The Pros and Cons of Renting (or Buying) a Basement Apartment
Alexa Blay and her husband rented a basement apartment in Toronto, Ontario, for about a year and a half. On the upside, she estimates they saved about $300 a month on rent. Plus, the landlord threw in perks like free parking and utilities that weren’t typically extended to renters in nearby above-ground apartments.
Though Blay says there were downsides that came with their downstairs living situation: Frigid temps in the winter, little daylight, and when her landlords were in the backyard, they had a clear view into Blay’s kitchen through the small windows. But the real dealbreaker?
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“The spiders,” she says. “They ranged from house spiders to yellow sac spiders that would jump down off the ceiling onto us.”
Basement apartments (you may see them advertised by their more charming aliases: “garden-level apartments”) come with a unique set of pros and cons—some of which you might not fully discover until you actually move into one and go through your day-to-day routine. You could also run into some legal issues if the basement unit isn’t up to your city’s codes.
“Even though we loved having affordable rent in a good neighborhood, the cons quickly outweighed the pros,” says Blay, who runs a cooking blog, Key to My Lime.
Here’s what else you need to know before locking into a lease for a basement apartment or signing closing documents to purchase one.
Basement Apartments vs. Garden Apartments
Garden-level is a loose term, says New York City real estate agent John Jenis. It could mean there’s green space in front or in the back of the building, which might be accessible to the apartment. Typically if you show up to look at a “garden-level apartment,” what you’ll find is an entrance at ground level, Jenis says. Not quite as glamorous as the lush courtyard you might have envisioned, right?
A garden apartment is also often located between the first floor and the basement, says New York City-based agent Shelly Place with Triplemint. It might be slightly more elevated than an apartment that is truly basement-level, she notes. It’s not as high as a parlor-level apartment, which is at the top of a building’s front steps or stoop, and is a common layout in some townhomes and brownstones, Place explains.
While there’s no universal definition of “garden apartments,” there is a significant difference between a “cellar” and “basement” in New York City apartments.
A basement has at least 50 percent of its height above street level, but a cellar has at least half its height underground, says Nadine Adamson, an associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens in New York City and townhome specialist. In New York City, cellars aren’t considered legal living spaces in one- and two-family homes.
What Is a Daylight Basement Apartment?
A daylight basement has at least one full-sized window or even a sliding door, says Bryan Stoddard, director of Homewares Insiders, a home and design site. “This gives it more light and more fresh air, and, all in all, is an improvement over a classic basement apartment,” he says.
In Manhattan, these basement units—which have larger windows and are only partially below ground—are often referred to as “English basements,” says Emile L’Eplattenier, chief real estate analyst with TheClose.com.
While the lower price point of basement apartments are often the main draw for renters, English basements or daylight basements often have backyard access that upper-floor apartments don’t. “This can push up rent, and not insignificantly,” L’Eplattenier says.
How to Know If Your Basement Apartment Is Legal
Codes determining whether basement units are legal vary not just by state but also by city. In New York City, where basement apartments are fairly common, legal guidelines require adequate exits and ceilings that are at least 7 feet high, for example.
If you’re considering a basement unit, Place recommends reviewing the building’s “Certificate of Occupancy,” which should detail whether you can live in the basement as a standalone unit.
“Never rent an apartment that isn’t legal,” she says. “Even if your landlord is ultimately the only one liable, the city can force you to move out if they find out about it.”
Some red flags your basement rental might be illegal? Landlords could request you obtain a separate P.O. box, or they might avoid putting your name on utility bills because they know they’re violating occupancy.
Pros of a Basement Apartment
Basement units are more affordable
“The best deals in the neighborhood are often basement apartments,” Place says. When she runs comps (i.e. compares data for recent transactions) for both renters and buyers, she generally sees that basement units are 20 percent less expensive than other units in the same building.
Renovations may be easy to approve
If you own the apartment and you’re thinking of doing a renovation, there might be certain things you can do in a basement apartment that you wouldn’t be allowed to do on a higher floor, Place says.
“For example, a [condo] board might be more likely to approve adding a washer and dryer in a basement unit because there’s no unit below to worry about leaks into,” she says.
You might have more privacy
Basement apartments usually have a separate entrance or access to an outdoor space, points out Kobi Lahav, the senior managing director at brokerage Living NY. On the downside, your window is at ground level so it may be easy to see into your unit.
Basement units are darker
While this may fall squarely in the column of cons for some, those who are on reverse schedules—like medical workers and first responders—might benefit from renting an apartment that’s not too bright during the day so they can get some good shut-eye, Adamson says.
They’re often more spacious
“Because basement apartments are often under single-family homes, you’ll likely get more space than you would in a multi-family unit,” says Jeremy Wacksman, president at Zillow.
Cons of a Basement Spartment
It could feel claustrophobic
The biggest structural con is that the ceiling can be a lot lower than in apartments that are above the ground, Stoddard says. When you couple that with minimal lighting, it’s not an ideal living situation for some who prefer their spaces to be open and bright.
It could flood
While it’s always a good idea to get renter’s insurance, you should definitely opt for it in a basement unit. Without proper drainage, basement units can be prone to flooding, Adamson says. If someone above you has a leaky faucet or leaves their bathtub faucet running, the water can flood into your unit.
Pests could be problematic
When it comes to pests, leaving windows close to ground level opened for an extended period of time might be a bad idea, says Stoddard. “Mice, rats, and other animals might come in in search of food,” he says. Plus, garbage cans might be placed close to your window, which means some not-so-great-smells will waft in.
It could be noisy
Many basement units face the street or the building entrance, or are near a shared laundry room, and can be noisier because of foot traffic, says Lahav.
There’s the potential for mold problems
If there’s a leak in any of the apartments above you, it can cause a mold problem in the basement unit, says Robert Weitz, a certified microbial investigator and founder of RTK Environmental.
Since basement apartments tend to be partially or mostly underground, moisture can seep in from any cracks in the foundation, and mold could grow behind or on walls, ceilings and floors, he says. Before you move in, Weitz recommends having the basement unit tested for mold, especially if there’s a musty smell.