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Balance Budget With Lifestyle: What’s It Like to Live in a Basement?

We're thrilled to present this smart LearnVest story here on Savvy!

When it comes to apartments, light is expensive. For this reason, basement apartments are usually cheaper to live in than apartments that are on the first floors and higher, getting lots of natural light. They tend to appear in big cities, where every square foot counts. If you think about what a brownstone townhouse looks like (those of you who aren’t from New York, imagine Carrie running up her stairs in “Sex and the City”) the apartment with the entrance under the stairs is the basement apartment. But can you stand it? Will you turn into a vampire? Here, for potential cellar dwellers, are some basement FAQs.

What’s The Difference Between a Basement and a Cellar?

To some people, a cellar is a storeroom in the ground found mostly in the prairie states. But New York State’s definition is more common: If a room is partly underground (below curb level), but less than half of its height is above ground, it’s a basement. If a room is underground, but more than half of its height is below ground, it’s a cellar. The distinction is important because (in New York State anyway) it’s illegal to rent out a cellar.

What’s An “English Basement?”

In realtor-speak, an “English basement” is a basement with a separate entrance from the outside, as a opposed to a basement that you access by walking through the house first.


Keep reading for more FAQs.

Before I Visit These Apartments, What Do I Ask The Realtor?

Since, to me, the flaw in these apartments is their lack of view (in our office we call them “trash-can apartments,” because that’s often what you see out the window) ask the realtor about the view. Are you looking at a sidewalk? Are you seeing people’s feet? Their heads? The answer to this question will give you one idea as to how liveable you might find the apartment. Ask about ceiling height too—some people find the typical seven-foot-height of a basement claustrophobic, especially when compared to the typical eight-foot-height of a first-floor apartment.

Will I Have Garden Access?

One big plus of basement apartments is that they often have shared rights to the house’s outdoor space, which makes up for a lot. If that’s the case, ask the landlord about how often you can use the space, during what hours, how many people you can have over, and whether you can use any outdoor amenities such as a grill. If you’re promised certain rights, go ahead and get them in writing as an addendum to the lease.

Can I Insure My Stuff If I Live In a Basement?

Generally not. I once had the basement of my beach house flood (thankfully, no one was living there at the time) and I was basically told that “basements are meant to flood.” So remember that basements can leak, and read your renter’s insurance policy carefully before you lease a basement apartment, just in case!

Source: Flickr User Hoboken Condos

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a1stbornunicorn a1stbornunicorn 6 years
I lived in an "English basement" apartment with several roommates in Washington DC. It did feel stuffy at times but there were small windows throughout, some with flowers in front of them. The biggest complaint I had were bugs. Bugs live in basements, people. Especially in rainy/cold regions. No matter how many times you fumigate. Watch out!
lilkimbo lilkimbo 6 years
It's actually untrue that you probably can't insure your stuff in a basement. You can get renters' insurance that covers you in the case of theft or fire. It will also cover you in the case of flooding due to leaky pipes, etc., but will not cover you in the case of flooding due to weather. No standard homeowners'/renters' insurance policy covers you in the case of flooding due to weather, a separate flood insurance policy that is underwritten by the federal government is required. This is part of why there are always arguments with/lawsuits involving insurance companies after hurricanes. If something like a falling tree or high winds caused the damage to your property, your homeowners insurance covers it. If the damage was actually caused by water, you need flood insurance.
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