Why Are There So Few Basements in Texas?

Jan 12, 2016

Growing up in Indiana, Phil Crone loved having a bedroom in the basement.

“It was dark. It was cold. I didn’t know the difference noon and 6 a.m.,” he says. “It was wonderful.”

So when Crone, who now heads the Dallas Builders Association, moved down to Texas, he started asking why there are so few basements. After all, meteorologists say basements are one of the best places to take shelter during a tornado. 

Folks told him it has a lot do with the soil – it’s expansive.

“When it gets wet, it swells up; when it dries up in the summer, it shrinks,” he says. “Those are a lot of forces, and a lot of engineering that has to happen” to build a basement.

Geography is at play, too.

Up north, builders build down deeper to get the foundation below the freeze line. Since they’re already down there, it’s fairly inexpensive to make a basement and add square footage that way.

Ben Bigelow, a Texas A&M construction sciences professor, says in Texas, it’s just cheaper to build up than down.

“Homebuyers, they want to know what their price per square foot is,” he says. “Are they getting a good deal? Are they getting as much house for their money as possible?”

Bigelow says there’s a cultural element too, and the logic is a bit circular.

“Basements have never really been prevalent in Texas, and so people don’t build them,” Bigelow says. “You go to other places where basements are prevalent and it’s absolutely expected.”

“Now that we’ve got more people relocating to the area, we get more people that ask for them,” says Fort Worth builder Lynn Motheral.

Motheral runs Austin Design Build and is president of the Greater Fort Worth Builders Association. He says some Texans think basements are just going to flood if you put them in. The basements that were built down here in the past weren’t always built well. 

He says that started to change in the 1980s.

“We were saying 'OK, let’s build a structure that would work above ground, now let’s build a hole and stick it down in the ground,'” he says. “Obviously [that] doesn’t work too well.”

Tom Werling runs North Texas Basements. He was at a walkout basement he is building in a ritzy neighborhood in Fort Worth. He says he spends a lot of his day just trying to convince people that basements are possible and affordable.

His truck decal reads: “Basements in Texas? Sure!”

“Oh I don’t know if I’m on a mission to convince everybody but it sure seems like it,” he says. “I get these calls every day and it’s like, 'It’s not rocket science people; yes, you can have it.'”

Werling builds few dozen basements a year. The rest of the time, he’s fixing failed foundations.

He says the slab-on-grade foundations that are common in North Texas end up cracked by that heaving expansive soil. Putting in a basement that drains properly – or even just a deeper foundation -- that becomes more stable, he says. It’s just good building.

“A basement would cure all our problems," he says. "It wouldn’t hurt our problems, or create more problems. It would cure every problem we’ve got here.”

As for cost? Sure, his clients spend thousands more up front. But that gets them greater efficiency running utilities through the bottom of the house, and something crucial in a Texas summer: space that stays naturally cool.

This story was produced by station KERA in Dallas.