Buyer Beware: If you’re considering buying a home in Vancouver (or anywhere else) without ensuring that there are no underground storage tank buried on the property, please reconsider! Other people have purchased properties without doing their due diligence, only to find themselves in nightmare scenarios, with expensive tank removal and soil remediation fees leading to legal challenges as murky and toxic as the soil itself.
Buried Oil Tanks Common in the 1960s and Prior
Before natural gas became commonplace in Vancouver in the late 1960s, underground storage tanks (USTs) were the norm. With an absence of regulation in place, many of these oil tanks were simply left underground, often leading to rust and oil seepage. Nowadays many homeowners are becoming aware of these tanks, often following several generations of previous owners who were completely oblivious to the troubling situation lying right beneath their feet.
City of Vancouver’s Oil Tank Removal Policy
The City of Vancouver currently mandates that “all heating oil storage tanks that haven’t been used for two years must be removed or safely abandoned (in order to) manage flammable and combustible contents (and) to minimize subsurface contamination risks”.1 The obligations are outlined on the City’s website, as are steps toward removing or abandoning tanks.
Liabilities of Homeowners with Buried Oil Tanks
The cost of oil tank removal isn’t cheap, but worse yet are the expenses facing homeowners with contaminated soil. It’s estimated that approximately one in five buried oil tanks have seepage issues2, which requires an extensive decontamination process that replaces old soil with new. If the damage extends to neighbouring yards, the situation becomes still more financially burdensome. Several publicized cases illustrate this point.
In 2012 a homeowner decided to sell the North Vancouver home she’d owned for 20 years, only to discover that an oil tank was buried beneath her property.2 The removal and decontamination process cost her $85,000.
Even worse was the ordeal endured by a North Shore homeowner in 2008.3 This person discovered an oil tank in her yard, leading her to hire a contractor to remove it. Costs began to spiral as a result of what the contractor described as a ‘nightmare job’ that ‘destroyed’ the property. A lien was placed upon the home, leading to a court settlement that ultimately saw the two parties agree to a lower bill.
At this point the homeowner successfully sued the previous homeowners. Regardless, the oil tank woes caused the sale of the home to fall through.
Detecting the Presence of Underground Storage Tanks
USTs are generally found in homes built before 1970, often, but not always, in the backyard. The City of Vancouver offers a database which has records of many UST removals, abandonments, and installations. The same website also details steps for removing or properly abandoning a tank.
If the database nets no results, contractors can be hired to confirm the presence or absence of an oil tank in your yard using ground penetrating radar. The completion of the scan will result in certification, providing peace of mind to those with no tanks on site. Although these inspections can cost upwards of $400, it’s money well spent if it helps potential buyers avoid the costly alternative.
The owner of one oil tank removal service says that an inspection of the property can provide an idea of whether or not there’s a tank present.
“There’s a few clues that you could look for,” he says. “There’s a filler cap in the yard, or a vent pipe up the side of the house, or near the furnace, you have copper feed lines that come through.”2
It’s very important to note that many properties on Vancouver Island do indeed still have USTs. If you are buying on the Island, or in an area with less-than-sound record keeping, getting an oil tank scan is paramount! Notwithstanding, the City of Victoria pays for oil tank scans, leading to the cost to be around $20.
Underground Storage Tank Assessments Provide Peace of Mind
The above are just two examples of homeowners who have been burnt by the discovery of underground storage tanks. Details of these types of stories will differ, but the expenses are seldom low and the court battles are often contentious.
My advice to homebuyers is not to settle for anything less than certified confirmation of no oil tank. If the oil tank scan is conclusive that no tank is present, you’ll be able to proceed without worry. If the scanner is unable to scan the entire property and make a definitive declaration, you’re better off erring on the side of caution.
In fact, a thorough inspection is recommended for all aspects of the home you’re considering purchasing. Without this type of confirmation, a dream home can quickly become a financial, environmental, and legal nightmare that will leave you wishing you’d never stepped foot on the property.