenders that keep their loans in house, want you to put your money in their bank and utilize their services including coming to them for loans on country property. They don’t have as rigid a set of criteria for what properties they will and won’t loan on. They generally make lending decisions by committee. If the property makes sense in their portfolio, and they want to earn a relationship with you, they’ll give you a loan at rates that are competitive with institutional lenders even though the bigger banks wouldn’t do the same loan. My favorite portfolio lender for the Wine Country is First Republic Bank. If you’re looking at a larger vineyard and it’s more than any portfolio lender will do then you’ll have to go to someone like American Ag Credit. Having your loan figured out before putting too much time into finding the right property and certainly before writing any offers would be a very wise thing for you to do so that you’re not wasting your time or that of your agents and so that you can negotiate the best price possible when you do write your offer. As a listing agent I know that price is secondary to how likely the sale will go through successfully. If an offer is subject to a loan and that loan hasn’t been investigated evidenced by a pre-approval letter from the lender then red flags go up and the buyers negotiating power is decreased dramatically.