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.
“That's one of the top questions we get when builders from other markets visit Oklahoma City. I'm not sure there's one definitive answer. Different people will tell you different things,” Shoemaker said. “Our red clay soil moves quite a bit with the moisture level, which can cause a variety of issues. There are cost issues as well, not just with installing a basement, but the upkeep over time.
“Finally, there is a trade availability issue. There simply are not a whole lot of contractors in our market that have a great deal of experience. In the end, it comes down to consumer preference and expertise within the market. Given the choice, many of our buyers would prefer more space in the home that is more functional than a basement.”
Still an option
But misconceptions cloud the reality that basements still are options for houses in Oklahoma, said Edmond builder Caleb McCaleb of McCaleb Homes.
“I think there are many myths about why we don't have basements in Oklahoma. The main ones are that our water table is too high and that our soil has too much clay in it,” McCaleb said. “If the basement is designed correctly, then water intrusion and ground movement are not problems with a residential basement. The walkout basements that we put in some of our homes are finished living spaces that look and feel just like the rest of our new homes.”
Call Mike Hancock the Oklahoma basement myth buster — because he's a basement builder. His Basement Contractors Inc. in Edmond has built more than 500 basements the past 15 years.
“Building a home with a basement in Oklahoma is not that different than in other areas of the nation,” said Hancock, an engineer and former Kansan who moved here with basement-building already under his belt. “With proper engineering and design, a basement can be adapted and constructed on any building site.”
On the Basement Contractors website, Hancock outlines three points he has been making for years:
• “Basements leak” — “Not necessarily ... improperly installed basements leak. In the past, many basements were installed with either no waterproofing or ineffective waterproofing. Today we use state-of-the-art, spray-on polymer liners and drainage systems that ensure your lower-level living space will remain dry and comfortable.”
• “The clay soils will cause my basement foundation to fail” — “No matter where a basement is located, soil condition must be addressed. The use of properly installed waterproofing methods and the reinforcing steel we use in our walls help prevent any potential problems later.”
• “Basements are dark and damp” — “A properly installed heating and cooling system can prevent the damp feeling and wall sweating that was common in older basements.”