Living underground wasn't living too low for early settlers of Oklahoma Territory: On the empty plains, with no trees for building, they lived in dirt dugouts carved from hills and ravines.
Now, living underground is living too high for most Oklahomans: Whether or not the soil is suitable for basements, cost and custom are the real obstacles keeping most houses here from having them.
Their absence came under national scrutiny this week after the Sunday and Monday tornadoes destroyed hundreds of houses and damaged thousands more, leaving 26 dead and hundreds injured.
“Why Oklahomans Don't Like Basements” ran one headline on NPR.org. “Basements scarce in tornado-prone Oklahoma City area; here's why,” CNN reported. “Most Oklahoma homes lack basements,” MSN chimed in.
Oklahoma builders — and most homebuyers, apparently — know why. Or think they do.
Here's the story, which comes up after every tornado hits hard in or near Oklahoma City.
“To do them correctly, it takes additional engineering, site preparation, moisture protections and control, not to mention expensive concrete walls,” said Oklahoma City builder Jeff Click, president of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association. “There are only a few contractors in our area with adequate experience to construct basements properly, and they're typically in more expensive custom homes.”
Click said even people who can afford the expense usually decline.
“I know of many instances where custom homes were bid with basements and once the costs were considered, even those with the means to afford it often decided the numbers weren't justifiable,” he said. “Value-minded homeowners also recognize that basement footage isn't often appraised at full-value living space, which introduces new challenges from the perspective of securing a proper cost-to-value ratio for their mortgage.”
That last thing — basement space not reflected in property appraisals — discourages people from having houses built with basements, said Kurt Dinnes, co-owner of Oklahoma City's Sun Custom Homes and immediate past president of the Central Oklahoma Home Builders Association.
Appraisals that come in too low cause lenders to balk at pending loans and require a higher down payment. So building a basement into a custom-built house is a gamble, Dinnes said.
Appraisers don't have comparable houses with basements to estimate value, he said.
Industry people from other parts of the country wonder why so few houses here have basements, said Steve Shoemaker, director of marketing for Ideal Homes of Norman.