I never knew I was capable of horror flick-style screaming until we moved to our so-called luxury duplex in Park Slope. I say that with a small amount of pride because you should have heard me the day there was a flash flood and an entire backyard’s worth of water created a three-foot-high geyser in our bathroom.
Here’s what happened and the deep education I received in basements, and why I think of flooding every time it rains.
Prior to our swamped apartment, my husband and I were living in a very sweet 740-square-foot, two-bedroom condo. But it had grown too small for us with the arrival of our second daughter, 11 months prior, and our older daughter, who was four and a half. We wanted more space and thought renting would be the way to get it, since a larger two bedroom in our neighborhood was out of reach. We sold our condo and got a very good price for it.
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I found a listing for a “luxury” duplex rental apartment in a brownstone in the South Slope, a few blocks away from our condo. There were red flags all over, but we ignored them, focusing on the flagstone backyard patio and the massive amount of space thanks to two full floors.
The first red flag: The listing broker made an appointment for us to meet the owner and cautioned us not to ask any questions. “The owner doesn’t like questions,” she said. But we didn’t really know the questions we should have been asking.
The basement was dug out
We knew that the owner had dug out the basement to make it into livable space. We didn’t ask if he had installed a pump, French drains, or graded the backyard correctly. The answer would have been “no” to all three.
We were just eager to have so much space. On the garden level, there was a large living room, an eat-in kitchen, and a small room off the kitchen that we set up as a playroom for our daughters.
The bedrooms were in what was the basement. My husband and I slept in the massive, windowless room in the front, which had rough stone walls painted white. While everything was clean and neat, there was no getting around the feeling of being in a basement, even though I kept the light on in the kitchen upstairs so it would shine down the stairs, approximating a window. There were many nights I lay awake, missing our old apartment.
Our daughters’ bedroom was in the back, and had a small window high up on the wall, which was actually in a sort of a well with a ladder. The room was also bright and clean, but I hated it as well.
There were drains in the tile floor, one in each of the bedrooms; I had no idea what they were for, and I hated them too.
It was an illegal space
We didn’t know then that it is actually illegal to have a bedroom in a basement that is more than 50 percent below grade, which this was.
We did know that it was a recent renovation. In fact, it seemed unfinished to me. There was no lighting inside the front door to the apartment, and the lighting in the kitchen was minimal. There were also gray patches on the wall inside a closet on the lower level (I wanted to know if this was mold) and a few other thing wrong with the place. I made a list and gave it to our landlord.
This was red flag number two. Our landlord seemed staggered by the fact that I was asking him to fix things. “She gave me a list!” he exclaimed to my husband. He repeated this several times, as if I had done something horrible.
“He’s done,” my husband said to me when we were alone. “He did all he wants to on this place. He just wants to collect our money and not hear from us.”
He would soon be hearing from us.
A strange sucking sound
A couple of weeks after we moved in, on a rainy Saturday, I heard a strange sucking sound coming from the back of the building, in the well where the girls’ window was (there was another drain there).
Minutes later, we found out what the drains in the floor were connected to. Brown water came burbling up, onto the bedroom floor. It seemed the sucking sound was some sort of vacuum, pulling the water from the outside. We cleaned up the mess, wondering what to do.
Of course, it happened again, the next time it rained. This time I made a big fuss, and the landlord sent his handyman over, who filled the drains in the bedroom floor with cement, and sealed them with a floor tile.
Big, stupid mistake.
We soon got a mid-summer downpour, a drenching rain, in the middle of the week. The sucking sound started, only it was more like a roar. The water rushed from the poorly graded backyard into the pipes that lead into lower level, looking for an exit point. Without the drains to disperse the water, the exit somehow ended up being the toilet on the basement level.
Both of our neighbors’ backyards remained filled with water, like neat little fishbowls, while ours was drained dry as the water came shooting up like a geyser from our toilet. I could not stop screaming at the sight, it was so horrifying.
Fortunately my mother was visiting that day, and she was upstairs holding the baby. My five year old was at day camp. My landlord didn’t seem to hear me screaming, nor did he answer my knocking on the front door. I paced on the front stoop until I was able to intercept him coming out and encourage him to take a look at the small lake forming in our apartment.
He got as far as the top step to the basement, saw the brownish water below (about 8 inches) and sat down heavily in a state of shock.
Contaminated water in our bedrooms
A truck came that evening with men to pump out the water. They wore yellow waders up to their chest. When they saw me, in damp flip flops and bare legs, they shook their heads. “You should not touch the water,” one of them said to me.
When it was clear that many of our possessions were ruined by that brown water, our landlord offered us $100. His so-called handyman did a half-assed job cleaning up, and mold soon sprouted along the baseboards. We abandoned the basement, retreating to the first floor, where we created bedrooms out of the playroom and the dining area.
The filth and the cavalier treatment made us furious. Luckily our anger inspired us to do the research we should have done initially.
We set up a meeting with our landlord and brought a copy of NYC’s building code we had printed off the Internet. This made it clear the basement should not be considered living space. My husband handed it to our landlord and said the sexiest words I’ve ever heard him say, “You committed fraud. Give us our money back.” He named a number equivalent to half the rent we had paid for this so-called luxury apartment, since only half the apartment was kosher, plus the cost of our moving expenses thrown in for good measure.
Strangely, our landlord agreed to give us everything we were asking for. There were no negotiations required. We think he was worried about being sued or people thinking ill of him. He liked to think of himself as a nice guy, a good guy, as he repeatedly described himself to us.
But that didn’t mean he was going to be nice to us. He told us he wanted us out, immediately. “You people need to leave,” he said. And he did strange things, like rip our name off the mail box. There were other weird encounters, but mostly he glared and grunted at us when he encountered us (and he still does when we see him in the neighborhood).
Leaving was a relief
And so within a week, we had packed up again. Some things had not been unpacked to begin with, after all, we had been there only seven weeks. Movers came and took most of our things to a storage space that we had quickly rented. We went to a hotel for a week. That first night we sank into sleep, all four of in the same bed, with sweet relief.
Weeks later, pushing my daughter’s stroller to the playground, I got a call from our insurance agent. Our claim was approved. We were going to be reimbursed for most of our possessions, even our hotel stay. I had given the insurance company the name of the company who pumped the water out of the basement; they claimed that a large rock in the pipes (on the city’s side) had caused a blockage, preventing the water from discharging into the sewer. We never knew for sure whether this was the truth or a story to protect our landlord, but it helped us immensely.
We spent the next three months moving from short-term sublet to short-term sublet. We had only a few suitcases and a small bag of toys for my daughters with us while we waited for our new rental apartment (second floor!) to undergo a renovation. But that’s a tale for another time.
I wouldn’t wish our experience on anyone, which is why I’m now passionate about knowing your rights as a renter. I will never again rent anything with a basement, especially not a dug-out basement. It's just asking for (flooding) trouble. And I tell every new renter to get renter's insurance, it's so cheap yet so important. And if something seems fishy about an apartment, it probably is. Don't ignore a bad feeling or a red flag. Nothing clears up or goes away on its own.
And finally, our experience tested my marriage, in a good way, and now we have a whole litany of phrases that recall those strange days, like, “You people!” and “She gave me a list!” and my favorite, the always prophetic, “A basement is a basement.”
And when one of us comments on the rain, and says something like, “It’s basement-flooding weather,” we both know exactly which basement the other is talking about.
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