Unless you’ve lived in a big city, the English basement may be an entirely new concept. English basements are common in urban centers, allowing homeowners to maximize their basement space by renting it out to tenants or providing an extra living space for family or friends.
Whether you’re considering living in an English basement or renting one out, there are pros and cons to consider. Here’s what you need to know about English basements, how they can affect property values and certain legal obligations that come with renting out a basement unit.
- What is an English basement?
- Where are English basements commonly found?
- What is it like living in an English basement?
- The pros and cons of living in an English basement.
- The cost to create or renovate an English basement.
What Is an English Basement?
English basements emerged out of 19th century London, allowing people to comfortably live below row houses, which are low-rise buildings that share a common wall on one or both sides. In the U.S., the English basement can be found anywhere with row houses, sharing a few common characteristics: small windows, better ventilation than its predecessor and accessibility from the outside, according to a Bloomberg report.
An English basement is located on the lowest level of a building. “It’s a self-contained apartment unit that usually has one or two bedrooms, and it occupies either the ground floor or the basement,” says Diana Minshall, real estate professional at TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in the District of Columbia.
English basements also allow homeowners to maximize available space. “It’s so expensive to have a house now,” Minshall says. “Having the option to have a lot of your carry costs supplemented by rental income from an English basement is really amazing. It offers fantastic flexibility.”
Where Are English Basements Commonly Found?
English basements in the U.S. can usually be found in big cities with brownstones or townhouses, such as in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and New York City, but are more commonly found in the District of Columbia, particularly in older homes. In some cases they initially served as quarters for domestic workers, and later became a popular rental option for people moving into the city for work.
What Is It Like Living in an English Basement?
English basements occupy the lowest floor of row houses, sitting partially below ground with smaller windows at street level. There’s also a separate entrance to the unit from the rest of the building. “They’re usually smaller,” Minshall says. “A lot of times they’re in basements so they can be dark.”
While some English basement units can be cheaper and offer more privacy, there’s a higher chance of flooding on lower levels and basement dwellings are also more prone to pests, like spiders, insects, rats and mice. Less sun exposure could also result in excess moisture, mildew and mold growth.
The Pros and Cons of Living in an English Basement
- English basements can provide an extra living space for family or friends.
- It can provide rental income for homeowners.
- The separate entrance provides some privacy as the occupant doesn’t have to go through the main living area of the home.
- Basement units can be more affordable.
- They usually have lower ceilings and narrow doorways.
- Smaller windows mean English basement units are typically darker.
- Basement units are prone to flooding.
- Pests like insects, rats, mice and other animals could become a problem.
- There’s potential for mold growth.
- English basements usually face a street or building entrance, which can be noisy.
The Cost to Create or Renovate an English Basement
The cost to turn a basement into an apartment ranges between $50,000 to $100,000. In some high-cost living areas, you could pay $150,000 or more, according to HomeAdvisor. However, you could recover your initial investment within two to five years because of rental income. You could also significantly increase your property value.
You’ll also need to consider your city’s building codes before turning your basement into a rental unit. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development says illegal basement dwellings face potential dangers such as carbon monoxide poisoning, insufficient light and ventilation and inadequate egress in the event of a fire. Your property may also need to be inspected before it’s legally recognized as a dwelling unit.
For instance, New York City and Washington building codes require English basements to have at least one-half of its height above curb level with a minimum ceiling height of seven feet. The walls, which must be as high as the ground level, must also be damp- and waterproofed. Every room needs a window and the bottom of any yard or open space must be at least six inches below the windowsill.