Do people actually live in basements?
January 22, 2013 7:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm sure you've all heard the phrase "living in your parent's basement." I was just wondering if it is common or if young adults/people actually live in basements or if it's just a saying. Where I'm from (southern california), I've never actually heard of anyone living in a basement, usually they will have a room in the house.
posted by nathanm to Home & Garden (63 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yep, basement apartments or pseudo-apartments are common in NY/NJ and most of the east coast, in my experience.
posted by ArgyleMarionette at 7:11 PM on January 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

A lot of basements have separate doors. This gives the young person a certain amount of autonomy, they can come and go as they please.

Here (Northern Utah) it is very common, a lot of houses come with basement apartments and it is not unusual to see married couples with small kids living in them. Sometimes the landlord is Mom & Dad, sometimes not.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:13 PM on January 22, 2013

In places where basements are necessary due to low frost lines (the northeast, maybe the northern midwest?), people will finish out their basements and put bedrooms/bathrooms/living areas downstairs. They will sometimes even have their own entrance. So having an young adult or adult kid living in the basement gives them a measure of autonomy and gets them out of their parent's hair.

In some areas, people can also convert their basement into a separate apartment and rent it out.
posted by muddgirl at 7:13 PM on January 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

yeah, what ArgyleMarionette said. As another datapoint, I've lived in my parents basement through two separate renovations (my condo, then my house)
posted by pyro979 at 7:13 PM on January 22, 2013

I've lived in two basements over the last 8 years, and I've done so with two children (who are now both teenagers). I'm not in my young adult years, though. I've spent almost all of my 30's in basements, as I went to school and raised my kids.

Basement living is much like apartment living. The only differences are that the spaces tend to have lower ceilings, and there is very little (if any) natural light.

In Seattle, many basements are converted to mother-in-law styled apartments with kitchenettes, separate bath, and separate entrance. It's worked mostly well for our family.
posted by frizz at 7:13 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

But yeah, this Californian thinks live-in basements are quite a novelty. Our 'basement' was hardly more than a cellar and a crawl space.
posted by muddgirl at 7:14 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, very common. But doesn't much of California not even have basements? That would make it much more rare...

Here (PA/NJ/NY area), the houses tend to be old and have finished basements. It's really just like another room, but more private and carpeted, insulated, etc.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:15 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ah yes. Wiki says basements are not common in California because of the likelihood of collapse during an earthquake.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:17 PM on January 22, 2013

is the basement not considered part of the house? I spent a good chunk of my childhood in the US midwest, and my bedroom was in the basement of my parent's house. The ceilings were the same height and there were windows (that looked out into a window well but still gave decent light). I liked it because it was near the computer and game rooms, the second bathroom, and felt like I had more-or-less my own apartment in the house.
posted by par court at 7:17 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here in my neighborhood in the midwest, nearly every house has a finished basement with several rooms, including a bathroom. The basements almost always have the same footprint as the first floors, so there's usually lots of space.
posted by cooker girl at 7:19 PM on January 22, 2013

Very common in Southern Ontario, actually, I've been in lots of houses (split level) that have TWO basements, one as a bedroom with windows (high on the wall, below grade except for a window well) and one half a level down with no windows for the rec room.
posted by saucysault at 7:20 PM on January 22, 2013

My landlord converted his house in Northern Ontario for his kids to live in; when they moved out he started renting. I've got half the footprint of his house (he has two apartments), high but not huge windows in pretty much every room. I don't think anything of it, it's pretty standard anywhere I've lived.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:23 PM on January 22, 2013

Yes, lots of people live in basements. In places where people have basements.

For the record, SoCal is the only place I've ever lived where this wasn't common. On the other hand, SoCal had way more young adults living above the garage or in a converted poolhouse.

I have personally lived in a parent's basement in Connecticut and Ohio; I've known people in those states and about a dozen others, living in basements. This includes both walk-out basements and full basements, for the record. (It just occurred to me that I've actually lived in both types.)

Another data point: I've lived in six states, in at least eight single-family homes, and every single one of them outside of California had a basement.

The only single-family house I've actually been in, outside of CA, that didn't have a basement you could live in? It was a geodesic dome in Texas.
posted by SMPA at 7:26 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Live in them? Canadians even sing about them.
posted by hangashore at 7:27 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just to make it clear this is nationwide, I lived in a basement apartment in (northern) California when I was in my early 20s (though the landlords weren't my parents.)
posted by escabeche at 7:27 PM on January 22, 2013

Yes. I have lived in the basement in two states: Oregon and Alaska. I do not have photos, alas.
posted by bswinburn at 7:29 PM on January 22, 2013

I've lived in Southern California all my life so I've never seen a "true basement" out here. I've known people that had basements, but they were typically converted lower level garages. But I know of friends that have at some point literally lived in their parents basements in the midwest / east coast. Friends that still live at home in SoCal just still reside in their childhood rooms.
posted by xtine at 7:30 PM on January 22, 2013

In my house, my sisters and I live upstairs while my dad lives in our finished basement. (Lucky us.) Nearly everyone I knew growing up had a finished basement either as a guest room or with people living in it. My boyfriend lives in Chicago and has an unfinished basement and I think it's super weird. The idea of living in a converted garage is completely weird to me, also. I live in the upper Midwest.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:31 PM on January 22, 2013

(Oh, also-- two of my sisters are married/engaged and they both live with their partners in their partners' parents' basements.)
posted by stoneandstar at 7:32 PM on January 22, 2013

My 26(?)-year-old stepsister currently lives in the basement of my dad and stepmom's house. However, the "basement" is basically a 1br apartment, has its own kitchen and 1-car garage and everything.
posted by agress at 7:37 PM on January 22, 2013

I should add, if it's relevant, said dad/stepmom's house is in Kentucky.
posted by agress at 7:39 PM on January 22, 2013

The blogger the Frogman writes about living in his parents' basement; I would link to him but I seem to be incapable right now.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:42 PM on January 22, 2013

My BFF in high school had a finished basement in his W.L.A. house that was his mom's art studio, but then again they also had an elevator. I can't think of any other finished basement I've seen in the greater L.A. area, but it's becoming a thing:

L.A. Times:
Homeowners dig down for more space
With more limits on the height and footprint of homes, particularly in beach cities, the underground area adds footage for such extras as theaters and wine cellars.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:43 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's probably very regional, but I grew up in NJ and this trope applies. When you're a kid and adolescent you live in a bedroom, near your parents' room probably, where they could keep an eye on you. When/if you moved back often you moved to an attic, basement, or over-garage room that seemed a little more private (separate entrance, own bathroom). FInished basements are common and basement apartments or garage "mother-in-law (so called)" apartments are a normal enough thing.
posted by Miko at 7:48 PM on January 22, 2013

In DC, English basements are common apartments. I lived in one for several years. It's one way to make your rent dollars stretch a little farther. My one bedroom basement apartment was under market value, in a great part of town, and really spacious. It was actually a decent place to live until it flooded.
posted by kat518 at 7:57 PM on January 22, 2013

Yup. I've lived in three. My bedroom is in the basement of the house I'm in now. Colorado.
posted by bebrave! at 7:57 PM on January 22, 2013

Both my kids (ages 29 and 21) live in my basement, which is all finished and has a bathroom but no kitchen, alas. It seemed like a good idea when I bought this house. Now, however, I would like you to tell me more about this fabled basement free land.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:01 PM on January 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

My brother lived in my mom's (unfinished) basement, and my stepsister lived in her dad's (finished) basement in Illinois. This was post-high school for both of them. When I went back to visit, I stayed in the basement.

Basement living does have a taint of impermanence/shame to it. To me it says, "I'm too old to be living in an upstairs bedroom, I really should be out on my own, but this will do for now."
posted by caryatid at 8:02 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

No one I know in north Texas has a basement. But no one around here says they live in their parents basement either. I just live with my parents and wish I had a basement or something somewhat disconnected.

Ex roommate from Virginia lives in her mom's basement.
posted by missriss89 at 8:10 PM on January 22, 2013

I have a friend back in New York City who literally lives in a basement apartment. I also once went to look at an apartment which the ad claimed was a "first floor duplex" and which turned out to be -- surprise! -- a basement apartment with like one room on the ground level.

My understanding of the "living in your parents' basement" idiom is that it assumes a suburban family home with a large "finished" basement, often somewhat self contained. Sort of like living "above the garage" or "in the pool house", but more East Coast.

I've known people who've moved back home to live with their parents, even people who did so in houses that had large finished basements. But all of them lived in their old childhood bedrooms, not literally in the basement. You're right, it's an odd turn of phrase.
posted by Sara C. at 8:11 PM on January 22, 2013

No one I know in north Texas has a basement.

Yeah, in much of Texas, basements are basically impossible — either the bedrock is too shallow and too hard, or the water table is too high, or the soil is too shifty and unstable. So you set up a pier and beam foundation or a concrete slab, and you build the house on that. At most you end up with a tiny little crawl space under the house; and a lot of houses there's no space at all under there.

So sure enough, the "parents' basement" saying isn't really that common here.

On the other hand, I know more people here who just straight up live with their parents — you know, doing a share of the chores and eating all their meals together as a family and everything. People in their 20s still sometimes feel like living with family is obnoxious and frustrating, but it isn't seen as shameful the way it would be in the Northeast. (Also, housing is MUCH cheaper here than it is in the Northeast, so when people get to the point of frustration where back North they'd be like "fuck this, I'm turning the basement into my own apartment," normally here they can afford to be like "fuck this, I'm moving out" instead.)
posted by and so but then, we at 8:27 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

(And yeah, "above the garage" is also a thing. I guess you can get away with it here because it doesn't really matter that there's no insulation.)
posted by and so but then, we at 8:28 PM on January 22, 2013

They're usually called "basement suites" here in British Columbia and they are quite popular.

A co-worker of the mister's has a basement suite that his mother-in-law lives in. He calls her "the Troll".
posted by deborah at 8:50 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and when I lived in the City of Orange in Southern California we had a cellar. It was completely unfinished and open to the crawl space. All it had it in was the furnace and lots of stuff stored in boxes. The house was built in 1917 and is across the street from Chapman College University.
posted by deborah at 8:53 PM on January 22, 2013

The house I live in right now has a "basement" like that. Seeing that sort of basement, I can definitely understand the confusion about "moving back into my parents' basement" as a thing. I mean, my parents hate me, but they wouldn't make me live in a dark hole with the hot water heater.
posted by Sara C. at 9:02 PM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

We had a musty, not-finished basement (although there was some painted plywood covering a divider) with furniture in it -- my aunt and uncle lived there for a while after they first got married. This would have been the eighties. In Georgia. My parents had tried to make it a "play space" for my brother and me, and we did use it, but it wasn't that great -- always a little cold and damp.
posted by amtho at 9:02 PM on January 22, 2013

southern california here. we have sort of a half-basement, since our house is build into a hillside. but yeah, very few basements here in so cal -- I can't think of any true basements I've encountered, actually -- so all my adult friends still living in their parents' homes reside in their childhood rooms.
posted by changeling at 9:17 PM on January 22, 2013

I totally lived in the basement in the couple years of highschool and it was the coolest. We had a finished basement - that means carpets and finished ceilings and normal walls, in this case wood-paneled - with a full bathroom and a sliding glass door that led to the backyard, because the house was on a slope. We added the bathroom when I was a young teen, ostensibly to add value to the house (many years later as they are selling, it has turned out to be quite true) but at the time I knew it was actually a gift to me. I had a whole floor of the house, with the big tv and entertainment system, and even my own door! The only room that was specifically, officially my own though was the bedroom, which actually was the room you had to walk through to get to the laundry room. So actually, despite the illusion of more privacy, I had less. But, when friends wanted to come hang out in the middle of the night, they could, and it was pretty obvious that my parents were happy with this arrangement because we all sort of needed the space from each other. This was in the early 00's, in Northern Virginia.
posted by Mizu at 9:18 PM on January 22, 2013

I had a basement room when we lived in Great Falls, Montana. It was bomb; painted colors I wanted and with stuff I thought was cool. My next basement bedroom was in our house in Spokane, Washington. I painted it with blue skies, the One Tree, rainbows, stars, etc. Now I live in California, first in L.A. for 5 years and now in Northern California for more than 20 years. Here in Earthquake Country, with slab construction, a.k.a concrete pad, we don't have basements because ack, that could collapse on a person! So I've figured out finally that that's why people don't live in their parents' basements in California.
posted by Lynsey at 9:30 PM on January 22, 2013

I seriously thought basements weren't popular in warmer climates because the insects and spiders are more dangerous. I don't like the bugs in Canada, but at least they aren't out to kill me.
posted by saucysault at 9:39 PM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I grew up in Southern California, and I too didn't really understand the basement apartment thing until I moved away. Suffice to say, it's definitely a thing in places where earthquakes are less of an issue.

In addition to basement apartments, I currently live in and have encountered a lot of 3rd floor/finished attic apartments, which I never saw as a kid. You usually find them in somewhat large, but otherwise normal looking houses. The bottom two floors function like any old single family residence, but it's set up so that the top floor is entirely separate and complete with its own kitchen and entrance, and it's inaccessible from the rest of the house.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:48 PM on January 22, 2013

Basements exist wherever the ground freezes. People rent out their basements because they're fairly undesirable living space, often damp and cold, rarely as well finished as the rest of the house, and it's easy to add a separate entrance for them.

I'd venture to bet that most Canadians live in a basement bedroom or apartment at least once in their lives. For me, it was only four years and three different cities.
posted by bonehead at 9:59 PM on January 22, 2013

I lived in a finished two-bedroom basement apartment a decade ago, in my early 20s, when I first moved to Oregon. My brother lives in another Oregon basement, a finished room in an otherwise unfinished basement, and a roommate rents the unfinished portion of the basement (probably in violation of housing laws).
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:00 PM on January 22, 2013

I live in Southern California but grew up in the Midwest and my room was in the basement and I absolutely hated it...cold, damp, creepy, and lonely.
posted by Dansaman at 10:09 PM on January 22, 2013

Grew up in Colorado and Wyoming. Most of the houses we lived in had finished or semi-finished basements, with their own bedrooms or at least rec rooms (which is where all the guys who had bands in high school would rehearse when it was too cold to rehearse in the garage), and some friends' houses had basements that were indeed like small apartments.
posted by scody at 10:11 PM on January 22, 2013

I've never actually heard of anyone living in a basement, usually they will have a room in the house.

The basement is a room in the house. It's often used as a bedroom. When I was a kid a lot of my friends lived in their basement. If they moved back in with their parents as adults, they would likely move back into the basement. It's not "just a saying."
posted by John Cohen at 10:26 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

My bedroom in my house is in the basement - it's really nice, I have a window that looks into the stairs that go to the basement entrance, the ceiling is exposed rafters. Kitchen and living room are upstairs. In the winter it's the warmest room in the house because it's close to the furnace, and in the summer it's cool because it's half underground.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:35 PM on January 22, 2013

I dated a guy who lived in his aunt's basement and briefly lived with them. It was awesome, and a lot better for privacy than if he'd had the room upstairs.
posted by Autumn at 10:44 PM on January 22, 2013

Whether a house has a basement depends a lot on the water table in the area. Building on slab is cheaper than building on a basement, and necessary where the water table prevents excavation.
But building 'up' is cheaper than building 'out', so a basement offers relatively cheap storage space that can also be used for rec rooms with ping pong tables, computer games, laundry, or bedrooms or whatever is missing upstairs.
When you see cars in the driveway, you can be pretty sure the house has no basement and the garage is used for storage.
posted by Cranberry at 11:52 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hello, I'm writing to you from my apartment in my in-laws' basement. I'm 32, my husband is 26, and our son is 3. And yeah, I do feel exactly like a personification of everything meant to be conveyed by the phrase.
posted by pajamazon at 12:39 AM on January 23, 2013

I do it now.

I share the house with two other people; they have large upstairs bedrooms, I have two rooms in the basement (a small bedroom and a small office space). There's another bedroom upstairs, but it wasn't really what I wanted - it's a guest bedroom if someone needs to sleep over. I have a bathroom (shower, toilet, sink), and we share the cooking randomly (last week I made mozzarella chicken, for example, just because I was in the mood).

The big downside here in Seattle, especially right now, is the cold in the ground. Thankfully, since it's a fairly small room, I can bring the electric space heater from place to place with minimal trouble.

The one bit of hilarity is that the bedroom was pretty obviously built out of a part of the garage, and there's a closet for storage that was also carved out. If you look at the layout, that door, right next to my bedroom door, you'd think it goes into the garage. It doesn't. So I put up a sign that reads "502 BAD GATEWAY" and figure either people get it or don't.
posted by mephron at 12:40 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Virginia here --- never have myself, but one of my siblings did for a year or so in her mid-twenties; she had moved out years earlier, hit a bad financial patch & needed a place to stay.
A niece of ours stayed in her father's basement (more of a complete small apartment in that case) for years, including with her live-in SO, only moving out when her father retired out-of-state and sold the place.
posted by easily confused at 2:23 AM on January 23, 2013

In Florida you don't get basement apartments (because most houses are slab construction), you get garage conversions. Same use and connotations.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:38 AM on January 23, 2013

Since we have established that people do furnish their basements for living, I want to go on to talk about where the connotations of the phrase come from.

As Mizu wrote above, moving from your old bedroom to the basement rooms is a common teenage thing. It means you are entering that phase of late adolescence when your freedom is, in some ways, at its maximum. Typically you have a TV down there and you can play your guitar and read and even get romantic. Among boys I knew at that age (in central Illinois), it was kind of a rite of passage when your older brother goes to college and you can take The Basement.

That is a great age to be. I knew a guy who was running his own little indie music "label" at age 17, another one who was writing computer programs and sending them off to those type-in magazines, and a third who published a Blake's 7 fanzine. College is actually a step backwards -- you have less time, and there's more interesting things right there on campus. And after college you face a full-time job, so when you get home you simply don't have the hours and hours of free time & energy of late teenhood to dig into your personal hobbies.

It's a very seductive lifestyle. It's easy to want to fall back into it, to take advantage of it if it's still on offer and you're done with school & don't have a job.

In my experience when people talk disparagingly of a young man who has "moved back into his parents' basement" and seems satisfied staying there, it means he's kind of stagnated or regressed to an eternal late adolescent lifestyle and/or mindset. He may not be a jerk, since, after all, an independent-ish teen can be a good kid and help his parents. But it comes up negatively in romantic situations because few 20something women want to get involved with a cool teenager. (Funny how that's not symmetric.) According to society, if you've settled for a half-developed state, you're a loser who hasn't made anything of himself like adults should.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:59 AM on January 23, 2013

I lived in my parents' basement for several years between college and grad school so that I could save money. It wasn't a finished basement, either. Moving back into my old bedroom wasn't a real option because of too many younger siblings and too few rooms.
posted by Kriesa at 5:36 AM on January 23, 2013

You may want to look at this article called Boys In The Basement, written about, well, living in the basement.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 5:38 AM on January 23, 2013

Ha, this reminds me of how my friends in high school liked to come over and hang out in our basement in California, because they had never seen a house with a basement before! I'm not sure how we ended up as the only house in town with a basement, but it actually worked really well for cooling the house in the summer, because a house fan circulated the air up from the basement. The basement was kind of grody but we made my brothers sleep down there. And basement windows were good for sneaking out of. Now I live on the east coast and own a home with a very nice finished basement that will someday be the au pair's suite. AMAZING TRUE STORY!!
posted by yarly at 5:49 AM on January 23, 2013

Quite possibly wrongly, I associate finished basements (with real walls, carpet, etc.) with a certain degree of wealth. The obvious determining factor beyond having a basement is that the basement be dry and not be liable to flood if there's a massive amount of rain with a power outage (of the sump pump is off). There were a couple of inches of water in the basement the week after I was born. The other house I lived in Illinois had a basement that was sort of finished--someone had painted the walls, there were some cabinets--but you'd never have laid carpet. We had some rugs we were wiling to get wet if it came to that. We did have a TV and some chairs in the basement. Dry basements are maybe more likely in newer construction, which would explain my association of finished basements with wealth (where I grew up, many of the biggest/fanciest houses were fairly new--like late 1980s on).
posted by hoyland at 5:53 AM on January 23, 2013

We have a split-level house, with 1300 sq ft on the bottom/basement level and 1300 sq ft on the upper-level.

The "basement" is divided into two areas, the 'family room', which is half the space. We have a half-bath, a TV area, a desk and a treadmill there. The other half is storage, a washer/dryer and another desk.

It's sort of finished. If you call painted cinder blocks finished.

My DREAM is to put in a full bath and another bedroom. One with a proper walk-in closet.

So yes. And I want to be that person living in the basement.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:15 AM on January 23, 2013

I'm astounded that there are places where basements don't exist. Thanks to the wonder of grad school and two undergrad degrees, I spent a *lot* of time renting basement apartments -- but then again, I was in Vancouver, Toronto and London England, so the rents were otherwise prohibitive. It was either live in a tiny basement bachelor/one bedroom, or share an above-ground place. Basements are dark and a bit cool, and prone to floods, bugs and damp. But if the alternative is roommates they were often the best choice.

0ne of my very favourite apartments had a cucumber frame built into the outer wall where the coal chute had been: it functioned as a skylight, so there was natural light in the main room. And it was in the coolest neighborhood ever, and was affordable. I loved it dearly, even though it flooded and the couple upstairs fought constantly.
posted by jrochest at 11:57 AM on January 23, 2013

Fabled basement free land: Arizona. It's very rare. If you do see one, it's usually in split-level homes.
posted by _paegan_ at 3:11 PM on January 23, 2013

In the Southeast, basements are not super common. I'm guessing it might have something to do with red clay being really hard to dig in and land being plentiful and cheap (so if you want more room, you sprawl out farther rather than digging down).

We have a half-daylit basement now that is broken into several rooms ranging from "former coal cellar" to "mud walls and floor" to "partially finished and paneled place where one might keep ones kidnapping victims". Apparently, the former tenants had a subletter who lived in the latter room and they brewed beer in the other two. I am scared to go down there and would not want to live in it.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:55 PM on January 23, 2013

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