Why are there so few homes with basements around Austin?
This story was originally published on October 18, 2018.
Lindsay Nakashima has lived in her East Austin home for about five years. As far as she knows, hers is the only house around that came with a basement. Nakashima says a previous owner dug out the space so he could park his car under the house.
“I use it for extra furniture that I can’t fit in my house, my bicycles,” Nakashima says. “I’m a bookbinder, and so I put extra tools that I don’t need in my basement, and it’s pretty amazing how clean and dry it is.”
But when she learned the house had a basement, Nakashima wasn’t thrilled.
“It was the one thing that made me kind of worry about living here,” she says. “It scared me. It seemed a little creepy.”
Nakashima doesn’t spend much time down there. Over the years, she has let her neighbors and friends use it as storage space. It’s also a good conversation starter.
“Whenever people find out that I do have a basement, they’re very intrigued, and they want to come and see it,” she says, “and I’m always just in shock because I’m from the North. We all had basements, but here it is a rarity, for sure.”
That’s what prompted this question from KUT listener Scott Fife. He wondered: Why are there so few basements in Austin, and in Central Texas overall?
As a kid growing up in Mississippi, Fife spent a lot of time hanging out in his family’s basement. He remembers it being a little damp and musty, but he didn’t mind. The basement was set up like an apartment, with its own bathroom and kitchen – in other words, every teenager’s dream hangout spot.
“So I always just kind of wondered why no one had that here,” Fife says, “and every time I looked into it a little bit, I would find some reasons why they didn’t build them in, and then find some rebuttals for why those reasons weren’t valid."
The Basement King Of Texas
There are some commonly held explanations for the lack of basements in Central Texas. Some people say basements here are at a greater risk of flooding. Others say it’s just too difficult to dig through the limestone that makes up much of the bedrock in Central Texas.
Willie King Jr. is out to prove the naysayers wrong.
His company, the Basements Kings, is based in Fairview, outside Dallas. King travels the country building and repairing basements. Over the years, he has come to be known as the Basement King of Texas.
“I can build a basement in the middle of a lake and keep it from leaking,” King says.
Growing up, King’s dad built swimming pools at high-end homes around Texas. King watched his dad dig hole after hole into the earth, turning them into pristine pools, and he thought, if you can put an underground pool on a property, you could just as well build a basement there. When it came time for him to build a home of his own, King was set on having one.
“And I couldn’t find anybody to build the basement, and their excuses were just laughable,” he says. “One [builder] explained to me about the tectonic plates in Texas. So, since I’ve taken geology, I knew he was an idiot. Other people were talking about, 'the soil was bad in Texas,' and I knew they were an idiot.”
King decided to build his own basement. He did months of research, talking with builders around the country. He hired a few workers, and they got to work digging. By the time the project was done, King had stacks of research and plans detailing his methods. So he literally wrote the book on basements – a 300-page guide on how to build one from start to finish.
“I just decided [to] sit down and write a book about what I thought, how a basement should be constructed, and the myths that anyone in Texas was going to face if they wanted to build their own basement,” he says.
Supply And Demand
King has worked on a number of basements around Austin, and he says you’d be surprised at just how many there are. A quick search on the real estate website Zillow shows 42 Austin-area homes for sale that mention basements in the listing, so they do exist. So, why does the common belief prevail that basements just can’t be built in the area?
“It really boils down to two things – it’s cost and demand,” says Emily Blair, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin.
Blair says the demand for basements just isn’t there. If people are going to spend a few thousand dollars more on their home, she says, they’re more likely to build a bigger garage or add a backyard apartment.
“What we see in our area is that the land is really difficult and makes it cost-prohibitive to do basements,” she says, “because on the West Side, we deal with a lot of rock issues, and then on the East Side, we have expansive clay soils … basically, [there is] a lot more liability or potential for it to fail.”
It seems to be an endless cycle: A lot of people in Central Texas didn’t grow up with a basement, and it’s not something they expect or look for when choosing a place to live. Without that demand, builders don’t go out of their way to put basements in new houses, and generation after generation of Central Texans grow up never knowing – or wanting – a basement.
Scott Fife thinks maybe the demand for basements will grow, as more people move to the Austin area from other parts of the country.
“I’m a transplant,” Fife says, “so it’s kind of a curiosity that I brought with me here.”