When Well Water Becomes a Deal Breaker

Groundwater testing is absolutely essential for buyers who are considering a home with well water.

September 1, 2006

As population continues to sprawl, and many former urbanites find themselves living the Green Acres life, it's important to learn about how to choose a property that doesn’t include city services — namely, water services.

While there is no denying that location is the holy grail of real estate, water is the lifeblood, especially in residential properties. In rural areas the water often comes from private wells, and the quality of that groundwater is directly related to the quality of family life, and even property values.

Given that water from private wells is influenced directly by surrounding metals, chemicals, and compounds, it can be unsafe unless properly treated or filtered. Tainted water that is used for drinking or even showering, cooking, or gardening can endanger a family's health, especially over long-time use.

It should also be a red flag to prospective buyers of a property. If a problem is found, buyers must hire an expert to determine whether water can be treated in some way to make it healthy.

What Should Buyers do First?

When looking at properties with well water, the first thing a buyer should do is test the water. With so much at stake, this is a job for an independent, certified laboratory — not for a quickie test kit or a lab that also sells water treatment equipment, which can be a of conflict of interest.

Even if water is not odorous and tastes fine, it can still contain trace metals or chemicals.

Oregon State University determined that toxic impurities in well-water include lead, mercury, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, nitrates, and volatile organic chemicals. Other materials of concern include sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese, sodium, and total dissolved solids. Also common are water-borne pathogens, such as bacteria, and microscopic plants and animals.

Jeff Johnson, a real estate agent with Windermere/Trails End Real Estate in Eagle Point, Ore., has had both professional and personal experience with well testing.

Inspections are Critical

"A few years ago my family lived in a home with a private well," he recalls. "When we eventually decided to have the water tested, we did a 'Top 20' analysis (testing for the 20 most prevalent impurities), and found high levels of fluoride.”

Now he strongly urges all of his clients to have a test done. “ If a buyer is reluctant to spend the money and there are children in the home, I encourage them to not drink the water unless they are sure it is safe."

In Johnson's professional experience, inspecting well-water is an essential part of a property inspection.

"I never fully appreciated the importance of testing water until I got into the real estate business," he says. "Testing well water to validate that it meets the state-approved standard for bacteria and nitrate isn't enough." There are many other harmful substances that are not commonly tested for because they are not mandated by law, he says.

Bad Water Can Break a Deal

Johnson says unhealthy or malodorous water can be a deal-breaker in a real estate transaction, and with good reason. In some cases, the prospective buyer needs to know there is an effective filtration or treatment system in place.

"It is quite possible for them to walk away from the deal, and you really can't blame them," he says.

Recently, he saw a real estate deal fall through. "Some developers who were inexperienced with groundwater backed away from building homes on some raw parcels where trace metal levels were high," Johnson says. "Eventually a well was installed with an appropriate filtration system at the wellhead, and three new homes share the water, which is now of drinkable quality."

Johnson has worked with Neilson Research Corp., a well-water testing laboratory in Medford, Ore., which discusses the findings of its analysis with the consumer and makes recommendations. Since they don't make or sell equipment, Johnson feels there’s no conflict of interest.

Test the Water Twice a Year

John Neilson, president of Neilson Research, says his company has seen thousands of instances in which untreated or unfiltered groundwater was not only unhealthy for drinking, but was also unfit for cooking, bathing, or even gardening.

"The home buyers may be a young family who wants to grow fresh produce in a garden, or even a senior who has looked forward to gardening in their retirement years," says Neilson. "But groundwater with heavy metals or harsh compounds can be toxic to plants, making them unhealthy to eat and even taint the soil that has been irrigated. To some property buyers that is a heartbreaking situation."

Well water conditions change continually, so Neilson recommends that wells be tested semi-annually.

"There are areas in some parts of the state where there are high levels of arsenic and other toxic contaminates in the groundwater," Neilson continues. "Your body stores them, so if you drink the water for any length of time, it's possible that it could create serious disabilities."

Blanche Evans is a writer/editor and CEO of evansEmedia. Formerly, she was a senior editor with Realty Times, where she was named by REALTOR® Magazine as one of the most influential people in the real estate industry.