Keeping Dry in Your Basement Apartment

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If you've found yourself looking on the low end of market prices while apartment hunting, you may have been introduced to a whole lot of basement apartments, or "garden apartments" as they're often called here in Chicago. Technically "garden apartment" is a specific term for a ground floor living space that opens directly to street level, not one below ground. However, it is the way of real estate agents to use more pleasant euphemisms when referring to unpleasant things, so nearly every apartment at street level or below is called a garden unit in listings.

Garden units are usually the least expensive options in a building, and for good reason. They have limited light, limited air flow, often have low ceilings, and can be oddly shaped. You have to deal with the unfortunate social stigma that comes with telling your friends that you're a basement-dweller. There's also the issue that many of them are illegal conversions of regular basements, created without the knowledge or review of the city and not included in property tax calculations. But this is a matter for a different article. What we're talking about today is the most central concern of basement apartment life: flooding.

I have dealt with tenants who lived in basement apartments that flooded. I have knowingly rented multiple apartments that I knew had a tendency to flood. (Yes, I know I am a bad person.) One would think that it would be a challenge to do so, and I admit that it's of dubious morality to put someone in a place when you know there's a problem. However, if the prospective tenant doesn't ask, it becomes quite easy, as a leasing agent does not have to volunteer this sort of information unless asked directly. That being said, there were a lot of prospective tenants who did ask. My answer in any garden regardless of its history was always the same: in Chicago it's never a question of "has this apartment flooded," but rather, "when will it flood next".

Some renters when considering garden apartments will look up flood zone maps. This is a good idea, as it identifies areas that are close to major bodies of water that can jump their banks. However, the major problem with basements in Chicago is not our rivers, ponds and the lake. It's our antique sewer system that serves to carry all of our wastewater as well as rain.

When Chicago gets heavy rain it flows for the most part into a sewer system installed just shy of two centuries old that wasn't designed to handle modern rainfall. While the city is working to update the system to handle 21st century weather, it has over 4000 miles of sewer, much of which runs through private property that they cannot access. Rain lands on rooftops where it runs into downspouts that channel into the sewers. It lands on streets where it runs into gutters that also empty into the sewers. This combines with the normal everyday wastewater from our showers, dishwashers, washing machines, garden sprinklers, car washes and toilets. When basement apartments in Chicago flood, it usually isn't just rainwater. It's sewage. Raw, nasty sewage.

If you're considering renting a garden, you have to accept that flooding is a known risk. The best you can do is to look for signs that the landlord and the local government has done everything they can to lower that risk, with the understanding that it cannot be completely eliminated. Here are some things to look for and consider.

  1. Overhead sewer lines. The most important thing a landlord can do to lower the risk of flooding is to install overhead sewer lines and an ejector pump. This is, however, an expensive endeavor. Most basements will have sump pumps, which are good for removing clean ground water. However, if an apartment building has overhead sewer lines there will usually be a separate pump called an ejector pump that can handle solid waste and seal in sewer gas. It can be noisy so it probably will not be in the apartment. Ask about it and, also important, ask if it has a battery backup in case the power goes out.
  2. Disconnected downspouts. Walk around the building and look at the downspouts. Those are the metal or PVC tubes that run from the roof to the sidewalk to carry rain down to the ground. For many buildings you'll see those downspouts go straight into the ground, where they connect to the sewer lines. This is bad. You want to see downspouts that end at ground level and funnel the water into the grass or the street instead of down into the sewers beneath your apartment.
  3. Sidewalk slope. Sidewalks are usually quite flat, but the ones that run around the side of a building are supposed to be very gently tilted away. This allows water and melting snow to drain away from the foundation.
  4. Recent renovations. Garden apartments are usually a landlord's loss leaders. They don't make a lot of money, but if the landlord leaves them empty they're leaving money on the table. You don't spend a chunk of cash to gussy up a loss leader unless major damage has occurred. If you are looking at a newly renovated basement apartment, chances are that the renovations occurred for a very good reason - it probably flooded in very recent memory.
  5. Flooded streets. While flooding usually occurs towards the end of a heavy rain, you want to visit during a rainstorm to watch what's happening in the street, not the apartment itself. On some blocks the city has installed plastic filters that slow the drainage of rain water from the street to the sewers so that they fill at an acceptable pace. If you see the street totally full of water that is a good thing. It means that the block already has those filters in place.
  6. Neighboring buildings. Specifically, look for laundry rooms, car washes, disconnected downspouts. We're all sharing the same sewers. If your neighbors are doing a lot of laundry during a rainstorm their wastewater could wind up on your floor.
  7. Landlord flood experience. Ask how the landlord has handled flooded units in the past. Do they offer you a substitute unit? Do they help you move your stuff? How long does it take them to repair a flooded apartment? If they're leasing out a basement unit you actually do want them to have experience with this scenario already.
  8. Renters insurance. If there was ever a time for renters insurance, this is it. Your landlord's insurance does not cover your belongings. Premiums for renters insurance in basements may be higher than you expect. If you're considering renting a garden apartment, contact an insurance agent and get some quotes for it before you sign the lease.
  9. Flood insurance. Yes, renters can buy flood insurance in addition to their renters insurance policies, but only if they fall within areas deemed to be flood zones, such as the section of Albany Park adjacent to the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  10. Elevate your valuables. Even the best precautions cannot stop every flood. Chicago is built on top of swamp land. Most of the city and suburban streets called "Ridge Road" mark the ancient boundaries of the lake. If you rent in a basement you are rolling the dice every time it rains. Loft your bed or put it on cinderblocks. If anything must be stored on the floor keep it in air tight plastic bins. Any floor-level furniture should probably be castoff junk.
  11. Have a crash pad. Expect to get flooded. Be happy if you avoid it. If you sign that lease, have somewhere to go in a hurry in the event that the water moves in with you. If you flood out chances are it will be at least a few weeks before you can move back in.

The City of Chicago's website has more on basement flooding, including some info you can bring to your neighbors to discourage them from heavy water use during rainstorms.

Have you ever lived in a basement apartment that flooded? What happened to you? How did you deal with it? How did the landlord handle it? What happened to your stuff? Let us know in the comments!

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Published by

Kay Cleaves