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Basements: From a Literal Hole in the Ground to Beautiful Living Space

Recently I was showing homes in Ankeny to first-time-homebuyers and the subject of basements came up. It made me realize that not everyone is familiar with the different styles of basements we have in Central Iowa. This was the impetus for last week’s poll in my newsletter, which I will share the results of later.   

 

You may even wonder why we have basements at all. The origins of the word basement come from the word base, a verb which meant, “make or serve as a foundation for” and the suffix -ment, which was added to a verb to make a noun indicating the result or product of the action. So, basements are simply the foundation for house to be placed on.  

 

In most areas of the country where the ground doesn’t freeze, foundations can be placed right at the surface of the ground.  In these areas, it is most common for a home to be built on a concrete slab on the ground. But, in Central Iowa where the ground freezes, it is necessary to place the foundation on footings below the point where the freezing occurs, the frostline, which is at approximately 48”. The reason for this is that when freezing occurs in the soil, the soil moves making it unstable. To have a stable foundation, the footings need to be below where any freezing can occur.

 

cellar

Before homes had electricity, foods were stored in cellars, which is an underground room or space. This was ideal for food storage because the temperature in these underground rooms stayed consistently cool in summer and warm in winter. They were usually hand dug and consisted of dirt floors. Cellars were also ideal for storing wine for the same reason. In 2022, construction workers digging along Hwy 92 in Winterset, IA rediscovered what was a beer cave that was connected to a brewery that operated on the town’s NE corner back in the 1860’s. This cave kept the beer cold so customers could enjoy a refreshing drink. A cellar was also a safe place during storms and tornadoes.

 

Since our homes need to have foundations at least 4 feet in the ground, it was natural to use the space under the house as a cellar.

Over time, the space became useful for other purposes, like storage, utilities, workshops, laundry, workout rooms, and additional living space. Construction techniques improved over time as well making these underground spaces more comfortable and more suitable to be used as living space. With modern appliances and electricity to power them, cellars weren’t necessary, but basements became popular places to live. 

 

Currently, there are basically 5 types of basements used in home construction in Central Iowa. The style used is mostly dictated by the terrain, but sometimes just for cost. Some homes are built on a slab with no below grade living area even though footings are placed in the ground below the frostline. This is most economical and allows for these homes to be more affordable. Similarly, a crawl space is where the footings are just below the frostline, and the dirt is removed to that point, leaving a space below the house about 4 feet deep. The crawl space usually has a dirt floor, but can be enhanced with a layer of sand or gravel to make it a space more suitable for storing things, especially seasonal items. This type is also a less expensive method. 

 

Another type would be a standard basement, which is full height (usually 7-9 ft), concrete floors, mostly in the ground with just a foot or two above the ground. There will usually be small horizontal windows at the top of the basement walls to allow for some light, and to be opened for fresh air. These basements can be finished as living area (ceiling, walls, and flooring), but having only one way to escape, using the stairway to the main level, in the event of a fire or some other emergency, there is a safety consideration to be made. To make them safer, it has become common to incorporate egress windows into the basement. These are windows of a size dictated by building codes that would allow someone to exit the basement through the window to the exterior. The windows are a vertical shape and installed closer to the floor to give someone an easy way out. The exterior of the window is inside a large window well extending from just below the window to the surface of the ground and will sometimes have an integrated ladder. This type is described as a basement with egress windows.

 

 

 

A daylight basement is less than halfway in the ground on one or more sides, allowing large windows much like the windows used in the upper levels that look straight out to daylight. These windows can be used to escape the basement, but don’t require a window well because the windows are above the ground. These basements are usually more desirable because they don’t feel like a basement due to the large windows allowing light in and a view of the outdoors.  

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, a walkout basement is completely out of the ground on one or more sides, usually because the house is built on a slope, that allows not only normal daylight windows, but a normal exterior door allowing people and pets to walk in and out. Most of the time a walkout basement will have a sliding patio door that opens to a patio. Since these basements can be hardly distinguishable from above grade levels, they are usually the most desirable and will add value to the house – meaning a buyer will pay more for it.  

 

 

The results of our poll from last week that asked readers to choose their favorite type of basement showed that 100% would choose a walkout basement over any of the others. Thanks for participating and I hope you will participate in more of our weekly polls. 

 

Norwalk IA Real Estate – Jon Niemeyer, Broker/Owner/REALTOR® at EXIT Realty North Star. I list and sell real estate in Central Iowa including Norwalk, Des Moines, West Des Moines, Cumming, Indianola, Carlisle, Waukee, Urbandale, Grimes, Clive, Johnston, Ankeny, Altoona, and Pleasant Hill in the Counties of Warren, Polk, Dallas, and Madison. Call Jon Niemeyer at 515-490-4675.     

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