Some homes have basements, some do not – a pretty obvious statement you could say. But do you really need a basement? Why do most homes in MN & WI have basements? After all, we do live in “Tornado ally”, so what if you need a place to ride out storms? Then again, basements, particularly ones in older homes are prone to moisture issues in MN & WI, especially with the melting snow. If you are in the market for a new home there are pros and cons to buying or building a new home with a basement that you should know about.
But first, a little history and context on basements…a basement isn’t a necessary element of a home but in the Midwest, they are extremely common. Here’s why. When a home is built, it needs to have a foundation below the frost line (3-4 feet deep). In Minnesota and Wisconsin, no matter what type of home you are building, you must put footings down 3-4 feet below the ground. If you are going to do that it usually makes sense to just dig down another four feet to create a basement. Excavating several feet of soil out from under a new building takes a lot of equipment and effort but it takes only a little more effort to dig down a few more feet and have enough headroom for a whole other level of the house.
Now, if you stop digging at the frost line and still want a full basement, you will end up with a basement that is half below grade but still has above-grade windows and the main level up higher for added privacy, aka the very familiar bi-level home that you find all over the Midwest.
Homes built in climates in the South typically do not have basements because the ground never freezes. Additionally, many homes down in the South are built in areas where the water table is actually just a few feet below ground. It doesn’t make sense to have a basement there because it will most likely flood.
If you are building a new home, the choice of a basement or not will likely be yours. Not all lots are suited for a full basement or even a walkout. However, if you do not build a new home with a basement, you will still need footings below the frost line. This is called “slab on grade” construction and otherwise, when the ground freezes, your foundation will crack.
But what about the home’s value…does it go up or down with a basement? Additional square footage will add more value, but not as much as a second or third level to your home. The appraised value of square footage in a finished basement is worth about 50-60% of the value of the main level’s square footage when finished with similar materials. Adding bathrooms and bedrooms to a basement increases the value the most. Having garden-level windows or a walkout will increase the value more vs a basement that is nearly all below grade.
There are a surprisingly large number of homes with unfinished basements throughout the Midwest. At the time of the construction, many builders and homeowners opt to leave the basement unfinished so that the initial purchase price is lower overall with the intention of completing the basement at a later time when the property values increase and there is enough equity to complete the work. And some people just use a basement as additional storage with no intention of completing it.
But for the original question, do you need a basement? Here are the pros and cons of having a home with a basement to consider: