Pitfalls of buying a basement flat?
July 22, 2004 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about buying a new flat - but it's in the basement of a big old house. Anyone know of any pitfalls I should watch out for - and specifically, what are the tell-tale signs of damp (that even a novice would notice)?
posted by ascullion to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
A few random suggestions:

1) ask the current owner if it's ever been flooded, to their knowledge. In some jurisdictions it's illegal to lie about this.

2) look for areas of old paint (eg: back of closets) and look for discoloration. If the place has been painted recently, it may have been to cover up signs of damp. If you can find areas of bare concrete or brickwork to examine, so much the better.

3) look for cracks in the foundation, and examine those areas especially closely for signs of water damage.

4) if possible, look at the foundation walls to see if they're still plumb. Bulges indicate potential problems.

5) look around every pipe you can find, especially underneath the upstairs kitchen and bathroom -- you don't want their leaks coming in through your ceiling.

6) see if there are drains near the entries/exits; if there aren't then a simple heavy rain can flood you through your doors.

7) find out how high your local water table is, and compare that to how deep below ground your floor is. If you're deeper than the water table then the only thing holding back the water is expensive sealing and drain work, which can (will) eventually fail. Don't buy anything that isn't well above the water table, IMHO.

8) some houses actually have manholes into the stormwater system; this is a bad sign, because it's really easy for the storm drains to back up, and then the water will go straight into your place. Also, if you see large tubes sticking up out of a low point in the floor, going up a few feet, and then terminating in a grill or loose cap, run away. Those are often used to top off drains, so that water backing up into them has further to go before it can enter the living space.

9) use your sense of smell, particularly in unused corners, utility closets, and the like. If the entire place smells heavily of cleaner or perfume, then the owner might be trying to cover up the "damp" smell.

10) Just as an aside, I would personally never purchase a primary dwelling that's below ground level, unless there are specific extenuating circumstances (eg: I'm dug into the side of a hill in the desert). If a sewer backs up, everything you own is ruined. That's actually happened to people I know. At least check to see what kind of insurance you can get -- if nobody will insure your possessions, it's a pretty big sign you shouldn't be there.

Oh yeah: if you see any floor drains that have been permanently sealed somehow, run away. People sometimes do that to stop water from backing up into their basement -- but the resulting hydrostatic pressure from beneath the house can crack the foundation in a heavy rain.
posted by aramaic at 1:09 PM on July 22, 2004

All of aramaic's points are spot-on as a first cut on whether it's worth looking more closely at the place (which is how I assume they're intended). If you see any of those things, just turn around and walk away.

Just to be clear, though, you should never buy any property without having a certified inspector look over it closely. In the US, at least, you can't even get a mortgage or homeowner's insurance without having an accredited inspector go over the place. I'd be really surprised if there weren't similar requirements in the UK.

If you don't spot any obvious problems up front, and you're still interested, I'd interview a few different inspectors and use the one who seems the most dogged and experienced.

Finally, I'd also personally echo aramaic's point on being careful--I'm sure that there are at least 9 or 10 below-ground residences around the world that don't leak, but if you've ever owned a home with a basement, you know that water is a relentless and insidious foe. When it's just a basement, you can take the occasional dampness or flooding in stride--when that's your whole house, that could _really_ suck.
posted by LairBob at 1:47 PM on July 22, 2004

As someone who rented a basement apartment for a few years that flooded minorly every spring:

+cracked paint/dry rot/fungus/crystalline deposits, especially on the baseboards
+black discoloration, especially in corners
+sections of carpet that are discoloured or chunks that have been replaced
+laminate flooring that's curling up along its edges
+walk on the carpet in your bare feet for extra-sensitive dampness-detection.

Other things to look out for:
+noise from above - never take someone's word that "it's not that bad"
+plumbing noise
+good ventilation
+good access to bring your stuff into the place.
+good electrical lighting where your daylight will be limited.
+the insect population is generally higher in basements. You have to be able to live with the occasional (weekly)silverfish or centipede or spider being somewhere you don't want it. I also had an annual ant invasion facilitated by the same cracks in the foundation that led to the spring flooding, I'm pretty sure.
posted by cardboard at 2:39 PM on July 22, 2004

"permanent" damp (not flooding related to weather) can be measured in the walls. it should be part of a survey (ask if they do it before arranging the survey) or free from a company that provides chemical damproof services (since if they find damp, they will likely get the job of fixing it - note that they can't always fix it, so don't rely on that). expect them to make small holes (as if a couple of nails were hammered in) in the wall in a few places.

otoh, i lived in an old house (built before damproof courses were normal, and in which the chemical damproof injected a few years earlier didn't work) which had damp in some walls (this is all above ground) - all that happened was that some crystals formed on the wall surface in a few spots. the only problem with it, really, was that when it came to selling the place, we had to lower the price slightly to compensate (by the amount it would have cost for another checmical damproof later to be injected).

what would bug me most about living in a basement is the lack of natural light. it may be ok now - but what about winter?
posted by andrew cooke at 3:08 PM on July 22, 2004

Anyone with living space in a basement should try one of these. It sucks fresh, dry air into your living space and rids the room of dampness and stale smells, and it's way cheaper than a dehumidifier. (And, no, I don't sell the damn thing. I've had one for 5 years and it works like a dream.)
posted by sixpack at 4:00 PM on July 22, 2004

So, sixpack, how much do those Humidex things run? I can't find a price on that site, or the US dealer site.
posted by LairBob at 4:11 PM on July 22, 2004

The noise from upstairs can be disturbing. I lived in a basement where someone used to pace. Creak-creak-creak-creak turn creak-creak-creak-creak.

As well as the sewers, the washing machine can also soak your things.

And consider escape routes, in case of fire or intruder.
posted by philfromhavelock at 9:12 PM on July 22, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the help, much appreciated. I may have misled some of you by saying 'basement'. 'Lower ground floor' might be more appropriate. There are windows and a patio door into a garden! Either way, there's nothing between us and the Earth.

And - we will have a survey done, yes, but I was hoping I could have a gues myself, to see if it was worth paying out the cash.

All further tips gratefully recieved.
posted by ascullion at 9:22 PM on July 22, 2004

If you're in the UK (and calling it a 'flat' suggests you are) get a homebuyers report rather than a mortgage valuation - a valuation is literally 'yup, four walls and a ceiling, worth so much', whereas a homebuyers report is more comprehensive. Should cost about £250-400 (valuation is about £150)
posted by etc at 4:22 AM on July 23, 2004

There are a bunch of different kinds of insidious mold (which I won't even attempt to spell) that live under rugs and between layers of wallpaper. They can cause all sorts of health problems including brain damage. The solution is basically to burn the house down to get rid of it. I would be very wary of the place if it has rugs and/or wallpaper, and would even try and find a place to pull up the rug if possible to look under it. But all of the advice offered is good advice. Look very carefully at every little thing. If you are really concerened, why not walk around to neighbors and ask if they know if the previous residents ever had any problems with water?
posted by archimago at 10:10 AM on July 23, 2004

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