Notes from Underground: 7 Years of Living in Basements

Over the past seven years, as we’ve struggled to get solvent, mentally well and credit-worthy, we have lived in four different basement apartments. And over those years, they’ve gone from a quick fix for an untenable housing situation to pure misery.

Initially, we saw basement living as a relief. The first time we rented underground, my husband and I were at an all-time low financially and emotionally, behind on our the rent and desperate for somewhere safe to go. He had just gotten out of rehab. We were dragging ourselves out of the wreckage of an immensely painful family loss and barely able to function or look forward to anything beyond a few days at a time.

When we found a basement room with a dedicated bathroom and easy-to-access washer and dryer in a nice neighborhood, at $600 less per month than we’d been spending, we didn’t hesitate.

After you’ve lived in a few such “apartments,” though, you discover that there are some soul-sucking aspects to basement life. They’re cheaper than other housing, but you give up a surprising amount of independence, privacy and even your sense of control over your daily life.

You have little control

It’s a hot summer day, and you’re ready to blast your AC, costs be damned. So you do it. End of story.

Except that if you live in a basement, you typically don’t have the right to touch the thermostat. At a minimum, it will involve a negotiation with your landlord, who’s usually not thrilled by the idea. (After all, if they were too hot to cope they’d turn down the temperature setting themselves.)

One year we lived in a basement unit whose sliding glass doors faced directly into the rising sun. At one point we clocked the room temp in the mid-90s. But when we tried opening the windows, the homeowner who lived upstairs demanded that we close them again to keep whatever cool air he generated inside.

Another homeowner (we think in a panic over utility costs) insisted that we stop using the laundry machines they had made available. In my Virginia county, it’s not legal for landlords to take away features that came with a lease, but we were afraid to rock the boat.

Which brings me to the following…

You have little legal protection

Don’t get me wrong, I have much sympathy for people who rent their space out in an effort to pay their bills. The thing is, in most of my state it’s not legal to rent out a finished basement unless the county knows about it and has approved whatever renovations a homeowner has made to their basement area.

As a result, the basement apartments are in something of a regulatory black hole, as no one ever checks up to see that the pipes don’t leak and the wiring is done right.

This gives landlords an incentive to cut corners. In the case of the solar-cooker apartment, our landlord Gerges “accidentally” failed to mention that there were no working outlets in the bedroom, which meant that we had to trail an extension cord out of our door to carry power to our television, lights, laptops and phones. The extension drew power from the same outlet that fed our refrigerator. (I refer to him as “the slumlord” when I tell this story these days.)

We might have protested, or even gone to the county authorities, but we didn’t have the extra money on hand to move so we kept our mouths reluctantly shut. I’m sure this kind of compromise isn’t uncommon among basement dwellers, because we’re often there because we have few good housing options. Which brings me to another tough reality…

You’re getting exploited

While the spaces we’ve rented have been relatively affordable, they haven’t been that cheap either — particularly given their small size and limited features.

For example, the last basement we rented cost $1,200 a month, which at first glance is reasonable (for our area) given that it includes electric, cable and Internet. On the other hand, the space is tiny, cramped, badly designed and like every basement, only admits outside light through small cell-like windows.

If we had just a few hundred extra dollars a month, which in the past wouldn’t have been difficult for us to earn, we could have been living in a real, you know, apartment with windows and a kitchen and even OUR OWN DOOR! Whee!

Instead, like most other middle-class folks who’ve hit hard times — and had medical debt trash their credit — we’ve been forced to compromise on virtually everything to avoid being without housing entirely.

And then there’s the capper…

You don’t feel truly welcome

I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but from what we’ve seen, most landlords only rent out their basement space because they can’t make their mortgage on their own.

In three of the four places, we’ve lived since 2012, the landlords were living in big houses which sell in the $450,000 range, but driving cabs or working at Walmart in an apparent effort to pay their day-to-day expenses.

Knowing you’re at best a necessary evil doesn’t feel great, and gives you a sense that you’d best be out of sight as often as possible.

In the case of our final basement, by the end of our stay were bringing the garbage out in the middle of the night to avoid crossing paths with the homeowners. I kid you not.

By the end, we were barely making eye contact with Hasan, the otherwise pleasant young man who collected the rent. It’s not our fault that we had to walk by his family room and disturb his family’s TV-watching privacy when we came in the front door, and Hasan, of course, knew that, but I think he was resentful of the intrusion nonetheless.

The plain old reality was that if they could have afforded to do it, I think Hasan’s family would have turned us loose long ago. It may not be personal — -hell, I know I’d feel the same if I were in their shoes — but makes me squirm nonetheless.

Epilogue

Now, almost exactly seven years since we first rented a basement space, we’ve been able to qualify for a mortgage and should be moving into our own home soon.

Not only that, if our house-hunting plans fall through, we can actually rent from commercial apartment complexes, which rejected us out of hand due to our once-lousy credit ratings.

In short, we’re coming out of living in a series of caves to be Real Adults again.

Of course, I’m grateful that basement spaces were available when I needed them, but I truly, truly hope I never have to live in one again. It’s certainly better than having nowhere to go, but it’s no way to live either.

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