Whenever we meet investors and folks from other states, they usually ask us the same question. “Why don’t houses in Houston have basements?”
Many Houstonians don’t even know the answer to that question. For us, it’s just a fact of life. Houses around here just don’t have basements, so we tend not to think too deeply about it. But, since people ask the question so often, and we do trade in houses, it’s probably best that we find the reason.
As it turns out, a number of factors add up to give us the answer.
Clay soil issues
The soil in the Houston area is composed largely of clay. Think back to art classes in elementary school. When you worked with clay and cooked your sculpture in a kiln, it got hard as a rock. That’s essentially what happens to the clay soil during dry spells.
With water evaporated from the soil, the foundation becomes less stable. When it rains again, the soil expands and can further destabilize the foundation. It’s no wonder that so many of the houses we appraise have foundation damage.
A typical foundation slab will have beams that are two feet deep, but the main section is just four- to six-inches deep. Imagine the foundation issues you’d see if the foundation were eight- to 10-feet deep. The soil in the Houston area just isn’t conducive to basement foundations.
Water table issues
From what I’m told, the water table in Houston also contributes to the lack of basements. It might not be as big a problem as the soil, but the water table can cause problems for basement foundations. It’s an issue that comes with being so close to sea level.
The main issue involves flooding. With a high water table, you risk a greater chance of the basement flooding during heavy rains than you would in an area with a moderate or low water table. To offset this chance, homeowners would have to invest in the highest quality sump pumps. Even then, those types of pumps break regularly.
Because of the flood risk, insurance rises as well. In fact, many homeowners’ insurance plans don’t cover flooding at all. You have to get a separate insurance plan for that, so that’s a significant added cost right there.
General cost efficiency
Pouring the concrete for a foundation slab doesn’t involve nearly as much material and labor as a basement foundation. Right away you’re building the house at a lower cost than you would with a basement.
Why don’t they do this in northern states? It’s not that they like spending more money on houses. In places where the ground freezes, basements are more necessary. Builders have to place pipes below the freeze line, which in the north can be five- to six-feet deep. Here in Houston that’s not a problem at all. Most places up north, a slab foundation just wouldn’t work.
So not only is it cheaper to build a house without a basement, it’s also cheaper to maintain one. In the Houston area, we have conditions that just aren’t ideal for basement foundations. The high water table and clay soil make slab foundations a much more economical alternative.