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What is a Basement Apartment?

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October 15, 2021
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With space having such a premium in major cities such as New York and San Francisco, it’s not surprising that many property owners and managers turn to creative methods to utilize space. From micro apartments to alcove studios, you’ll find a range of apartments in spaces that are otherwise too small for regular units.

However, size isn’t the only factor that can determine these “unique” apartments; location can also determine whether a particular space can be converted into a living area. Case in point, basement apartments.

But what are basement apartments, and are they right for you?

Let’s find out!

What is a Basement Apartment?

For a unit to be classified as a basement apartment, it must be located below street level underneath a building’s structure. It must also fulfill federal and state requirements. In New York, for example, here are the requirements for a basement apartment:

  • Ceiling must be at least seven feet high
  • Every room must have at least one window
  • Any room must be at least 70 square feet in size to be considered a bedroom
  • Interior doors must be at least 1.75 inches thick, and the exterior door must be at least 32” x 78”.
  • There must be at least two means of exit out of the bedroom (door and at least one window).
  • Bedroom window must measure a minimum of 5.7 square feet
  • All walls must be water-proof and damp-proof
  • There must be smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms installed inside the unit
  • There must be heating and cooling mechanism in sleeping areas
  • Buildings with basement apartments should have a certificate of occupancy
  • The unit should have well-maintained electrical and plumbing systems

Are Basement Apartments Different from Garden Apartments?

Yes, basement apartments are different from garden apartments. Garden apartments are typically found on the ground floor, and as the name suggests, the unit should have access to an outdoor space.

Are Basement Apartments the Same as Cellar Apartments?

While their names might suggest the same thing, there is actually a significant difference between a basement apartment and a cellar apartment. Basement apartments should have at least half of their height above curb level, while cellar apartments have more than half their height below curb level.

In NYC, it can be difficult to find a cellar apartment that is legal to rent, particularly because of the dangers they pose to tenants. What’s more, New York zoning laws do not consider cellars to be habitable spaces.

Is a Basement Apartment Legal?

Yes, a basement apartment is legal as long as it fulfills all federal and state requirements. The first thing that you should look for is a Certificate of Occupancy. You can check whether a building has this certificate by visiting the Department of Housing’s Building Information System. If a building has a Certificate of Occupancy, this means that the residence meets all the building codes.

Always check your state’s building codes to find out the requirements for a basement apartment as it can vary from state to state. In Massachusetts, basement apartments must be at least 150 square feet, with an additional 100 square feet for each person who will occupy the unit. In San Francisco, all basement apartments must be registered with the city’s Department of Building Inspection.

Pros of a Basement Apartment

Affordable

Basement apartments are generally more affordable compared to apartments with the same floor space or even those in the same building. This is because these units are seen as “less desirable”, which automatically translates to lower rent.

More Privacy

Most basement units have their own entrance, which is separate from the main entrance of the building. What’s more, it is often found on the side of the building, away from the hustle and bustle of other occupants.

Cheaper Cooling Costs

Since hot air rises, you’ll find the basement units are naturally cooler than other units in the same building. Many basement units don’t even need air conditioning and will only need windows to keep the apartment cool. You’ll be able to save on your cooling costs during the summer!

Easier Access

The entrance to basement apartments are usually found on ground floors or even a few feet below the curb, so you won’t need to worry about climbing too many stairs on a daily basis. This is great if you have mobility issues or you dislike going up multiple flights.

Ideal for People on Night Shifts

No one likes being the noisy neighbor, so if you tend to keep unusual hours because of work or leisure, a basement apartment is a good choice.

Cons of a Basement Apartment

Lacks Natural Light and Air

The location of a basement apartment makes it difficult for the unit to get a lot of natural light and air. This can make the unit feel a bit cramped especially if you’re used to airy, open apartments.

Retains Moisture

Since there is a lack of air and light, basement apartments are prone to retaining moisture if there is not enough ventilation. Too much moisture can lead to mold growth, which can be both unsightly and dangerous to your health. You might need to invest in a dehumidifier if you live in a humid area.

Pests can be a Problem

Due to the location of the apartment, pests such as insects and rodents can easily enter. Even the smallest crack in the windows or walls would be enough to serve as an entry point for these pests. Once they’re inside your apartment, they can prove to be difficult to remove.

Heating Costs are High

The flipside of cheap cooling costs is that heating costs can be expensive. If you live in a state with really cold winters, you might feel the pinch once your heating bill comes around.

Noisy

The proximity of a basement apartment to the street means that you’ll have a front row seat to the sounds of the city. If you live in the inner city, be prepared for the sounds of people, cars, and general street noise to come into your apartment.

Prone to Break-ins

Security can be an issue for basement apartments since the door is accessible to strangers. What’s more, since the door is located on the side of the building, it might be more attractive to thieves because they won’t be spotted so easily.

Flooding is a Serious Concern

Lastly, these units are susceptible to flooding. If your building does not have good street drainage or it is located on an incline, the water might rush straight to your unit during a downpour!

Is a Basement Apartment Right for You?

Just like with any other apartment type, there are pros and cons to choosing a basement apartment. In fact, it seems like a basement apartment is a bit of a double-edged sword; it’s easy accessibility for you means that it’s also easily accessible to pests. What you’ll save on cooling, you might spend on heating.

Of course, this should not discourage you from getting a basement apartment. It simply means that you need to be a bit more careful and mindful about choosing a unit. Make sure that it is a legal rental, and check whether there are signs of dampness or mold. Taking note of these things during an apartment tour can save you a lot of headaches down the line!

If you feel that a basement apartment is right for you, connect with our assistant Alex today to start your search.

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