A Bit of History

I moved to New England from Michigan back in 1986 after college. After a brief stay in West Gloucester, Massachusetts, I found this little place for rent in South Hamilton, MA. The house is facing the South on a 10,000 square foot lot, with a nice little lake at the end of the road about 50 yards to the East. It was a 3-season cottage built for summers on the lake in 1952 by the original land owners.

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The house at the time of purchase, Summer 2002. (9 photos)

When their kids grew out of the place, they converted it to a 4-season structure and used it as a rental property. I came along 20 years later and the price was right, so there I was... paying rent (I loathe being a renter, really) and trying to pinch pennies to save for a down-payment, hoping to someday own my own home (but also not believing it would happen in New England due to prices here). The house was falling apart around me of course, but it wasn't my house, so I wasn't going to put any huge money into it - I took care of the yard and the house as best I could, but I wasn't going to deal with rotted sills and rakes, the leaky roof, sub-standard wiring and plumbing, and all the rest. Still, I had plenty of opportunity to poke and prod and think about what I'd do if I owned it. I also had a very good idea of what a complete train wreck it was.

In 1993 I met a wonderful woman that apparently didn't think I was a complete idiot, so I asked her to marry me and she said yes. We settled in to our humble cottage and kept our eye on the prize of getting the credit tidy and the bank balance going up. The house continued on its merry way of rotting back into the earth, and the landlord kept bumping the rent every time they had to fix something. The rent didn't go up much at all, then again they didn't fix much of anything either. We were then informed that they were thinking of selling it sometime in 2001. Yikes. I loathe moving almost as much as I loathe renting. Then it happened.

Up from the ground come-a bubblin' crude...

"Honey, it smells kinda funny in the back yard when it rains."
"Yes, yes it does... that would be the failed, 50-year old septic system".
"Hello Mr. Landlord? Yes, we sent the rent on time. Um, I believe there's a problem with the house though..."

So the septic system failed. Of course this was our fault with all that luxurious going to the bathroom stuff we had been doing. Kids these days. Now you won't see someone state this often, but that failed septic system turned out to be a real blessing, despite the aroma after a downpour. The landlord had already had some realtor friend come do a property value assessment before the septic system blew up, and I was certain the poor woman had suffered some manner of serious head trauma just before writing up her estimate. Did you look at the photos? Seriously, can you believe someone actually lived in that place? Looking back at those photos now, I'm astounded at how much we wanted to buy it. What a dump! Anyway, we then had our own assessment and home inspection done, and started talking prices. We met in the middle, more or less. More money for them, less money for us. It wasn't looking good.

The good news is that in Massachusetts there's this little gem on the books under Title 310 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations, section 15.000: Title V of the State Environmental Code. Locals just call it Title 5. In a nutshell, it lays out regulations for proper septic system sizing and installation, as well as how to inspect a system to ensure compliance with said regulations. Then there's the kicker: any time a property with a septic system changes ownership, the system must be inspected for compliance with Title 5. If it does not, the seller must pay to repair or replace the system to bring it up to code. If a system has been inspected and fails, the seller has 2 years to repair or replace the system, even if they decide not to sell the property. Nummins, we'd already had an inspection done.

The better news is that the buyer and seller may negotiate a reduction in price equal to the cost of the installation of a new system, and then the buyers pay for the installation themselves rather than waiting for the seller to do it. With the stellar track record of home maintenance the landlord had already demonstrated, we didn't hesitate to negotiate the deal so we'd do the installation after the purchase was completed. The 2 year timer had started due to system failure, the landlord was shocked at the price of a modern Title 5 compliant system, and I think the tens of thousands of dollars they'd received from us as rent over the years finally softened them up to the point where we got a very reasonable price on the place. In June of 2002 we became home owners... and we didn't even have to move into the new house.

Title V: The Deforestation of Suburbia

The first priority as a new home owner was easy: make the septic system right. You may have noticed in the photo above, we had plenty of trees around the house. As our tree guy said: "Title 5 has caused the deforestation of suburbia...". The first thing our system designer said was "Cut down all the trees and then we'll get started." I like to think of myself as a bit of a tree-hugger type, so my response was "No, design the system around as many trees as you can. I'm not gonna cut down 100-year old Oak trees so you don't have to put any effort into designing our system."

The Pines went away, the Hemlocks went away, the Maples went away, the Beeches went away, but the Oaks stayed. Two big Red Oaks and 2 White Oaks (big White Oaks are rare in these parts - most of them were turned into schooners in Essex and Gloucester). The biggest of the bunch, a White Oak near the house, got a pretty good shredding of surface roots on one side, and lots of soil compaction around the rest of it from heavy equipment. Still, tree guy recommended we wait and see how it would recover rather than just take it down at the time. It was refreshing to deal with a "tree guy" that really embraced his profession as an arborist, rather than just hacking off limbs and clear cutting trees for fire-wood. I recommend without reservation Cicoria Tree link opens a new window to anyone on the North Shore area of Massachusetts looking for the absolute best tree care service possible.

The New Septic System

With the trees mostly gone George Ricker Jr. Excavating & Septic came along and put in the new septic system. I happily recommend George and his guys for any work you might need done that requires diggin' holes and pushin' dirt around. On time, on budget, and he does as good a job cleaning up the mess as can be expected, considering the kind of work he's doing.

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The septic system installation is finished, August 2002. (8 photos)

Please have a look through the photos here (there's a little gallery that starts with the image on the left) and you'll get an idea of the state of the place after the installation was finished. I managed to get George to carefully transplant a half a dozen White Pines and Spruce from the front of the house to the East side of the lot (no small feat with an excavator - the guy is amazingly talented at running his machinery) and sneak them in between the existing trees there. The next task I had for him took a little convincing.

I had been thinking of what kind of landscaping I'd undertake since we had a clean slate to work with, and knew I was gonna need rocks to do my thing. When I asked George if he had any rocks, he just laughed. You can't dig a hole in New England without finding rocks, and since George was in the hole diggin' business, he had plenty of rocks. George delivered a 10-wheeler full of boulders, I took a day off work, and we spent the day with him in the excavator shaking his head and laughing at me while I ran around the yard flapping my arms and pointing at where I wanted the rocks. He branded me with the moniker "Rock Boy" that day, and that's what every local contractor and inspector has called me ever since. As you can see from the photos, I certainly earned the name Rock Boy (there were no rocks in our yard, other than the wall along the back property line, before the septic went in) but more about that in the Garden section.