From time to time someone will ask us for advice about buying a rural property. At this time of year I am reminded of one of the most important things to pay attention to if you are looking to buy an existing house, or to build one. Be sure to check the place out at the end of winter/beginning of spring. Make sure that the building is on high ground
No really, I mean it!
We looked at this place in May when it was already warm and dry. So we weren’t really thinking in terms of spring run offs and potential flooding. If I’d known the challenges we were going to face with this place I probably would have bought it any way because the price was right and I really liked it. But having buildings that flood is a royal pain in the *ss.
As I watched the devastating tsunami unfold in Japan, I was dealing with a little “mini tsunami” of my own. Of course, there is no comparison between what those people are experiencing and what we experience when a few inches of water creeps into our garage/guesthouse. But anyone who has experienced watching their home fill up with water and their possessions getting wet has at least an inkling of the stress and feeling of helplessness.
We have three buildings; a small, two-stall horse barn, a garage/guest house, and our century-old farmhouse. We experience flooding in all of our buildings almost every spring. I have started to dread March. In March around here the ground is usually still frozen and if we get a lot of rain, the water has nowhere to go. We all know that water flows down and so during spring floods, the rainwater flows to the lowest points on our property. If you build in the lowest area, there’s a good chance the building will flood. Seems pretty basic.
The previous owners built the horse barn at the bottom of a gully. If you stand near the horse barn you can see that all the ground around it runs down to the barn. We’ve been told that when the previous occupants kept horses here, the poor horses would be standing in 6 inches of water in the spring.
Then they built the guesthouse and I wish I could say that they learned their lesson but where did they build the guesthouse? At the bottom of a gully. Really. No one got down on their hands and knees and looked around, like a golfer on a green, and said you know, I’m thinking in March when we get a big nasty rain, all the water will run down to this building. Not the owner, not the contractor, or even the person who poured the concrete slab. The guesthouse is slab on grade construction, which means that they just poured a big concrete pad on to the gravel. Then they bolted 2x6’s to the concrete and build the walls from there.
So now if the conditions in the spring are just right and the rainwater collects on the ground near the guesthouse it will gradually find its way through to the inside. Usually just the garage is affected, but from time to time it gets into the main part of the building, as it did this year. I had dug a trench from the building to the pond, but I hadn’t taken the time to chip out the ice dam that had built up near the downspout. I must have been really tired because I slept right through a torrential downpour until about 5 am. Then I got up and went out to check on the guesthouse. It was mopping time. Well actually first I strapped on my head light and hacked away at the ice for an hour until I could get the water flowing away from the building. Pardon my french, but it was a clusterfcuk. We’ve had a bulldozer here to try and sculpt the area around the building to drain the water away. I’ve put in gravel where I thought it would help, but when the ground is frozen, nothing seems to work. Thank goodness for a wet vac. They suck up water!
The main house also floods. When it was originally built in 1888 there was no basement. Years later the house was jacked up, supported with big logs and a horse with a bucket was used to drag the sand out from underneath the house. Then wide, thick concrete walls were built and the house was lowered back down on to it. Most springs, as the snow melts, groundwater will seep into the basement. Some years we’ve had half a foot of water down there. We’ve learned to not use the basement. Our freezer is down there, on top of concrete blocks and the cats’ litter boxes are down there too. We can always tell when the basement has begun flooding by the little wet cat footprints that start appearing. The cats think it’s just great, and I picture them down there having dragon boat races in their litter boxes.
When we tell people about the basement flooding every year they seem appalled. They picture a finished room with drywall and carpeting and sewage water backing up. It’s not like that all. Our basement is unfinished - concrete floor and walls, and the water that floods it is crystal clear groundwater. We like to joke that we have an indoor pool for a week or so every year. If we lived on the grid we’d have a sump pump in the sump well and it would keep the water at bay, but we just don’t have the power to run one full time this time of year.
The first spring that we lived here I noticed one sunny day that the batteries were getting sucked down. I couldn’t figure out what was happening until Michelle asked me what equipment I was running as she could hear the constant drone of something mechanical. I discovered that the sump pump in the basement was running constantly. In August, I’d be able to keep the basement drained by running the sump pump non-stop, but in March/April with lots of cloudy rainy days, it’s just not worth it. We see our yearly flood as a great opportunity for the basement floor to get a really good cleaning.
So when you’re looking at that dream home, get down on the ground, and look around 360°. Is the house higher or lower than the surrounding area? If it’s on-grid and you trust the grid I guess it doesn’t matter since you can just buy the electricity to run a sump pump. If you plan on being off-grid remember that pumps suck up a lot of juice, so better to buy or build a home that won’t flood. And don’t assume that a contractor will have your best interest in mind. A lot of business people take the path of least resistance. “Oh you want the house here, no problem.” As opposed to “No, this is the WRONG place to build.”
In the inky darkness and pouring rain the other morning as I was getting soaked from hacking away at ice to try and drain the lake beside the guesthouse I kept asking myself how someone could have chosen to build there, at the bottom of gully, especially after having already made the mistake of building the barn in the wrong place. It seems really basic to me, but apparently it’s not. So don’t make any assumptions about builders or building locations. Picture a March downpour and figure out where the rain will go. If the house has been built and situated properly, it will be away from the building.
Photo by Michelle Mather.
** The title of this blog is a play on the lyrics from Stevie Wonder's song "Higher Ground." Listen to it here;