Basements and Attics in North America
February 7, 2014 7:11 PM   Subscribe

I've been wondering about this for a long time- how prevalent are basements and attics in houses in North America? It seems like I'm always hearing about people doing projects in their basements (or dwelling in them!)- or having all sorts of treasures stashed away up in their attics.

Further to that- how big are these parts of a house? What is typically actually in them?

It's something I've often been curious about, and have often thought of posting as a question! I've always romanticised the idea of having the both of them- but they are very rare in Australia, and especially the part I live in.

posted by Philby to Home & Garden (59 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Basements (or cellars) are common in the colder areas of the US areas where the foundation needs to be below the frost line. In warm places like California, Texas, etc. basements are very uncommon because the expense of digging down isn't worth it. Some houses in warm climates have partial cellars, but I think that's less common nowadays.
posted by muddgirl at 7:22 PM on February 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

My personal experience, in the US, coming from a non-basement part of the US:

In Texas: Rare to nonexistent.
In Massachusetts: Common, and the size of the subfloor. Houses the furnace.
In Indiana/Illinois: Typical, and the size of the subfloor. Houses the furnace and stuff, may be finished (e.g., fitted with drywall and plumbing and like another room).
In the Pacific Northwest: Occasional. (May be finished.)
In California: Rare to nonexistent.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:22 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

In some parts of the US basements are very rare, partly because the water table is too high, and partly because it's cheaper to build a house on a slab of concrete or on piers. In other parts of the country basements are more common because they were originally used as storm shelters, as places for furnaces, as places to store harvested food. Attics are more typical in older houses. In newer houses the roof is often held up by trusses that do not leave room for attics. Flat roofs do not work well in cold climates and wet climates because snow and rain may leak. I live in an old house that does have an attic but the attic has no real floor- just the joists and the plaster of the ceilings below. I have no basement because the water table is too high.

Where basements do exist they are usually the same size as the house above, their walls serve as the foundation of the house. Usable space in attics depends on the pitch and height of the roof.
posted by mareli at 7:23 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Northeastern and midwestern states have basements.

They are rare in California, Texas, Arizona, and most of the Southeast.
They are occasional in the Pac NW but rare in Seattle.

I believe the main reason basements exist is because in the colder states, pipes and foundational supports must be dug so far down that you might as well just add in a basement.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 7:25 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's even a special Michigan basement, which is where they don't bother to finish off the dirt floor because it's just going to flood every year.

In my experience, you'll find attics in older homes anywhere, but basements are a northern thing where there are harsh winters.
posted by mibo at 7:27 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am outside Toronto, where about one third of Canadians live. The Building code specifies a four foot basement minimum to get past the frost line. I know of only a couple houses (both over 100 years) that only have a crawlspace instead of a basement that can at least be stood in (six or seven foot height). New construction generally has basement ceiling height at eight or nine feet and finished, livable basements are absolutely the norm (and are frequently used for basement apartments). Cottages sometimes do not have basements due to their type of construction (frankly, built cheap and not expected to last). Attics are in most houses, but in new construction (last twenty years or so, I think) cheaper pre-constructed trusses are used which render the space useless for storage. I don't know anyone that uses their (conventionally framed) attic for storage; if the attic can be accessed it generally becomes another living space with the addition of dormers/skylights. I used to live in an attic/servants quarters of an old Victorian that was enlarged with dormers. I am expanding my current unused attic with dormers to make it livable, it will be just a few square feet smaller than the floor it rests on. My sample size is the hundreds of houses I have been in, in the GTA, aged 150 years to new construction.
posted by saucysault at 7:30 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I live in Pittsburgh, PA, and everyone has a basement; most houses have attics. Basements usually house the furnace/boiler and the washer and dryer. It also serves as a storage space, and occasionally a beer cellar.

Pittsburgh is home to a thing called the Pittsburgh toilet. It is an inexplicable and excellent thing, especially at parties. It's also bizarre - at my parents' house, the bathroom is kind of just...out there, only hidden by a curtain on one side. We all kind of just accept its existence.

Attics vary here. My parents' is insulated but used for storage of Christmas ornaments, etc. only; other people I know have finished and made them into usable spaces. It's split about 60/40, I'd say.
posted by punchtothehead at 7:35 PM on February 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

Do not romanticize too much :) I have one of those Massachusetts basements that is the size of the house, but it is not really livable space....many many bugs find their way in through the nooks and crannies.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:39 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nobody has basements in Louisiana, because the water table is about two inches under our feet. Maintaining a water-tight basement (not to mention digging it) would be a huge pain, so nobody bothers. In fact, up until the 1950s (when slab-on-grade California Ranch Houses conquered America with no regard to whether or not they were an appropriate construction style for the area) most houses here were built on pilings, two or three feet off the ground.

In Massachusetts where I grew up, basements are the norm. As others have said, you have to dig the foundation down below the frost line anyway to keep the yearly freeze-thaw cycle from tearing the house apart, and once you're down there it's basically free space. That's generally where the uglier bits of the house go – the furnace, the heating oil tank, the water heater, the washer and dryer, etc. It often makes a logical place for storage, a garage (if the grade of the lot allows you to easily dig into the side of it), or a workshop. They vary a lot – older and/or simpler houses will often have nothing but a dirt or gravel floor in the basement, while newer and/or more prosperous houses will often have them fully furnished with drywall, heating, carpeting, etc.

Attics are sort of similar. You get them anywhere in the US that has enough rain and/or snow to make peaked roofs a sound design decision, and that's most of the country. You don't want a flat roof if you get significant amounts of rain or snow, because they don't shed as well and if that stuff is allowed to pool and/or pile up then it'll eventually destroy the building. When you have a peaked roof you end up with a big triangular void, which is sort of awkward as living space but useful for storage. Most people don't bother to furnish their attics – generally they don't even have flooring except for maybe some sheets of plywood – and they may or may not be tall enough to stand up in, depending on the house. It's simpler and more economical to just leave them uninsulated and unfinished, reducing the amount of volume that has to be heated and/or cooled. They do make it easier to route wiring and plumbing since you can leave the wires and pipes just sitting there on top of the joists, and you want access (often just a hatch in the ceiling somewhere below) so that you can get in there if you need to do any work. Once you've got access, you might as well use it as a place to store winter clothes, christmas ornaments, and anything else that you rarely use but can't bear to throw away.

Basically, attics and basements are just thrifty ways of using space that had to be built into the house anyway. Different climatic conditions demand different construction techniques, and sometimes that means that you end up with awkward voids that aren't really good for living in full-time but that are fine for storage, large appliances, and any messy activities that you don't want going on in the living room. In Australia where things are generally warm and dry you don't need to build those kinds of spaces into the houses – slab on grade with a flat or only moderately sloped roof works fine and is easier to build – so attics and basements would be uncommon. In the US things are often rainier, snowier, or colder and you pretty much get basements and attics as a side-effect of the way houses have to be built in order to work in those climates.
posted by Scientist at 7:42 PM on February 7, 2014 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks very much for all these responses! Very interested to hear more- all very different to Sydney, where I guess the conditions (it's warmish all year, so no frost, reasonably dry kind of climate etc) don't call for them so much.
posted by Philby at 7:43 PM on February 7, 2014

I'm from the New York suburbs, and our house -- and everyone's house -- had both a basement and an attic. Most of the basements were "finished," for some purpose, from recreating to laundry room. Most of the attics were unfinished storage spaces with exposed beams. Bigger families turned attics into extra bedrooms. When I was a kid I was always jealous of friends who had bedrooms with slanted ceilings right under the roof, it seemed cozy and close to the sky.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:45 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and also basements and attics make great places to play if you're a kid, since adults rarely go into them. They're also sort of mysterious and scary, being sort of dark and full of weird old stuff and imposing machinery. That's why they play such a big cultural role (in literature, movies, etc). Lots of people have childhood memories of being terrified by the furnace, awed by discoveries of their grandfather's old war memorabilia, and of staging many games of imagination and make-believe with their friends. For people who grew up with them they're definitely a cultural touchstone.
posted by Scientist at 7:46 PM on February 7, 2014 [13 favorites]

Adding to the no basements in California answer, we don't have a ton of useable attics here either. Mostly, the low ranch roof pitches don't allow for standing headroom. My furnace is up there, but you need to access it through a closet using a ladder hauled in from the garage. And it's hot as hell up there in the summer! So storing anything there is dooming it to heat damage.
posted by cecic at 7:47 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah thinkpiece, when I was about 10 or 12 my parents built part of their attic out into a bedroom for me, complete with inward-sloping walls and little knee-high doors leading into the eaves where I could stash my porn. I even had no less than three skylights, one of which was directly over my bed. It was the bomb. I was a lucky, lucky kid.
posted by Scientist at 7:48 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I can't think of a single house without a basement.

That said, not every basement is finished or even finish-able. Depending on where you live, your basement may get damp, or take in water. It is very typical for people to install sump-pumps to deal with water issues in their basements, especially if they want to finish these areas.

The basement is generally the same size as the house above. Some, but not all, have outside entrances, either straight-out or with a staircase (generally if your lot is sloped in such a way that the back yard is lower than the front yard, but this isn't the only way it could happen).

Typically in a basement (finished or unfinished) you will find the furnace, the pipes, the hot water heater, often the laundry, etc. If the basement is finished, these utilities may be in a separate, unfinished portion. Basements are also a great place for storage. The entrance to our attic is tiny and we have no garage (it was converted to living space) so all our Christmas decorations are currently in the unfinished portion of our basement!

As for attics - the majority of homes have attics, but not all homes do. It depends on the size and construction of the home. Attic entrances can range from a walk-up to a ladder that you pull down from the ceiling in your hallway, to a small push-up entrance in a closet (bring your own ladder!). If the attic has enough space and is floored (or if you put plywood down on top of the rafters), you can use it for storage. If it is a walk-up and has enough space, you can use it as living space, but it will be colder / hotter than the rest of the house. I lived in the attic throughout high-school. The attic was the same size as the floor below, but the livable space was smaller (due to stairs, wall compensations for the sloped roof, and the fact that half the attic was unfinished and used for storage).
posted by kellygrape at 7:49 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in the Northeast in a house with an unfinished basement. The floor was concrete; overhead you could see the floorboards of the first floor. It was maybe 7 feet high?

In it were the furnace, the washer and dryer, an indoor hydroponics setup, lots of old household stuff being stored, lots of dust, chipped paint, and spiders!
posted by cairdeas at 7:50 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

The demise of attics is mostly due to modern truss roof design. Used to be everyone had rafters with a large void space under them that could be finished for additional living room. But sometime in the 50/60's this housebuilding practice gave way to the modern truss roof design with a lot of 2x4 going up and down in the attic space that totally destroys any useful living space. Here is a rafter framed roof. Here is a discussion of the whole difference by an architect. Here is modern roof trusses.
I live in a hundred year old 'fancy' house for the time with both a basement and an attic (the attic forms the second floor of the house).
posted by bartonlong at 7:52 PM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

In most of Canada (in my experience) it's very much as kellygrape has described re: Philly 'burbs (furnace, laundry, sump pumps etc.).
posted by SpecialSpaghettiBowl at 7:54 PM on February 7, 2014

Best answer: I can't imagine a house without a basement. Where do you keep all your boxes of crap from your childhood or that exercise bike you'll never use or your furnace or your circuit breaker or your washer/dryer, etc.? My basement also has a sump pump so that when it rains, it doesn't flood. Basements where I am from (NY) are usually just cement floors with some a couple support beams to hold up the ceiling. I've heard of people having very nice finished basements, but I've never seen it. Sometimes people slap some carpet down so it's not just cement, but generally they embrace the basement for what it is. I guess if you don't have them in Australia, maybe your garages serve a similar function? I'd be curious as to where you store things.

Also, as far as I know, basements are something you go into often. Some people keep backup pantries and refrigerators down there so they can buy in bulk. Most people do laundry down there. But attics you rarely venture into, probably because they are awkward to get into. A lot of people have a little ceiling hatch that opens up and a ladder comes down. Talk about precarious. My house is a split level so I get to my attic through a little door in the wall of one of the bedrooms upstairs. But I never, ever want to go in there.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:56 PM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Housing stock varies widely across the US.

The reason you see so much mention of basements is probably because of the way the US Northeast/East Coast dominates the media and general discourse about what "America" is.

We did not have basements where I grew up, along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana. The water table is too high. I also have not seen many here in southern California, though the house I live in now has a little unfinished "root cellar" type of space underneath the house (but not underground, and not accessible from the main house).

However, in my experience growing up in the South, most families who lived in standalone houses (as opposed to apartments or trailers) did have at least some type of attic. The most common kinds in modern housing were unfinished and usually too small to use for anything more than storage.

It's mostly 19th century architecture that has attics that are finished out to be used as living space, though even in older homes I think it's relatively rare.
posted by Sara C. at 7:56 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

No one I knew had a basement in Louisiana (flooding). A lot of people have them in Kansas. I now have an unfinished one in my own house, and it is the same footprint as my actual first floor house though it is too short and on one half of it I actually can't even fully stand up without hitting my head. I call it my hobbit basement. And yes, bugs can get in and the fluorescent lights buzz down there and there're pipes and the water heater.

But I love it and now that I've lived with on-site non-visible storage, I don't want to give it up. It is fabulous for all those possessions you have to store but only use irregularly or take up inordinate/awkward amounts of space. No more bike in the living room, no more 25lb blocks of clay to stub your feet on beside the dining table, no more luggage and flattened boxes taking up valuable closet space (and now I don't even have to flatten them - there's space in the basement!)... All of those items go into the basement, and the house miraculously looks much cleaner even though it's not really about cleanliness, it's about cluttering.

Also, in Kansas a basement is a good storm/tornado shelter and in fact years ago I recall my parents driving me past a house that was basically a roof on the ground. Apparently it's a rare but real practice which prevents tornado damage and also more easily regulates the temperature of the house.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:58 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and something else that is relatively common in GTA houses that I have seen is a whole second kitchen in the basement. Mostly I have seen this in Southern European homes like Italian and Portuguese. Basically the basement kitchen is used for everyday cooking and the main floor kitchen is just for show. This is generally the generation older than mine, in my experience.
posted by saucysault at 8:01 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: AppleTurnover: "I guess if you don't have them in Australia, maybe your garages serve a similar function? I'd be curious as to where you store things."

Wow, thanks for the detailed answer there. In answer to your question- it's been a long time since I've been able to fit a car in my garage- on account of how all sorts of things end up being stored there.

Also- most houses here will have a dedicated laundry- so the machines and whatnot go in there.

posted by Philby at 8:04 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in Illinois; the basement is also where I hide from tornadoes. Even houses without a "real" basement around here have enough of a basement to hide from tornadoes.

Mine is the size of the house above; half of it is "finished," but in a much less nice style than the rest of the house (bare cinderblock walls, open joist ceilings, composite wood plank flooring that I forget the name of (Pergo?)) and serves as a combination playroom for the kids and nerdhole for my husband. The other half is unfinished -- concrete floor is the big difference -- and houses the furnace, cat litter boxes, electrical panel, laundry, water heater, water softener, sump pumps (flooding! yay!), water and gas pipes, many boxes o' junk, and my husbands tool workbench.

Around here basements always have a half bathroom right underneath the other bathrooms because the pipes are there anyway and it's not very expensive to throw up walls around a toilet and sink. My basement half-bath is in the unfinished half, which is totally impractical and nobody ever uses.

My house was built in 1950 right when the area near me was switching from coal furnaces to gas furnaces, so my basement actually has door for a coal chute that has never been used. This is not as cool as my friend's house down the street built in 1940 which has a milk door for the milk man AND the actual coal chute instead of the just the door for the never-used coal chute.

It's hella cold in the basement here, which is great in the summer where it's 90*F outside and 55*F in the basement, but kinda crappy in the winter when you're heating the upstairs to 65*F and the basement is like 45*F. Basements are also damp around here because of the water level/soil/weather; we have a complicated and relatively expensive (around $3,000, we had to have a new one put in) dewatering system that keeps the basement from flooding, because the water in the soil is incessantly trying to creep into the basement.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:12 PM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Okay, here's the real reason people in the Northeast have basements. It gets cold and/or rainy in the Winter. The kids can't go outside. Everyone - kids, parents, babysitters - gets to hate the site of each other about 2 days into a giant storm.

The finished basement is where you send the kids to play so they are out of your hair.
posted by 26.2 at 8:24 PM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here's an older AskMe question about who does what with basements in America. My answer there still stands...
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:28 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

agreed that basements are super rare in California. however: my current SoCal house is on a canyon slope, and has a lower sorta-basement story (built into the hillside, so partially underground & partially at ground level), and clearly this is where I get to tell you about the hot pink velvet wallpaper, red shag carpeting, and theater lights it came with, right?
posted by changeling at 8:45 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

In parts of the West (where there is a great deal of more recently created volcanic topography), one reason you can't have a basement is there is only a bit of topsoil over a solid rock layer. Meaning in-ground pools are rare, too.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:49 PM on February 7, 2014

Hmmm...I'm in Seattle and I think I know more people with basements than without. I think it depends on the age of the house. Additionally Seattle is very hilly, so there are many houses where there is a below ground floor that may be exposed on one side where the hill slopes.

I have a basement that is partially finished that is used for storage and laundry; it has a separate entrance on the side of the house. I also have an attic that is filled with insulation to keep my house warm and energy costs down. Everyone on my block has basements.
posted by brookeb at 8:56 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few other things about attics and basements. I grew up in the Northeast where we had a lot of both. Our odd big house didn't have an attic growing up which I thought was a bit of a ripoff but DID have a barn which is where we stored all of our junk (in addition to the basements).

Many houses have basements that they turn from "unfinished basements" (with cement floors and rock or cinderblock walls) into finished basements which can have a bunch of fun purposes

- rec rooms for the kids
- swinging bar/pool table area for grown-ups
- place to put an extra badroom and your just-graduated-but-not-yet-employed kid
- mother-in-law apartments (subject to zoning)
- mancave

My dad had his workshop down there with a bench and tools and an extra freezer for keeping big hunks of meat and other leftover-type stuff. Also the basement toilet thing is funny. My dad's last place just had a toilet in the middle of the floor in the basement. We put a little screen around it. In some old houses you get a basement that isn't even at the unfinished level, it's just a loose dirt floor with some of the appliances (furnace, maybe hot water heater) down there.

Attics are finished off less often than basements, in my experience, because they are hot as the bejesus in the summertime. Attics can have stairs going to them or a lot of them have these odd pulldown ladder things so even if you were IN a house with an attic you might not know how to get to it because you'd just see a rectangle in the ceiling with a cord hanging from it. Many of the people I know who have bought old houses have found weird things stashed in the attics that didn't get cleaned out when the last people moved (happens with barns too). The attic where I live now is just full of insulation. Many people have bats in their attics. Or squirrels.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've lived in North Carolina (southeastern U.S.) for 25 years. In our first house, which was built in the 1950s, we had a crawl space that you literally had to crawl to get into (to service the furnace, etc.) and an unfinished attic with a pull-down staircase. Now, we have a walk-out basement rec room in our (c) 1979 house, which you reach from an intererior stairway but has a door that goes outside. As someone mentioned above, we live on a sloped lot that allows for that kind of basement. We also have as an unfinished storage/utility room under the house that you enter from outside the house. It has low clearance but most adults can fit in there. We have an attic that's just for storage (unfinished, with a mix of fiberboard and wood floor).

My grandmother lived in a big old house in Maryland (mid-Atlantic region) that had a dedicated stairway to a finished attic that was the size of the whole house. It really was a treasure trove (or hoard, if you prefer) of old prom dresses and magazines, a room that was once living quarters for household staff, and several generations of toys and books. I spent countless hours up there exploring, in all kinds of weather.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 9:09 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have lived all over Canada from sea to shining sea. Sometimes in apartments, but I reckon twelve houses from age three to present. Two had basements and full attics and the other ten had basements and perhaps rudimentary crawlspaces above. This in houses whose construction dates ranged from about 1850 to 1990.

A few minutes' thought about the houses of friends and family suggests a similar ratio. I can think of only one friend whose house (a condo townhouse) lacks a basement altogether.

Most basements, as suggested above, tend to get used for a mixture of storage, utilities and recreation. Ours has perhaps one-third of its total floor space walled off as a separate room with washer, dryer, furnace, hot water heater and storage space. The remaining L-shaped space is lined with bookshelves, has a full fireplace and serves as my office. As well, there are a few cabinets for storage, and oddments like the cushions for the outdoor furniture tends to get stuffed under the stairs for the winter.

It would certainly be possible to equip it as a livable space. The previous occupants ran a day care and this room was where the children played and napped all day. Occasionally I wonder how long I could hide down there from roving hordes of zombies.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:26 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

New houses 2000+ where I am in Eastern Washington do not have either basements or attics. Most have a laundry room on the first floor. Most have heat pumps and furnace in the attached garage, which is where the junk that is not in a storage unit goes. These are developments, where approximately 300 houses based on 4 or 5 designs are built. It does get cold here, crawl spaces, walls and under the walls are well insulated.
posted by 101cats at 10:08 PM on February 7, 2014

I grew up in Southern California, and no basements, but most houses do have an attic crawlspace, which is basically just a removable square in the ceiling that you can use access an unfinished space. This seems to be usually in a hallway. I assume these are used to access wiring stuff, etc, but you can use for some small storage. Apparently, that's where my mom kept some Christmas presents when I was younger. I have always been too scared to peek up into one in all of my rental apartments/houses.

In my current Seattle rental house, we have what I call a basement hatch where our heater is located, but it's pretty much a hole in the ground that I am also too scared to look into. We also have the aforementioned 'attic' crawlspace.
posted by wsquared at 10:08 PM on February 7, 2014

I live in Colorado with a finished basement. I have my bedroom down there which is Heaven in the summer when it gets God awful hot. It's also dark which is nice for sleeping in. I don't know if you can access it where you are but there are excerpts of That 70"s Show on youtube which gives you a really good idea of what unfinished basements are like. In the 70's it was very cool to have your bedroom down there for teenagers and everyone would hang out down there. Sometimes they have a separate entrance but if not it was pretty easy to sneak out the windows. See if you can find That 70's show if my youtube link doesn't work, a lot of it is set in the basement.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:08 PM on February 7, 2014

One thing about basements that other people haven't mentioned is that they are great for collecting Radon. As mentioned, in colder climates, they are necessary or the frost heave will tear the foundation apart.

In many parts of the US, they allow radon to accumulate and spread through the house. How much of a concern radon actually is can be sort of an open question, but if you own a house in the mid-waste, it's not at all uncommon for a house to have a radon mitigation system installed and selling a house is contingent on the house having that system functioning well.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:21 PM on February 7, 2014

My grandparents in central California had an unfinished basement, mostly used for storing canned goods. I grew up in southern California and theirs was the only basement I'd ever been in for most of my life until I moved away. It was a very creepy basement. The stairs were steep so we kids weren't allowed to go down there by ourselves. My mom said in her youth they'd spend all summer down there reading comic books because it was cooler there than above ground by a good 10-15 degrees.

I always assumed most coastal Californians didn't have basements because they made structures less stable in earthquakes. I have no idea if the facts back that up.

Attics, on the other hand, are really common down here. I've had them on both houses I've owned. Never used them for anything - I think in my experience they mainly just exist to get infested with rodents.
posted by town of cats at 10:28 PM on February 7, 2014

Another reason that you can get away without a basement or attic in Texas is that even the big cities here are way less densely populated than the Northeast, or than older cities in the Midwest. Austin is less dense than Detroit — which is incredible to me, because I grew up thinking of Detroit as the most spread-out and car-centered city you could possibly imagine.

When I lived in Pittsburgh, houses would be crammed in right next to each other — even if they weren't actual rowhouses, there would often be no more than a yard or two of open space between them — so having extra storage space above and below your house was a really useful thing.

Now I live in Austin, and everyone has a backyard, starting a few blocks from downtown. Even little 600 square foot houses are located on a plot of land that looks downright suburban from my point of view. So you don't need to stack up extra spaces vertically because you can just spread out horizontally. If you need extra storage, you put up a shed in your yard, or you get a moving company to rent you one of those storage cubes. If you need a workspace you set up a tarp or an easy-up or something in the yard and work under that. Instead of finishing your basement to put in a rec room or "man cave" or whatever, you build a patio or dig a fire pit in the backyard.

Some stuff still has to go in the house. Your hot water heater goes in a sort of glorified closet near the kitchen. Same for your washer and dryer and possibly your fusebox. Tools and cleaning supplies and your vacuum cleaner can get stored in those same utility closets if there's extra room. But just about everything else just winds up going in a shed.
posted by this is a thing at 10:31 PM on February 7, 2014

In older northern homes, basements are kind of a pain in the ass.

The core residential parts of northern US & Canadian cities were built during a huge building boom in the first part of the last century . Those basements weren't intended to be living space and were rarely dug as deep as 7 feet. If you had radiator heat, there'd be a boiler and a bunch of ceiling water pipes, often wrapped in asbestos insulation. Also a large fuel oil tank. If it wasn't rads, a hot air furnace stood more or less centrally, fed by sloping cold-air return pipes that reached across most of the basement. They were called octopus furnaces and they made it awkward to move around.

By the fifties and sixties, people were ripping a lot of the old systems out and were trying to make the space more habitable. Modern fan-powered furnaces with compact ductwork opened up floor space and waterproofing innovations like exterior dimpled membranes and electric sump pumps have made it possible to mitigate water entry but cold walls are still susceptible to condensation. The introduction of spray foam insulation has fixed that problem but it seems that the foam provides great cover for termites.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:51 PM on February 7, 2014

From a basement and crawlspace business:

Most homes in California are built on raised foundations with dirt crawlspaces supported by concrete piers and wood posts. This is what we call a California Basement, unlike the below ground concrete basements you normally find on the East Coast or Mid-West. Unfortunately, California Basements are not naturally suitable to withstand California tremors absent proper earthquake mitigation building techniques, which was less risky than building below ground basements to begin with. Most existing homes do not have the necessary up-to-code bolting and anchors necessary to keep the home from sliding off its foundation in the event of an earthquake. Think of a glass of water sitting on top of a coffee table. When an earthquake strikes, the glass will slide right off the table and shatter. Your home on a raised foundation lacking proper earthquake hazard mitigation behaves the same way.In many earthquake-prone areas, such as Southern California, basements are not common because of the possibility of collapse during an earthquake.

I grew up in southern California and theirs was the only basement I'd ever been in for most of my life until I moved away.

Me too. The few L.A. houses I can think of with a basement have all been old-school mansions. Those were all in one canyon or another so maybe they weren't technically basements or maybe those folks could afford to reinforce them with tungsten.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:51 PM on February 7, 2014

I grew up in suburban Texas and no one had basements. I think it was partly because they aren't necessary in a warm climate and partly because the ground is so soft (built on clay where I lived) that building in top of a giant open space would just be bad news. I can't think of a house that didn't have some sort of attic, though, although in every house I lived in they were unfinished areas to stash a few boxes of Christmas decorations. We were not allowed up there as kids in case we stepped in the wrong spot and fell through the ceiling. As this is a thing said above, in Texas most houses are on lots large enough to have attached garages and maybe room for a shed in the backyard for your storage/project needs.
posted by MadamM at 11:14 PM on February 7, 2014

It's too bad Australians don't have basements. They tend to be naturally cool and shady, so I imagine it would be nice to have one to retreat to on those blisteringly hot summer days.
posted by sam_harms at 12:15 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Colorado and Wyoming, and of the 6 houses owned by my parents or grandparents over the years, 3 had basements (all finished to some degree or another) and 1 had a crawlspace. It was much rarer to have attics; in my experience, they were a feature only of much older, larger houses.
posted by scody at 12:35 AM on February 8, 2014

Have you spent much time in Queensland? The ground floor of the very common high-set houses are functionally equivalent to a basement, just above ground. In newer houses (1960s on) they tend to be fully finished with a laundry, rumpus room, maybe another bedroom and bathroom, but in older Queenslander houses are they're more likely to be unfinished. One 1890s house in which I lived had half with a concrete slab where a workbench and tools and the washing machine lived, and the rest was a dirt floor we built into a remote control car track. There's usually a rain-proof washing line under there as well.
posted by goo at 1:39 AM on February 8, 2014

My dad briefly lived in a big 1900s' house in Long Beach, California that had a small basement and a large attic. Which was amazing, since all we knew was one-story Southern Californian tract homes with crawlspaces that just had ants, spiders, and the occasional dead animal.

(Ever see L.A. Confidential? Remember when they notice a godawful smell in the house and then go underneath the house and find the body? Yeah, like that.)

In New Orleans, especially around the universities, you'll get places that are called "basement apartments". They're really just ground-level apartments. And if you're lucky, they have tiled flooring, and you will understand why your first real rain storm.
posted by Katemonkey at 1:41 AM on February 8, 2014

Although I live in Australia now, I grew up in the NE of the US and all our houses had basements. In one, the basement was mostly finished and included bedrooms, a pool table (!) and general recreational area. But there was one bit of it that wasn't finished and that was a combination of storage and my dad's tools and equipment for tinkering around with things. So it may help if you think of basements as a substitute for the shed.

(Non-Australians reading this: "The Shed" is an Australian institution which traditionally acts as the retreat for the Australian men of the family. Part workshop, part toolshed, part escape from the womenfolk. May or may not be combined with the garage. Where men go to be men and do useful things. I seriously would have thought people were making this up if they'd told me about it, but I have seen multiple sheds in action and yep, that's what they are. My dad's basement workshop was pretty much the same, but with fewer cigarettes because he didn't smoke.)
posted by Athanassiel at 3:47 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've lived in 5 houses in Washington, DC. Our climate is such that it can be below freezing regularly in the winter and very hot in the summer (90F is common). All but one house had a basement and all but two had an attic.

The one house without either was also the oldest, probably built in the 1870s. The rest were built in the later 1890s or between 1900 and 1925. I have no expertise in this, but based on the layouts, I think the oldest house was built without modern amenities, like heating or cooling, and even the kitchen was added on after the rest of the house. So I would guess that the need for space for a boiler for radiators, coal chute/storage. ice storage, etc. may have been part of the change in design (in addition to all the points about freeze cycles that others have pointed out).

The oldest houses were all either row houses or semi-detached, while the newer houses were detached.

All the houses with basements had full staircases down (implying to me that they were designed assuming regular access). Only two houses have had full staircases up to the attic. In one house, the attic was completely finished with bedrooms, a bathroom, and several storage spaces under the eaves. I don't know if it was built that way or renovated, but given the quality of the workmanship and how the wood and tile matched the rest of the house, I wouldn't be surprised if it was designed that way.
posted by jindc at 7:38 AM on February 8, 2014

A good attic is a magical thing. My sister's first house had a huge attic with a window seat and tilted ceilings and exposed beams. There were a lit spiders, lots of dust, and really interesting junk.
posted by spunweb at 7:51 AM on February 8, 2014

Where do you keep all your boxes of crap from your childhood or that exercise bike you'll never use or your furnace or your circuit breaker or your washer/dryer, etc.?

The garage. I grew up in southern California and didn't know a single person with a basement, but I knew many families who couldn't park two cars in their two-car garage, and had to park one in the driveway, because it was too filled with stuff. If you've got a big enough backyard people often have storage sheds too to put files and boxes.

(And parking outside is generally not problematic: when you get no snow and 15 inches of rain a year, or 3.6 inches all of last year as the case may be, cars tend to stay in pretty good condition even when they live outside all year.)
posted by andrewesque at 8:15 AM on February 8, 2014

When I lived in the Midwest as a kid, the basement was where we went during tornadoes. We had beds and supplies down there and that was considered pretty normal. We had an attic where we kept the fake Xmas tree and stuff like that.

It was just eaves up there and my dad falling through the ceiling and landing next to me on the couch is one of the best memories I have of that house.

Everywhere I've lived since then has had a walkout basement that was used as living space and the attics were so full of insulation that you couldn't really use them for storage.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I spent a lot of my childhood in this Wisconsin house, built in 1875. It had a full basement, floored with concrete, with a long trench running the length of the house. This was meant to divert water from a nearby river, which would act as primitive air conditioning. It had been sealed off by the time my family owned the house (probably due to algae party).

I have no idea how common this was among houses of that region or era, but I've always thought it was a super clever idea.
posted by jessicapierce at 8:27 AM on February 8, 2014

Upstate NY here. Romanticize basements and attics all you like!

The basement in the house I grew up in was huge and buggy and filled with stuff and scary-- an essential part of my life growing up. I spent hours down there going through the past parts of my parent's and sibling's lives. We were occasionally sent down there to play and that is where we changed in and out of our snowsuits.

The attic is where we stored our holiday decorations. That cedary-wood smell of the attic is forever tied to Christmas lights and Easter baskets and the big box of wigs and dresses we used for Halloween costumes. When Mom and Dad sold the house, the absolute last thing I did on move-out day was run up to the attic and take a few huge, deep breaths of childhood.
posted by oflinkey at 8:36 AM on February 8, 2014

I grew up in a three bedroom ranch-style house in a suburb of Detroit. We had a basement (that ran the full length of the house, as do most basements in our area) and an attic, but the attic was more of a "crawl space" - there were only certain portions where an adult could stand upright. The attic was used to store Christmas decorations and also housed the main unit for our central air-conditioning. Our basement was "unfinished", meaning it had a cement floor and walls. Many homeowners in our area "finished" their basements - put tile or carpet on the floor, added a dropped ceiling, and made it a game room or an additional bedroom. My Dad added a small half-bath (toilet and shower stall) in one corner of our basement. As kids, the basement was our outdoor playground during the winter months - we could roller skate and play Nerf volleyball and other games. It was also the storage place for our toys, games, additional clothes, Dad's tools (he had a big table saw in one area), etc. The basement was also where the washer and dryer were.

When I got married Mr. Adams and I moved to a house in Detroit, where the basement similarly ran the length of the house but in this case the attic was huge (compared to my previous home). It had a legitimate staircase leading up to it (at my old house, we needed a ladder to climb up through a square-shaped access hole to get to the attic) and there was plenty of headroom when you stood upright. Apparently houses built in that era (older than the house of my youth) were designed so that the attic could be converted into additional living space if necessary.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:14 AM on February 8, 2014

Grew up in the Bay Area. I don't think a single house in my neighborhood had a basement; granted, we were right up by the Hayward Fault, and it was all California ranch house style. My grandparents' house was on a hill, and the "basement" was a ground-level garage connected to the house by an internal set of stairs. Attics were a little less rare, but mostly so on older, bigger houses; California ranch houses don't have much of that. So yeah, everyone stores everything-but-their-cars in the garages, and the cars get parked out on the driveway.

Now I live in the Boston area, and every free-standing house I've been in has a basement, and the majority of them have some sort of attic, even if it's just an unfinished storage/crawl space; it's the garages that are rare-to-nonexistent, at least close to the city. (We're in an inner suburb that forbids overnight street parking, so houses here come with driveways; when we lived in Boston, we didn't even have a driveway to share in a three-family, so it was street parking only.) We have the second floor of a two-family, and share basement storage and laundry with our first-floor neighbors; the basement matches the footprint of the house (~1200SF per floor). But since we don't have kids and they do, they've got way more interesting stuff down there; during the summer, they have a ping pong table set up, and now that it's winter, there are goals set up for floor hockey, and a score chart in dry-erase markers on the side of the washer. We just have boxes of seasonal stuff packed away.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2014

I've lived in a half-dozen Florida cities from Miami to Gainesville, and never saw a basement. Moved to North Carolina a couple of months ago, bought a house, and it has a full basement and a low, claustrophobic attic. In the basement are oil furnace, an ancient and defunct wood stove, washer, dryer, one of those "Pittsburgh toilets" mentioned above, and the remnants of the previous owner's workshop--benches, grinder, shop lights. It's still a dim, dingy, almost scary space, with dangerously narrow stairs going down into the murk. Can't wait to do something with it.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:21 PM on February 8, 2014

Another tidbit about attics in the midwest is that finished/heated attics make your roof more susceptible to ice damming, which is when heat from the house leaks out through the roof juuuuuuuust enough to melt the ice, then it refreezes when it gets over to the gutters, and then the water behind can't run off, and the water behind that can't run off, and you end up with all this ice tearing the shingles off your roof and, worst-case, damaging the underlying roof structure and causing leaks into your house.

Finished attics are unusual around here because you have to do a really, really good job insulating the inside roof of the attic so that you won't have melt on the outside of the roof and get ice damming. If the whole attic is empty and cold as shit, and you instead insulate the FLOOR of the attic (to keep the lower levels warm), you don't have as much problem with ice damming.

This is on top of my mind because I have a story-and-a-half house, which means the very peak of the roof is above empty "attic", but the sloping sides of the roof are directly above the sloping second floor ceiling for about five feet and ICE DAMS LIKE CRAZY THIS YEAR, YO. It's gonna be a whole special kind of expensive come spring.

I'm trying to think if I have any friends who use their attics even for storage, and I don't; roofs are virtually always peaked around here to help with snow and rain runoff (there's a local saying: There are two kinds of flat roofs: those that leak, and those that don't leak yet.), but the attic created by the peaked roofs is mostly just to help with insulating the lower floors and not great for storage because it's cold as balls in winter and nasty hot and humid in summer.

Again that's just around here; weather's so different in the US, people in other places have cool garret-like attics. But not here. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:56 PM on February 8, 2014

Eyebrows McGee: "roofs are virtually always peaked around here to help with snow and rain runoff (there's a local saying: There are two kinds of flat roofs: those that leak, and those that don't leak yet.)"

I just wanted to add this other little American tidbit for you: If you get enough snow on a flat roof or a not-sloped-enough roof, the roof can simply collapse from the weight. A job that college students can get in snowy winters, with a ladder, a snow shovel, and the willingness to risk life and limb in miserable weather, is getting paid to go shovel the snow off flat roofs so they don't collapse. I had a couple of friends in college who made pretty good money doing this ... in the winters when there was a lot of snow. No snow, no income!

Anyway sloped roofs with attics are better because you don't have to pay people to shovel your roof!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:04 PM on February 8, 2014

A job that college students can get in snowy winters, with a ladder, a snow shovel, and the willingness to risk life and limb in miserable weather, is getting paid to go shovel the snow off flat roofs so they don't collapse.

Worse job: being Terry the Ice Dam Man who gets called when the ice dam has caused your roof to leak and he comes over, in terrible weather, with his two story ladder and a crowbar with a mallet at the end of it and just goes WHAM WHAM WHAM against the small glacier on the side of your house's roof until the big chunks of ice fall off (hopefully not on to him). I've done small-scale versions of this out the window with a hammer and it's sketchy scary work.

In houses that have a lot of additions, ice dams are also a problem because there are weird places where roofing meets at odd angles that doesn't lend itself to water sliding off without freezing. I live in part of a house that would be an attic (there's only a crawl space above it) and I get occasional leaks when there has been a BIT of a thaw, but not really enough of a thaw. So some of the snow on the roof melts and then when it hits the gutters or the edge of the roof it freezes again. At the point at which there is a really warm day (after this) is when you get trouble because there's a lot of water melting off of the roof and it's hitting a wall of ice and pooling and it will find any way down which is sometimes through your roof. into your house.

Some oldish Colonial-style houses in the Northeast (and probably elsewhere) also had root cellars which were not even full basements, like a half-high basement which is where you'd keep your root vegetables, apples and barrels of eggs so they'd be cold enough (and dark enough) to stay fresh-ish before the advent of refrigeration/ice boxes.
posted by jessamyn at 8:22 PM on February 8, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the lovely vivid descriptions and memories- plus the actual practical explanations of the implications and applications of Attics and Basements. You've all really helped to sate what had seriously been a years long curiosity. I had been tossing up posting this question to ask... well, basically since I joined Metafilter. Cheers!
posted by Philby at 4:11 PM on February 10, 2014

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