It’s a Cellars Market

Local basement-dwellers share the ups and downs of life below ground

January 18, 2013

IT consultant Jeremy Yanowitz, 27, didn’t like the cookie-cutter feel of big apartment complexes, so he chose to rent an English basement in Columbia Heights.

Did “The Hobbit” leave you wondering if living underground (or in an English basement — close enough) is the way to go?

Renters in the Washington area who have joined the dark side — or at least the no-direct-sunlight side — have lived to sing its praises, and admit to its pitfalls.

English basements occupy the bottom floor of a building, typically a rowhouse. They are partially below ground, usually with small windows on the upper part of the walls to let in a little light from outside. They’re common in older cities such as D.C., Boston and San Francisco.

Jeremy Yanowitz, 27, an IT consultant who lives in the 600-square-foot English basement of a Columbia Heights rowhouse, says he is able to accept the ups and the downs of life down below.

Yanowitz says he didn’t love the “hotel feel” of apartments and condos. “I wanted a house, but I didn’t want roommates, so it’s basically a one-bedroom house,” he says. “So that’s perfect.”

Basements often include perks that above-ground apartment units may lack, says Jason Mann, 30, a magazine production editor who lives in a 920-square-foot, two-bedroom English basement in a Dupont Circle rowhouse.

“It’s nice to have everything: a washer and dryer, a wood-burning fireplace, patio,” he says. “You don’t find that in other units.”

Debbie Kaplan, chief operating officer of the apartment-finding service Urban Igloo, says English basements are generally more affordable because they don’t have as much light and have lower ceilings.

Yanowitz says the dollars and cents just make sense, especially for young people.

“It’s dramatically less than other one-bedrooms I’ve found in D.C.,” he says. “For example, in Columbia Heights, the apartments up the road are much smaller — about half the size — and nearly double the price.”

Another upside to downstairs living: the unique combination of the privacy of a self-sufficient unit plus a social life that’s just a staircase away.

Adrian Dungan, 29, and fiancee Nicole Aga, 28, have a pretty sweet — if slightly unusual — set-up. They own a four-story rowhouse in Columbia Heights and choose to live in the renovated basement and rent out the house above it, rather than the other way around.

This way, the couple can fill the rooms of their home with renters and still have their own privacy.

“One of the prerequisites was having our own space, not living in the group house,” says Dungan, an economist and real-estate agent. “Having our own kitchen was huge.”

The couple also enjoy climbing a ladder from their basement digs to socialize with their renters upstairs.

“We kind of have the best of both worlds,” says Aga, a middle school teacher. “We can be on our own, but if you’re bored, there’s a bunch of people upstairs to hang out with.”

Of course, there is a dark side to English basement living.

Yanowitz will readily admit that the lack of sunlight can make underground living pretty dreary.

“I wouldn’t suggest it to someone suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder,” he says.

Basements also aren’t necessarily for lovers of warmth.

“It’s cold year-round,” Mann says. “In the summer, it’s beneficial because people will say they’ve had the AC running nonstop and I’ll say I haven’t even turned mine on yet. But my electric bill spikes quite a lot in the winter.”

Flooding is another potential issue. “[In the past] the apartment’s flooded because the drain in the street was clogged,” Mann says. “So we just check to make sure that the drain isn’t clogged and we don’t have any problems.”

Urban Igloo’s Kaplan says cleaning the drain outside the basement is typically the renter’s responsibility.

Low ceiling heights — often 7 feet or less — can be constraining at times. “I can’t get too excited during a sporting event,” Dungan says. “I’ve jumped up off the couch and then my hand went straight into the ceiling.”

All in all, most underground dwellers have reached a common ground.

“If you’re looking for places more affordable and private, I would definitely take advantage of the fact that you’re going to pay less, and you get a big place,” Yanowitz says.

Mann recommends English basements for college grads moving to D.C.: “It’s just a great option for young professionals as they’re getting set up in the city.”

One last note: English basements are perfect for people afraid of heights. “I like to stay as close to the ground as possible,” Yanowitz says.

 

Going Under

Before leasing a basement apartment, do your research, says Urban Igloo’s Debbie Kaplan. “Do not underestimate the power of asking the right questions before the lease is signed.”

-Make sure there is a separate basement entrance so you’re not walking through someone else’s home to get to yours.

-Ensure that the kitchen and washer/dryer are not shared with upstairs residents.

-Ask upstairs residents to walk above you to hear what it sounds like in the basement.

-Ensure there is some type of security (locks on doors and/or a security system).

-Look for a good drain with a covered grate outside of the apartment. Without this, you could be in for some flooding.

-Ask about flooding history and avoid basements that have flooded several times.

-Ask if the landlord has a sump pump, which is used to suction water if a basement floods. And ask if there’s a sump-pump backup system if the electricity goes out.

-Don’t sign a lease if mold is present.

-Find out which common areas and outdoor spaces are shared or off-limits.

-Make sure the basement complies with codes set by D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, available at Dcra.dc.gov.

-Make sure the landlord has a Basic Business License from DCRA, making it legal for them to rent.

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