Straight flush: The septic system that wasn't

Talk about a rude surprise: When sewage backed up in the crawl space of their house last April, Caley Clark and Steve Oberhauser called a local company to pump the septic tank. Except... it turns out they don't have a septic tank. They do, however, have an outhouse– and it's a good thing, because they've been using it ever since.

Clark and Oberhauser bought the chalet-style house, which Oberhauser says "sits high atop Pocosin Mountain in Greene County," last November. Mary Alice and Bruce Hulcher of Richmond were the sellers, and Kevin McHaney of Montague, Miller & Co. represented them. According to the contract, McHaney also represented Clark and Oberhauser– although they claim he never actually asked whether they wanted him to represent them. The couple had previously had a good experience with Montague, Miller, and Oberhauser attributes their passivity to the assumption that they could trust McHaney to take care of the details.

When I set out to research the dispute, doors slammed shut fast. McHaney said little more than, "He [Oberhauser] better be extremely careful about what he says and what he does." He also referred me to the company's managing broker, Pam Drumheller. Drumheller not only did not respond to messages I left on August 30 and September 6, but I also received no reply to a September 8 fax.

When I called the Hulchers, the conversation was abrupt: First Mary Alice accused me of doing "something illegal"– apparently writing about the dispute– and then said I would have to talk to her husband, who was at his office. After refusing to divulge the number, she hung up on me. That means we're left with only the buyers' claims as to what happened. Since Oberhauser handled most of the transaction, I'll rely largely on his account.

Oberhauser claims that instead of the septic system they'd been told was in place– Montague, Miller's MLS listing form, for instance, stated that it existed– they found only a four-inch corrugated pipe that was "duct-taped to the outtake valve on the toilet under the house." The pipe, which was aboveground, ran about 30 yards "into a crude pile of rocks, hidden by a large board"; along the way, it was "leaching the water and waste into the ground."

The same day he discovered the leaky pipe, he called the Hulchers. "Bruce said he didn't know anything about the drain field or septic system," Oberhauser claims. In the course of looking up Bruce Hulcher's office number, I learned online that he owns a civil-engineering firm in Richmond. The firm has expertise in industrial waste management and municipal waste treatment, among other things.

Oberhauser also says Hulcher told him that they "owned the place as a second vacation home and rarely used it." Turns out they also had a second second vacation home, however– roughly two blocks from the one they sold Oberhauser and Clark– and Oberhauser reports that they continue to use that one.

Brown Exterminating performed the various inspections (water, termites, septic system, etc.) required for the sale and, based on visual inspection, reported that the septic system passed. But, as Brown manager Gary Shifflett explains, that type of inspection consists of flushing the toilet and looking for such things as back-flow, offensive odors, or dampness in the area where the septic tank is assumed to be. Since the house was listed as having a septic system, Shifflett says the employee had no reason to suspect otherwise.

This is a hot real estate market. Oberhauser claims McHaney said that the couple would have a better chance of getting the house– "almost serving as a tiebreaker if two or more bids were of equal value"– if they passed up the demand for a home inspection. They did– and now, of course, wish they hadn't.

Montague, Miller submitted the couple's claim to its insurance company, but it was denied. Absolute Plumbing & Drain Cleaning Services estimates that installing a septic system will cost $11,000, due in part to the mountaintop location.

Oberhauser and Clark have filed a complaint with the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation in Richmond; I'll follow up with any developments.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.