Updates on Cesspool Matters & Tax Credits | More Information on Stuff That May Stink

You may recall a previous discussion regarding cesspools on Hawaii Island. There is no doubt replacing cesspools with septic systems where no county sewer line exists (which is most of the island) is long overdue. Most don’t realize that the requirement to move to more eco-friendly systems has been on every governor’s desk since at least 1997.


Photo courtesy Clairedenkens/

There’s no question that moving to septic systems will add significantly to the cost of new housing. That’s a given. But what about existing systems? For some, getting rid of cesspools (retrofitting or installing a new system) is more critical to our environment than others. To encourage these owners to make an immediate change, the state is providing a tax credit up to $10,000.

Anyone located within 200 ft. of a shoreline, perennial stream, wetland (like the watershed in Waiakea Uka), or source water assessment program area may be eligible. See if your property is eligible. The tax credit program is limited to $5 million per year for 5 years starting this past January. To encourage owners to make the switch as soon as possible, tax credits can carry over to subsequent tax years once the $5 million dollar limit is reached.

How Will You Know If You Need to Upgrade?

But here’s the rub. While it’s a lofty goal, it seems there may be unintended consequences of the new law. Remember, for years, the county issued final building inspections without confirmation that the cesspool was inspected. In fact, we still find new homes without proper inspections. Older homes were never inspected. Remember, cesspool inspections are a State vs County responsibility. Building permits are issued by the county.

It is a common misconception that cesspools are covered under the plumbing permit. They are not. As with most things related to real property, permit issues surface when the property is put up for sale. The REALTOR® normally discovers the problem. Currently, the “fix” is to contact a wastewater engineer who assists with preparing the proper paperwork and obtains the approval. The cost is nominal.

What happens once the new law is put in place is a somewhat vague, but it seems fairly clear to me that owners lacking an approved cesspool will be required to upgrade their unapproved system to a current system. It makes perfect sense that an “illegal/never inspected” system will not be brought into compliance unless current requirements are met. This is consistent with procedures applied when homes are not permitted. Dwellings normally must be brought up to current code prior to final inspection.

Less clear are remodels. Remember, approved cesspools can accommodate 5 bedrooms. It’s clear that any remodel exceeding 5 bedrooms will require a new system. It is not clear if every remodel permit will require replacement of an existing approved system. It’s certainly a question you need to ask.

One Thing to Remember

One last thought on the subject of septic systems. Don’t forget, they need to be pumped. Cesspools generally do not. If purchasing a home with a septic, be sure pumping is included in your purchase contract.

So, for now, there are still questions to be answered, but one thing is for sure, a smelly surprise is never a good surprise!

About the Author

Denise Nakanishi

Denise Nakanishi is a REALTOR Broker with Hawai'i Life. Denise Nakanishi is one of Hilo's most acclaimed real estate agents. She reached the rank of Major in the US Army and is now known by many as "Major Mom." The nickname fits–not only does Denise bring the discipline and mission-oriented attitude you'd expect, she's also caring and compassionate, always looking out for her clients like they're her own family. Having made the Big Island her home since 1987, Denise combines her extensive knowledge of the area with a sharp focus on customer service and the results speak for themselves. She's the recent recipient of the Best East Hawai`i, Best of Zillow, Chairman's Circle Award, President's Circle, Top Producing Agent since 2001, and Realtor of the Year awards. Denise stays ahead of the curve because she's passionate about education–she served as Education Chair for Hawaii Island REALTORS® for many years. She's one of Big Island's best real estate resources, known for her weekly article in the Hawaii Tribune Herald. Denise leads Team Nakanishi for Hawai`i Life, who is committed to their family, work, and community. In her little time away from work, Denise is a committed runner and Grandy. She also devotes many hours to various Veterans' Organizations, the East Hawaii Cultural Center, and the Hawaii Island REALTORS®. You can email me at or via phone at (808) 936-5100.

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