Reluctant Renovator: April Showers Bring May Flowers…and Flooded, Wet Basements in Chicago

This overhead sewer exit provides security against future flooding, but installation can take a toll on the front yard. (Photos courtesy of Kim Moldofsky)

This overhead sewer exit provides security against future flooding, but installation can take a toll on the front yard. (Photos courtesy of Kim Moldofsky)

In Chicago, April showers do more than bring May flowers. Spring rains also cause wet basements throughout the area. In fact, at our home inspection last spring, we noticed a small stream of water flowing from a foundation wall to the floor drain in the middle of the basement.

This image haunted me each time it rained (and Chicago had a record rainfall in 2011), as I imagined the vacant house that was soon to be ours, filling up with water.

We were also worried about another common Chicago problem in the basement -- sewer backups. These can occur when a municipality’s sanitary sewer system gets overwhelmed by an inflow of storm water.

Due to increased volume in the sewer pipes, pressure builds up and the flow winds up reversing. A backup can also be caused by blockages or cracks in the line leading from a house to the city sewer system.

Our inspector noted a faint line about 8 inches above the floor on one of the basement walls and a residue on the furnace, both of which he said suggested there had been a major sewer backup at some point in the house’s history.

Whether this happened once before (the former owners say it did not during their many years of residence) we knew it would be a risk going forward. Our inspector concluded the house had good bones, but we wrapped up the inspection day with quite a long to-do list. Fixing the foundation crack and installing flood control topped it off.

Well, there was a bit of negotiation on the flood control. Frankly, I was willing to risk going without it. We’d just have to take care not to leave or store items on the floor of the unfinished basement. You know, just in case.

My husband had a different line of thought. “Flood control is expensive,” he reasoned, “but how much would you pay to know you’d never have to clean up your neighbor’s [waste] floating in our basement?”


We closed on the house and joined Angie’s List shortly after we were handed the keys. A quick search of “Basement Waterproofing” provided me with a long list of pros (and a few discounts) to fix the foundation crack. The crack was sealed and hasn’t let in a drop of water since. 

We put fixing the foundation crack at the top of our to-do list.

The flood control was a bit more complicated. There are a few simple, low-cost steps homeowners can take to reduce sewer back-ups, like disconnecting downspouts from the sewer system (which is something many municipalities require) and installing rain barrels near downspouts to collect rain water. Cook County residents can get low-cost rain barrels through the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Other flood control options range from caps and standpipes to a variety of more complex, expensive and reliable systems.

We opted for an overhead sewer system, something that typically costs about $10,000. Our village offers an interest-free loan toward flood control improvements if certain criteria are met, but we didn’t meet them. Be aware that many Chicagoland municipalities will help defray installation expenses, so be sure to look into this.

Simply put, an overhead sewer system raises the height a home’s waste lines making it unlikely for the system to ever overflow in our basement. Should pressure build in the city system, there’s a pressure release valve on our lawn that would open up a fountain of waste before we’d experience a back-up in our basement.

Overhead sewer installation is a messy process from the inside out. Had I known about pipelining at the time, I would have asked if it would be possible to avoid trenching our font lawn.

Between the sewer work, increasing our water service due to village requirements and having a dumpster on our lawn for most of the winter, one might say our newly renovated house is, uh, lacking in curb appeal.

Hopefully these April showers will not only bring May flowers, but help our new sod and landscaping take root. I’ll be back next month to share what I learn about that process.

What have you done to alleviate flooding in your basement?

Kim Moldofsky knows how to rock a tool belt, but her favorite technique for fixing things in her home is calling up tradesmen she finds on Angie’s List. That said, she’s learning a few things as she works to turn her “new-to-us” 1950s Cape Cod into a modern home in Chicago’s suburbs. She documents her home improvement projects at Reluctant

The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.


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An ejector pump carries sink and washing machine water out of member Julia Bell's basement. (Photo courtesy of Bell)
An ejector pump carries sink and washing machine water out of member Julia Bell's basement. (Photo courtesy of Bell)

Chicago homeowners can choose from several options to prevent basement flooding, including overhead sewers and exterior flood control systems.

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