When researching garden apartments and condos in Chicago, much of the anecdotal information on the Internet is very general and negative. Much of this information is from people with no construction knowledge or empirical data. They may have had a bad rental experience or ownership experience, but this can be said for all properties. However, just as in any other dwelling garden apartments and condos are subject to quality of construction, one's budget and one's preferences. The most prevalent reasons to own a garden unit is location and price. You can simply get a better location withing your budget and a 30%-50% discount to comparable condos on the first floor.
The main objections to garden level homes (usually 50% below grade level) are; Fear of flooding from exterior or back-ups, lighting, security, and humidity/temperature control.
Here's an easy read addressing construction features that address humidity and temperature in basement living spaces:
Many basement condo conversions have good sump pump systems, drain tile to prevent seepage, properly insulated walls and or other flood preventing features. Many of these units have had years of comfortable living... so just be diligent.
My own experience deals with several clients owning garden condo units and "duplex-down" homes with the lower floor living space is 50% or less below grade. Most, including my-self, have had positive experiences. I've owned a duplex home for three years and we have several systems in place to keep our lower level dry and extremely comfortable. Some have experienced some type of flooding or back-up issue and had to correct the problem. In each one of those cases I know of, it had to do with proper plumbing maintenance of the building and the cost varied greatly. That is, if you are thinking of living in a garden unit you should inspect the common plumbing situation of the building.
This garden unit below in Ravenswood is wide, highly upgraded and has industrial plumbing improvements to prevent back-ups.
If you are looking to buy a garden level condo I suggest interviewing qualified inspectors who can enumerate the important points they will check. I also recommend having a licensed plumber come out and run a camera check/system check of the situation. This can cost up to $500.00 plus the physical inspection ($200-$500 depending on the size, complexity of the home). However, if you can get a terrific unit with all he features you want in the location you want... for 30%-50% less, a proper inspection will be worth it. Some buildings will already have excellent plumbing improvements work and records.
As for safety, I personally have no evidence suggesting garden units are a higher break-in risk than houses, other apartments and finished lower levels of homes and duplex-down condos. It's true you may not be able to leave windows open at all times like a top floor unit. But this is all part of the pros, cons and pricing. As we speak, I sit writing in my lower level with the windows open. We have a security system and close them when we leave or at night.
Lighting will depend on size of windows and interior light fixtures. "Canned" or recessed lighting is my suggestion for finished basement levels. There are plenty of above grade units that get little light due to surrounding buildings, however they may be worth the price and location for many people.
having lived in a duplex-down in lincoln square, I have to tell you we flooded badly 3 sep. times. The issue was the outside common area; the steps led down about 3 feet to our back doors. Every time it rained more than 1 or 2 inches, the drains couldnt handle the volume and the rainwater would fill up this area. Then the rainwater would enter the units thru the cracks on either side of the doors. Crazy, but true.
We clearly indicated this issue when we sold our unit two years ago, but I doubt it's been resolved. So stressful to see water pouring in, and short of sandbagging, we couldnt come up with another affordable solution.
Thanks for the email. There are many stories of duplexes and garden apartments and condos flooding. Many are very preventable and relatively affordable.
Your issue sounds like the main line sewer and catch basin could not handle the deluges we have had over the last few years. If you recall, there were two "100 year rains".
A rain water back-up from the stairwell drain is common with the city public sewer system. An affordable solution is installing a backflow flood control system in front of the building. This can run $8,000-$10,000. It's a new basin, vavle and pump installed to prevent backflow (which most likely caused your flooding). The cost can be spread to all unit owners, just as a new roof would be.
Secondly, some condo associations simply do not maintain their sewer lines. If there are no breaks in the lines, most sewer lines can be "rodded" twice a year for a total cost of $500-$600. Roots or breaks will need to be removed/repaired.
These are two common cuases for rain water back-up. Did your building ever have a reputable plumbing company run a camera through the system? You could have had some serious muck down there! Even when cleaned out, best solution is that flood control.
There are of course many, many finished basements in houses, garden apartments and duplex down condos (new and converted) that stay bone dry. Sometimes, it's just luck (good construction, location, property and proper grading that moves water away). In other cases there are good measures taken to prevent issues. Two of my clients with old homes had "permaseal" companies come out and wtaerproof seepage problems for their unfinished basements (so far so good after years).
I sell, view, inspect properties every week(with professional inspectors and contractors I've worked with for years) and there are many sound lower living situations.
I'd be interested to hear why a rain water back-up solution was not possible. Instead, the building or yourselves would have to keep picking up the bill for further floods in insurance and replacement costs. I'd think that's expensive too.
What do you do about neighboring buildings that are collecting rain water near your property line (and thus most likely up against your building). I am having this situation with my duplex down. Should I we worried? The water is not much, but it could be a problem later. Thanks~
The issue of "collecting" water that sits against your building is a "surface water" issue. When the slope at grade level is towards your building and/or gutters are clogged and downspouts are not splashing water away from a building... you can have seepage from the foundation from sitting water. You need the water to run-off properly.
Your Board may need to make sure surface water runs off away from the building. If you have interior drain tile and sump pump (with battery back-up), the grade should have been done properly at that time to run water away. It may need to be "re-graded".
Check if the the neighbor's gutters are clean or if downspouts may be extended away from the property. You may be able to point out the issue to them and help them improve the run-off situation.
Right now, outside our duplex, you see water sitting against the neighbors building away from ours. Our walks were altered when drain tile was installed at the conversion of the building. Our downspouts go into the main line sewer (not the entirely best option), but because we also have sump pump, a flood control valve and clean sewer lines, all the water gets pumped out preventing back-up into the basement level drains, toilet etc...
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