In Texas, very few homes have basements, despite occasional severe weather and formidable heat. A nice, cool basement seems like a practical and economical idea. So why don’t more homes in Texas have basements – are they illegal?
No law forbids basements in Texas, and in fact, they’re quite possible with the right engineering and expertise. However, practical and other considerations make them less common than in other parts of the country.
Let’s take a look at those logistics, and then we’ll see how Texans add more space to their homes with Lone Star State style.
Can You Build a Basement in Texas?
Building homes with basements in Texas costs more, but with the right expertise, can be done. Teams of engineers, scientists and contractors can change and amend building sites to allow for deeper foundations that include basements.
Though some buildings, including government buildings like the state capital and even the Alamo, do have basements, for most homeowners, building a basement doesn’t add up.
Why Are Basements So Uncommon in Texas?
Even though basements are legal, the geology and topography of most land in Texas make the construction of a basement unnecessary and expensive.
Geology refers to the substances in the ground – stone, sand, clay, soil. Topography refers to the shape of the ground – its shape and elevation, locations of water and other features.
Shallow Frost Line
In many states, wintertime frost means that the ground under a house will expand and contract as the water in the soil freezes and thaws. When the land beneath a structure moves, the structure itself can become unstable. That’s the last thing you want in a house.
To provide a stable foundation in a place with below-freezing temperatures, construction crews in northern states must dig foundations that extend beneath the frost line. If you’re building in Texas and other warm-weather states, you just don’t have to build a basement.
High Water Table
In many parts of Texas, the water table hovers close to the surface. As a result, digging a basement might, in an extreme situation, result in unstable walls and collapse or flooding. More commonly, water pressing against and seeping through foundation or basement walls causes moisture and humidity, bacteria and mold, and rust.
High Clay Content
Because the ground in Texas has a high clay content, it can also press inward and make basement walls unstable. A geotechnical engineer can help homeowners determine the likelihood of cracks and flooding, and a good general contractor can help determine whether excavation and reinforcement costs make sense. Often, the expense outweighs the benefits of a basement.
The geology of Texas includes the clay formations we’ve mentioned and their complete opposite – limestone. Hard and in some places quite thick, limestone provides a very stable foundation for buildings of all kinds.
Those same qualities that make limestone great for underneath buildings, though, make it difficult and expensive to excavate through for a foundation. So it’s better, and less expensive, to build a house on top of such a material, rather than fighting through it.
What Do Texans Build Instead of Basements?
The other big reason Texans seldom build basements are cultural. People often build things that matter to them, even if impractical or expensive, so there’s more going on than just cost.
In general, people buy or build new homes that share features with the homes where they grew up. As a result, Texas natives tend not to have the same childhood memories and nostalgias about basements as people from other regions.
One answer, then, is that homes in Texas don’t have basements because homes in Texas haven’t had basements in the past. People expect sprawling, single- or two-story homes, and so that’s what they build.
When we think of Texas, we think of those wide, open spaces. Those spaces mean that most homeowners have lots of room to expand their homes’ footprints. They can add square footage along existing exterior walls rather than needing to build either up or down.
In other parts of the country, families build up – with multi-story homes and, of course, basements – because of small lot sizes. Lower population density means that Texans can afford to build homes that spread out and take up some real estate.
The term Texas basement usually refers to a room above a garage or in an attic that has been converted into living space. These added living spaces above ground avoid the geological and topographical difficulties of a basement while giving a purpose to space that might otherwise remain unused.
People in Texas want extra space for the same kinds of things as people in other parts of the country. Because Texas is Texas, though, homes tend to sprawl over a wider footprint, so that whether you call the extra space a bonus room, a den, or a Texas basement, you’re very rarely talking about a traditional basement.