Garden Unit Condo?

Asked by Tina, Chicago, IL Wed Jan 6, 2010

I am considering buying a garden unit (basement) condo. It's a vintage building, but is being completely gutted and rehabbed (by a reputable construction company). I'm wondering if anyone is aware of special inspections or things to look for when evaluating whether the unit will withstand the usual problems with garden units - flooding, bugs, etc. If we purchase the unit, we would get a good security system.

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Kourtney Bed…, , Barrington, IL
Thu Feb 25, 2010
I love our Garden Unit! It stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer! We get plenty of light......I guess it depends on the unit. Some Gardens still have full windows, rather thatn just the little basement windows. We have been very happy with our unit.
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Chris Michae…, , Chicago, IL
Tue Jan 12, 2010
Hi Tina,

I agree with the others here that have advised against garden units. My first apartment in the city was a garden unit and we once had sewage back up into our bathtub, along with a variety of other moisture issues. It was a nightmare. I currently own a two-flat building and we often have water seepage issues in the basement…it's really an unavoidable issue with basement units, i.e., that water will eventually be a problem. They're also less secure, the ceilings are typically lower, and you get much less sunlight. In short, they're OK for rentals but I would not commit to purchasing one. I advise my clients against them for these reasons and others do as well. Needless to say, there are not a lot of buyers out there shopping for them.

I recently went to see a condo development. There were originally about 32 regular units (i.e., above ground units) and 4 basement units. According to the listing agent, all but 1 of the regular units had sold and all 4 of the basement units were still available. You don't want to be in that position when it comes time to sell.

Chris Michaelson
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Tina, Home Buyer, Chicago, IL
Fri Jan 8, 2010
Thank you very much for all of your honest feedback!
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Don Tepper, Agent, Burke, VA
Wed Jan 6, 2010
Interesting the very strong opinions against garden units, particularly since they're familiar with Chicago. I certainly defer to their opinions.

I'd just add, though, that there are a number of variations to the theme. In fact, of the first three condos I owned, two were ground-floor units in vintage buildings.

The first one was an efficiency condo in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. It'd been built in 1941 (opened on December 7, 1941), and was renovated in 1973. I bought there in early 1974. The building, 7 stories tall, is shaped like a "U" with a very nice courtyard inside the "U." My unit was one facing the courtyard. As I recall the pricing (remember, this was about 36 years ago), there was a premium for courtyard units. Mine was about $28,000. The identical unit directly above mine (no courtyard access) was about $22,000, and the price rose about $1,000 for each story up. After about 4 years, I moved out and rented it. The tenant was a single woman.

The other condo was an "English basement" condo in a rowhouse near Logan Circle in D.C. And it was a true basement unit, with a few (but not too many) windows on one side. The renovation on this one was pretty lousy. Still, it was affordable in an old, attractive building. When I moved out of that one, I rented and had no problem doing so. And had no problem selling it, either.

So I'm not as negative toward garden apartments as the others here are. Recognize that when you sell or rent, buyers/renters will likely have security concerns, so your pool of prospects will be smaller. Other than that, there aren't any special inspections (except perhaps radon testing). Just have a complete home inspection. (I don't recall if I did on that second condo; I certainly should have.)

Hope that helps.
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Matt Laricy, Agent, Chicago, IL
Wed Jan 6, 2010
I am personally not a fan of garden units. But you have to go with what you like. I just feel that the headaches that can come along with them are not worth it. Also, the lighting is usually terrible in there. I couldnt imagine waking up everyday to darkness. Pass.

Matt Laricy
Americorp Real Estate
Brokers Associate, e-PRO
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Philip Sencer, Agent, Chicago, IL
Wed Jan 6, 2010
DO NOT BUY IT!!!!!!!!!!!! You are better off renting if that is all you can afford. The potential risks are great and the upside resale potential is limited. There is no inspection in the world that can guarrantee that you will not have a water issue next week or next year. There are all sorts of potential issues. Garden units are cold and impossible to heat properly unless you have radient heat in the floors which no one puts in. Just forget about it! When I ever have a client 'thinking' about a garden unit, I change their mind real fast. The pool of potential buyers willing to consider a garden unit is very limited. If I have not been clear enough, give me a call:)

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John Astori…, Agent, Chicago, IL
Wed Jan 6, 2010
Hi, Tina.

I agree with many of the issues brought up by my colleagues on this forum. If you buy it dirt cheap and can handle the limited upside potential on the invested principal in a garden unit, there are long term strategies you can employ to make the property work for you. I would be very happy to discuss these strategies with you at your convenience.
Most of all, if you follow through on this purchase, aside from engaging an experienced, veteran Buyer's Agent, please please please have the space tested for Radon.

Feel free to call on me any time if you have any questions.
Regards and good luck,

John Astorina
Keller Williams Realty
Chicago, IL
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Brendan Kott…, , Chicago, IL
Wed Jan 6, 2010

There is no specific inspection for garden unites because they have the same problems as any house basement, so all home inspectors would be able to perform the correct inspections. That said, you are right that there are very specific problems that can occur, so you should be sure to hire a reputable home inspector and be very discerning when you evaluate the results.

Thinks to look for:
Radon Gas Exposure, there is a specific test for this
Sealed concrete slap, to prevent dampness
Signs of water damage, indicating flooding
Make sure there are adequate floor drains

If there is any history of flooding or water damage, check to determine the source of the problem and whether it has been properly corrected.

Also, I want to reiterate an earlier point that garden units should be priced well below the price of a comparable above-ground unit. Ask your agent to do a competitive market analysis of the area's garden units that have sold recently. If you are not working with an agent, then it would be a good idea to hire one to help you negotiate down the price.

If you have any more questions or need anything else please let me know.

Brendan Kottenstette
DMD Chicago Realty
(773) 633-1425
Web Reference:
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Vivian Janka…, Agent, Saint John, IN
Wed Jan 6, 2010
I have to agree with everyone here. Garden units typically sell for a lower price and have risks not associated with higher units. If you really love the unit go in knowing it won't resale at the same value as the upper units. Make sure you are paying the right price, I recommend having a buyer's agent to represent your interests.
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Kipp Blackbu…, , Chicago, IL
Wed Jan 6, 2010
I concur with the previous answer. Not only are they a tough sale, they tend not to appreciate as well as comparable units that are above ground level. Moreover, flooding is a real risk, and there is no way to test for it or trace the history of it. I strongly encourage my buyers to avoid them.
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Paul Vranas, , Chicago, IL
Wed Jan 6, 2010

Even though the unit is being constructed by a reputable construction company you should definitely hire an inspection from a trusted inspector. Many home buyers forego inspections when buying new construction or rehabbed properties, and regret it down the road.

I own a garden condo and have had no problems with security or flooding. I put bars on my windows as a deterrent.

When purchasing a garden unit, 1 other thing to note is that there is a significant discount that should be priced in to the value of a garden unit when compared to a similar unit that is above grade. When determining fair market value, I suggest only comparing the garden unit to other garden units that have sold.

If you would like further advice on this, don't hesitate to contact me.
Paul Vranas
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Mark Malave, Agent, Chicago, IL
Wed Jan 6, 2010

I would pass on a Garden unit. When the time comes, you will have a VERY hard time moving this unit.
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